Flexibility is more than just being able to touch your toes; it’s about keeping your body balanced and in motion.
“The human body can be similar to a pendulum,” says Chris Cox, a physical therapist with OU Medical Center in Edmond. “At rest, the end of the pendulum faces straight downward, and during movement it travels forward and backward various distances. If muscles or tendons become tight in one direction, the pendulum favors that direction and the body lacks the required balance to move properly or without stressing other regions.
“Flexibility training may help a person maintain balance in specific areas – joints – or multiple areas – back and hips – by decreasing tightness.”
When stretching, a person should not push too far too fast because of the risk of straining a muscle, Cox says.
“I always tell patients to avoid any sharp sensations when performing the activity,” he says. “If a person is a beginner, then they would want to stretch with slow movements and holds [or static stretching].
“On the other hand, there is evidence that suggests … a sprinter should avoid slow stretching with holds as it will slow the muscle activation time. In this case, the sprinter would want to perform dynamic stretching, where they actually move their thighs and hips in a progressively faster manner, while vying for more motion. This allows the muscle temperature and muscle activation speed to increase, acting as a primer for the sport.”
Some people are naturally more flexible than others, but everyone can improve flexibility and reap the benefits, says Anna Smith, owner of Pure Barre Tulsa Midtown, a certified personal trainer and a corrective exercise specialist.
“Increased flexibility allows your body to respond to physical stresses easier, which in turn reduces the risk of injury during physical activities,” Smith says. “Also, when flexibility improves, muscles lengthen, causing less frequent muscle cramps and/or body aches. When muscles are lengthened, your body and mind can also become more relaxed, decreasing overall stress and anxiety.”
As people age, their bodies can lose flexibility and mobility.
“Over a lifetime, tendons, ligaments, joint cartilage and spine disks lose water,” Cox says. “This causes increased rigidity of those structures, which results in decreased flexibility and changes in posture.”
He says flexibility training, such as yoga, can help aging individuals maintain movement in joints and potentially prevent poor posture. However, he adds that anyone who has joint issues should consult a licensed physical therapist for an individualized plan.
To help make stretching a daily routine, Smith suggests adding it to a checklist, like brushing teeth or taking a shower.
“Stretching first thing in the morning is not only an excellent way to wake your body up and prepare for the day, but will also over time increase your body’s ability to move without difficulty or discomfort,” Smith says. “There are many apps and resources out there that can give daily stretching guides, as well as yoga and barre studios with trained professionals who can help.”