What is flexibility? Flexibility is the ability of a joint to work through its full range-of-motion, and it is vital to health and fitness. Flexibility increases in response to regular stretching efforts, and it decreases with inactivity. Therefore, an inactive individual is likely to experience problems with flexibility which may in turn hamper even the simplest of daily activities. Aging also decreases natural elasticity of muscles and joints, but it is never too late to begin with efforts to increase flexibility. Potential benefits to such efforts include: Preventing and/or delaying the onset of arthritis. Shown to lessen existing joint pain. Increases balance and stability. Said to be one of the best treatments for muscle cramps. Provides for improved posture and alignment. Enhances development of strength. Creates the relaxation response. Slowing the breathing rate, reducing mental stress and blood pressure.
What do I need to know before I start? For best results, efforts to stretch should be daily. A static stretch (one that is held) should be held for a minimum of 20 seconds, and a dynamic stretch (one that is done with movement) should be done in a smooth and fluid fashion.
Where do I start? Begin by doing a quick assessment in an effort to find a starting point.
Back scratch (shoulder flexibility): To access the R shoulder, reach over the L shoulder with the L hand. Reach as far as you can, as if you are trying to reach a spot in the middle of your back that itches and you can't quite reach it. NOW reach the R hand down and under, reaching your R fingertips up toward your L fingertips. In your mind's eye estimate the distance between the finger tips. Switch sides, and compare the flexibility of the L shoulder to that of the R.
Sit-and-reach (back, hips and leg flexibility): Sit up towards the front edge of the chair, extend the R leg forward, toes flexed up towards the ceiling. The L hand is placed firmly over the L leg for support. Reach toward the toes of the R foot with the fingertips of the R hand. The closer the fingers are to the toes (not bending the knee) the better the flexibility in the back, hips and back of the leg. Repeat with the L leg.
How do I improve my flexibility? For the purpose of this column, let's focus on 3 main areas; shoulders, chest and hips.
Back, hip & leg flexibility: sit-n-reach stretch. The leg is long, the toes are up to the ceiling, the torso is lengthened and the stretch is taken to the point that it is felt.
Chest flexibility: wings of a bird stretch. Hands come behind the back; elbows fanned out comparable to the wings of a bird. Open the wings and pinch the shoulder blades together feeling the stretch across the chest and in the front of the shoulders.
Shoulder flexibility: circle back stretch. This is done in 3 steps for varying levels of capability that exist in-and-between readers.
Alternate slowly rolling the shoulders back with the arms hanging by the sides.
Alternating elbow circles (only if option 1 is comfortable).
Back stroke. Only for those comfortable to do so, alternating, the arms move forward, up and back; emphasizing the back action. NOTE: Understand that forward circles are an option, but we actually do enough forward action every day. Therefore, it is the back action that is needed to increase range-of-motion.
What else should I be aware of? Be aware that safety is priority, and understand that overstretching--stretching the muscles to the extreme can actually decrease the stability of a joint. Always remember to listen to your body. Remember that when doing any stretch the stretch should be felt, but it should not create pain and/or discomfort. In addition, know that we often hold our breath when we hold a stretch. Muscles need oxygen to work so a relaxed and even breathing pattern is a must.
I'm sure you are already stretching! Understand that although the stretches discussed here are great for improving functional fitness, there are many other good stretches; also important. Email me, mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org, for a FREE one-page stretch handout. This handout is 1 of a set of 24 handouts available from FitXpress LLC on CD. The 24-handout disk is geared toward health & wellness for older adults, is normally sold as part of a 7-disk training module, and can be yours for the low price of $14.95