We recently wrote about the importance of building and maintaining strength and balance as we age, but flexibility makes up an important part of physical fitness too. There are huge benefits to being flexible; including improved posture, mobility and muscle coordination, as well as having a reduced risk of muscle soreness and injuries.
These are benefits that can not only improve our quality of life in the physical sense, but are also great for helping us to adopt a more positive, relaxed state of mind.
Although some people are more naturally flexible than others, the good news is that flexibility is something that can be learned and developed by incorporating regular stretching into your routine. What you eat can also play a significant role in making your body more flexible, with some foods being particularly good at helping to keep you supple.
The level of flexibility that will be right for you will usually be very personal. But as a general rule of thumb, experts say that we should aim to work on having enough flexibility to support our lifestyle and our goals. This might mean being able to reach down and put your socks on or play with your grandchildren without feeling the strain, or it could be about improving form, technique and overall performance during other types of exercise, like weight training or running.
Below we’ll explain more about what it means to be flexible and the importance of flexibility as we get older, as well as offering 6 tips to help you reach your flexibility goals.
What does it mean to be flexible?
Flexibility is all to do with the range of motion of the soft tissues that surround a joint. These soft tissues include muscles, tendons, ligaments, fascia, joint capsules and skin. It can be helpful to think of these soft tissues as like the components of an elastic band. An elastic band that is rarely used or stretched, will often become tight and brittle, will no longer stretch to its full capacity, and might even snap. Whereas, an elastic band that gets stretched through it’s full range of motion regularly, will often stay supple, and appear newer.
Our bodies are somewhat similar. A group of soft tissues around a joint which are rarely mobilised or stretched, can become short and tight, making the joint feel stiff, or even painful, to move. Health experts also believe that this can lead to strains and muscle damage.
However, when a group of soft tissues around a joint is mobilised and stretched regularly, its ability to move through an unrestricted and pain-free range of motion can be improved and/or maintained.
Flexibility can vary from person to person depending on a number of different factors including genetics, anatomical structure, gender, age, activity levels and history of injury or disability. It can also be specific to individual joints and muscle groups, meaning that some parts of our bodies can be more flexible than others.
Why is improving and maintaining our flexibility important as we get older?
Research shows that as we get older, we naturally lose a little bit of flexibility, but that we still maintain the ability to improve flexibility by doing regular exercise. This decrease in flexibility happens for a few reasons; such as loss of elasticity in our muscles and tendons, a loss of water in our soft tissues and intervertebral discs, and increased stiffness in our joints. Although disused muscles and joints can become still or sore at any age, if we want to counteract the loss of flexibility brought on by the ageing process, then it’s important that we do what we can to stay supple.
Experts have also found connections between flexibility and balance, and say that having adequate flexibility in joints such as our ankles, knees and hips can reduce the risk of us falling as we get older.
In addition, increased flexibility can also support strength training by helping to improve form and technique. Like flexibility and balance, building and maintaining muscle strength is another hugely effective way of preventing falls as we get older, and can boost overall longevity. During a long-term study of 3,600 people over the age of 55, participants with greater levels of muscle mass stayed healthier and lived longer.
There currently isn’t enough evidence to suggest that having increased flexibility can prevent arthritis from developing, but regular stretching can help to relieve symptoms associated with it such as pain, swelling and stiffness.
6 tips to help improve and maintain flexibility
1. Stretch regularly
An increase in flexibility isn’t something that happens overnight, and is usually the result of regular stretching over a long period of time. So, it can help to try and make stretching a part of your daily routine. You might be surprised at just how much your flexibility increases if you start stretching for just five minutes a day.
The two most common types of stretching that have proven effective at increasing flexibility are static stretching and dynamic stretching, which we’ll look at in more detail below.
Static stretching involves sitting, standing or lying in a position that allows certain muscles or muscle groups to remain extended to their greatest length for a period of time – usually 15-30 seconds. Health experts say that static stretches should never be done before exercise, when your muscles are cold and at their stiffest, as you could end up hurting yourself. Instead, try doing static stretches after a warm up. Warmer muscles tend to be more elastic, meaning that you’ll be able to get a deeper stretch, while minimising your risk of injury. Five to ten minutes of moderate cardiovascular activity, such as walking, cycling or light jogging will be enough to increase blood flow to your muscles, and generate heat.
Once your muscles are warm, calf stretches, glute bridges and standing quad stretches are examples of static stretches that can help to loosen you up. You can find out how to do these and more by using this helpful guide from WebMD. Or have a watch of the video below.
If done in the right way, stretching can also become an effective way to warm up muscles and increase flexibility before an exercise session. This is where dynamic stretches come into play. Dynamic stretches are movements that are similar to those that you are about to perform during the exercise session.
With these, your joints and muscles will still move through the full range of motion repeatedly, but the stretch position isn’t held. This helps to prepare your body for the exercise that you’re about to do by warming up your muscles (and other soft tissues around the joint, especially those that will work hardest during your workout), and increasing blood flow throughout the body.
Examples of dynamic stretches can include arm circles and spinal rotations. Check out this article from Healthline to see how these, and some other dynamic stretches are performed – or have a watch of the video below.
Some people find yoga to be a helpful way of incorporating stretching into their daily or weekly routines, as it includes a combination of dynamic and static stretches, which are sequenced in a safe and effective way by a qualified instructor. To find out how to get started with yoga at home, you can check out our introductory guide, here.
