Flexibility Exercises to Help You Stay Limber, Longer

Flexibility exercises are important for seasoned athletes, fitness newcomers and anyone who's noticed changes in their body that make performing daily tasks a bit more challenging than before. Improved flexibility means improved posture, better balance and a lesser chance of injury.

Why Is Flexibility Important?
Flexibility is the ability to move your joints through a full or wide range of motion. How flexible you are depends on factors you can't change, like the length of your muscles and factors you can, like your current range of motion which is affected by activity levels and strength building exercises that contract muscle fibers.

Flexibility training is often overlooked because so much emphasis is placed on toning muscles, losing weight and improving speed or accuracy in sports. However, the more flexible you are, the better you'll perform, the better balance you'll have and the less likely you are to injure yourself or miss that shot on the tennis court.

How to Increase Your Flexibility
The most effective ways to increase flexibility are static stretching and dynamic stretching. Static stretching is performed when the body is still or at rest and involves gradually lengthening muscles to the point of mild discomfort and holding the stretch for up to 30 seconds. Placing your hands against a wall and extending one leg back to lengthen the hamstring is static stretching.

Conversely, dynamic stretching is performed while the body is moving and involves contracting muscles during the stretch. Walking lunges are a good example of dynamic stretching. You're contracting your thigh muscles while at the same time giving extension to your hip flexors which results in less tightness and greater range of motion in the hip joint.

Both static and dynamic stretching result in increased flexibility, but dynamic stretching is gaining popularity in the form of yoga and Pilates.

Yoga for Flexibility
Yoga employs both static and dynamic tension to lengthen muscles and improve flexibility. Working with the breath, movements are often synchronized to coincide with your natural inhale and exhale. Proper breathing is important: movements are easier to perform when you're bringing a fresh supply of oxygen to your bloodstream, muscles and other tissues. This combination of flexibility training and breath work promotes feelings of overall wellness in addition to flexibility and strength.

The most well known series of yoga postures is called the Sun Salutation, a sequence of 12 movements performed carefully and gracefully that stretch the majority of muscle and joint groups. Each posture is held for a full round of breath (one inhale and one exhale) before moving onto the next.

  1. Begin in mountain pose, standing straight up, feet shoulders width apart, hands by your sides. Take several breaths to center yourself in mountain pose, keeping the breath steady and even.
  2. Inhale, sweeping arms overhead.
  3. Exhale, swan dive forward, bending from the hips and bring your hands to rest on or near your feet, forehead toward the knees (keep a softness behind the knee if you have knee problems).
  4. Inhale, and with your hands on the floor, step your right leg back into a lunge, hold through the exhale.
  5. Inhale and step your left leg back to meet the right. Plank or upper pushup position. Tighten your abdominals by drawing the navel back toward the spine and push out through your heels.
  6. Exhale, lower yourself to within two inches of the ground (lower pushup position) or allow legs, chest and forehead to rest on the floor.
  7. Inhale and slightly arch your back to extend your torso up and forward, forearms flat on the floor, elbows beneath shoulders.
  8. Exhale and push into your hands, keeping knees bent as you push your hips toward the back of the room. Straighten your legs so the heels are approaching the floor.
  9. Inhale and sweep your right foot between your hands into lunge position.
  10. Exhale and bring your left foot to meet your right to resume the standing forward fold.
  11. Inhale and sweep your arms into standing position, arms extended overhead.
  12. On your next exhale, lower your arms in a sweeping motion, returning to your starting position.

Repeat on the other side, using your left foot instead of the right in Step 4. One sun salutation completed. Repeat steps 1 through 12 on both sides for a complete round and work your way up to five to ten rounds daily.

Pilates for Flexibility
Pilates is a series of gentle exercises designed to increase muscle strength and improve flexibility. Created by Dr. Joseph Pilates in the 1920s, these movements are taught in fitness clubs and Pilates gyms throughout the United States.

Pilates spine stretch. Sit up straight, legs extended in front of you, arms by your side. Reach your arms forward as you lean toward your toes, rounding your back into a C shape. Hold. Inhale and engage your abdominal muscles as you slowly roll back up to a seated position. Repeat several times.

Pilates saw stretch. Sit up straight with legs spread so that your feet are shoulder width apart and your legs form a V. Lift your arms to shoulder level and extend out to the sides. Inhale and rotate your torso to the left, taking the right hand toward the left foot. Be sure you don't take your hips with you and they remain in a static position facing the front of the room. Turn your head to gaze behind you at your left hand. Inhale and return to the starting position. Repeat on the other side.

General Guidelines for Safe Stretching

  • Always warm your muscles before performing flexibility exercises with five to ten minutes of easy aerobic exercise like walking or jogging.
  • Hold each position for 10 to 60 seconds.  
  • Muscles lengthen slowly, so lean deeper into the stretch as you hold the position using your exhale as your guide.
  • Never jerk into or out of a stretch position quickly, but aim to be as fluid or flowing as possible.
  • If you feel pain, back off of the intensity. Some discomfort is normal, but when that turns to actual pain, you're putting yourself at risk for injury.
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