Flexibility is commonly defined as the ability to bend easily and without breaking, although it is not often thought of in these precise terms with regard to the human body. However, this definition underscores the importance of flexibility in our day-to-day lives; it speaks to healthy abilities in our joints and muscle groups. You can read more about the role of stretching pre- and post-exercise here.
With this in mind, a previous article ‘What Is Flexibility Training?‘ offered a slightly different definition of the term: a joint’s range of motion (ROM), or “how far you can stretch or push a limb or digit without pain or resistance.” Considering the term with that framing – of avoiding pain or resistance resulting from movement – clarifies why flexibility is a matter of physical fitness and general wellness.
Below are four effective ways of improving flexibility.
1. Deep Tissue Massage
Sometimes a lack of ‘easy’ mobility has to do with your muscles being ‘tight’. When this is the underlying issue, massage is beneficial. Research demonstrates that massage has an impact on flexibility; it it thought to enhance blood supply to muscles and increase their temperature. While the term “tight” with regard to muscle performance is somewhat un-scientific, this effect of massage counters what people typically describe as “tightness.” A warm muscle is generally considered more relaxed and have a greater range of motion.
As such massage is believed to reduce the risk of injury by increasing flexibility and reducing rigidity.
Stretching is commonly identified as a counter to limited flexibility. When muscles are not regularly stretched (as is the case for many people with sedentary lifestyles), the muscles shorten. This in turn means that when the body is active, those shortened muscles are easily pushed beyond their limits, resulting in a greater risk of injury. Regular stretching at a pace and intensity appropriate for one’s physical condition can aid in preventing muscle shortening and resulting issues.
As to how one should go about establishing a routine, SymptomFind has identified some individual exercises that are particularly helpful for easing into the practice of stretching. Simple but regular neck, shoulder, calf, and hamstring stretches (as opposed to complex yoga positions, for example) help to maintain some of the most commonly used (and strained) muscles and joints. Neck and back stretches in particular are useful for individuals who need to be seated for the bulk of the day, because they can be performed at a desk.
3. Stress Reduction
Stress manifests physically as well as emotionally, and is a common factor in fitness issues, including poor flexibility. It is an indirect process, but stress increases cortisol levels, which can in turn spike blood pressure. That can bring on vasoconstriction (the narrowing or constriction of blood vessels by small muscles in their walls) and, again, that “tight” feeling and perceived lack of mobility. Regular stress turns this into a persistent issue (with those same increased cortisol levels also effecting muscle mass negatively in time).
As with stretching, there are a lot of simple ways to begin addressing day-to-day stress. The NHS recommends cutting out unhealthy habits (like smoking and alcohol consumption), finding “me” time, and connecting with others, to name a few. Another indirect process, but taking steps like these to curtail stress can lead to more relaxed muscles and small improvements in flexibility.
That “tight” muscle feeling is also a sign of dehydration. Inadequate hydration results in poorly regulated body temperature and improper nourishment, even at a cellular level. These problems lead to a range of ill effects, with stiff muscles and joints (as well as occasional cramps) among them.
To avoid dehydration, many trust in the notion that one should consume eight full glasses of water per day. However, this common advice (while not necessarily bad) does not take into account different physical types, different tendencies, exercise routines, etc. An article by the BBC recommends that people simply drink what their bodies signal is needed. In other words, hydrate when thirsty.
Above all else it is important not to force or rush flexibility. Exercising or stretching beyond your body’s capability tends to result in injury or, if you are lucky, just a reduction in physical performance. On the other hand, gradually adjusting your lifestyle and habits in strategic ways will slowly but safely improve flexibility. By extension, you will begin to feel healthier and more athletically capable.
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