A note on injury:
While stretching can do wonders for the body, it’s important that you never stretch an injured muscle – as you could make the injury worse. During a stretch you might feel mild discomfort or a slight tugging feeling, but you shouldn’t feel sharp pain. If you ever feel pain while stretching then be sure to stop, and seek advice from a health professional if needed.
2. Avoid sitting for too long
Sitting for long periods of time – especially if our posture is poor – can lead to stiff muscles. Our bodies are very clever, and will always try to make themselves more efficient at what they do most of. So, if we spend a lot of time moving around, our bodies will adapt to this and become more effective at moving around, and if we spend many hours of the day sitting down, our bodies will become more effective at sitting. This means that when we do move around, it might feel more difficult, because our muscles are stiff and/or sore.
Keeping things moving is an important part of staying supple for a number of reasons; the main ones being that it helps us to:
- Maintain a healthy weight, which among benefits, can reduce the pressure placed on our joints.
- Keep our joints warm, which makes them more flexible.
- Build and maintain muscle strength, which is important for supporting joint health.
How you choose to move is completely up to you, but you should aim to choose activities that you enjoy, so that you can create a routine that feels sustainable. Pilates, yoga and walking are all great ways to keep active that support flexibility – or for more ideas on how to move more, have a read of our article; 17 creative ways to increase your daily step count.
3. Stay hydrated
Our bodies are made up of 70% water, so the more dehydrated they are, the more dehydrated our muscles are – as water content in lean muscle mass (or fat-free mass) is also around 70-75%! When muscles are dehydrated, they won’t extend and contract as fully as they would if they had sufficient water content, so you might end up feeling stiffer than you would otherwise. Your muscles will also be stronger, the more hydrated they are, as without sufficient hydration, they will also lose electrolytes and be more prone to cramping.
Another reason that staying hydrated helps to make us more flexible is because water makes up an important part of synovial fluid; an oily water-based fluid that our bodies make to help our joints move with ease. When our joints are lacking this fluid, we can, again, feel much stiffer.
4. Work on building and maintaining strength
Flexibility and strength go hand in hand, because stronger muscles are more capable, and sometimes inflexibility can be caused by a joint not having the support from strong muscles. So if you’re trying to work on your flexibility, then introducing some strength training exercises into your routine can also help with strengthening your joints. Along with flexibility, we also lose muscle mass as we get older, so doing what we can to build and maintain strength becomes even more important.
Even doing strength exercises like squats or knee push ups for half an hour twice a week can stimulate muscle and bone growth, and increase the stability and strength of our joints. Or you might want to consider trying Pilates, which is great for improving strength, balance and flexibility, throughout the whole body.
To find out more about the importance of building and maintaining strength during mid life, and beyond – plus tips on how to get started – check out our article; The importance of building and maintaining strength and balance in your 50s and 60s.
5. Use a foam roller
Many health experts around the world recommend foam rolling as a method of increasing soft tissue flexibility by reducing tightness and inflammation – especially that associated with injury or exercise.
A foam roller is essentially a lightweight cylinder made of compressed foam, which is rolled over the muscles of your body that are most prone to stiffness, such as the lower back and calves. During the process, you place your body on the foam roller and roll back and forth. This puts pressure on your muscles, which can help to break up any knots that might be preventing the muscle from achieving it’s full range of motion.
If you’re interested in buying a foam roller, then you might find it helpful to read Coach Mag’s article; on The Best Foam Rollers, or to find out more about the benefits of foam rolling and how to get started, check out this article from Healthline.
6. Choose anti-inflammatory foods
As well as focusing on practicing regular stretching and staying hydrated, it can also help to take a closer look at our diet when trying to improve and/or maintain flexibility. Eating foods that contain high amounts of sugar, unprocessed carbohydrates, and saturated fats can cause soft tissue within the body to become inflamed, which can lead to stiffness and bloating (and is the body’s response to unwanted substances).
Luckily, this is something that we can avoid by eating nutrient-rich anti-inflammatory foods such as berries, mushrooms and peppers, which are packed full of antioxidants. Research suggests that fatty fish, including sardines, salmon, mackerel, herring and anchovies – which are high in omega-3 fish fatty acids – could also help to reduce joint swelling and inflammation, especially in people with rheumatoid arthritis.
To find out what other anti-inflammatory foods you could add to your diet, and what they contain, you might want to have a look at this article from Healthline on 13 anti-inflammatory foods.
Over the last year, many of us have paid more attention to our health than ever before. Flexibility is something that – although important – we often take for granted until we no longer have it. But, being supple isn’t something that’s only relevant to gymnasts, or yoga enthusiasts. It’s important for all of us, because it can make daily life feel easier, and more enjoyable. Tying our shoes, reaching to get something from a cupboard, and evening lowering ourselves into a car, are all things that can become a struggle once our flexibility starts to wane. And this can not only affect our physical health by impacting our ability to move, but can have a knock on effect on our mental health too.
However, the great thing about flexibility is that while it’s easily lost, it’s also something that can be easy to improve and maintain, by practicing (and being consistent with) some of the steps above. If you’re in need of some motivation and a reminder of why you’re taking the time to work on your flexibility, then it can help to set yourself a goal. What would you like to be able to do by the Spring that you can’t do now? Or what would you still like to be able to do by then, only better? At the start of this year, I gave myself the goal of being able to touch my toes by the start of Spring. I still have a way to go, but it feels like I’m getting closer everyday!
Are you working on your flexibility? What are your flexibility goals? Do you have any flexibility tips that you’d like to share with others? Join the health conversation on the community forum, or leave a comment below.