Flexibility and Its Health Benefits

Suppleness or flexibility refers to the freedom of movement of the body: observing the posture and movement of a young baby is a good reminder of how flexible the human body can be. Flexibility is something people are born with but often lose as they grow older. It is a vital aspect of fitness that many Westerners ignore, believing that a loss of flexibility is an inevitable part of getting older.

People who spend a lot of time slouched behind a desk, in front of the television or behind a steering wheel, will notice how certain muscles, such as the trapezius muscle across the top of the shoulders, feel tight, especially if they are stressed. Flexibility can be increased by practising stretching exercises. Stretching out your muscles can relieve tension and make you instantly feel more relaxed.

Benefits of flexibility

stretching exercises for flexibilityStretching your muscles relaxes and lengthens them, so they become more elastic. This makes you more flexible, helping you to achieve a full range of movement through all your joints, tendons, muscles and ligaments. Stretching also makes you feel freer, lighter, more focused and able to perform different activities with ease.

Regular stretching is important for future health – it will help keep you mobile in old age. It is also vital to stretch before and after exercise to protect muscles and other soft tissue from injury and soreness.

Forms of flexibility exercise

Flexibility exercises are stretching exercises, sometimes referred to as ‘warming up’ or ‘cooling down’ exercises. Eastern exercise disciplines such as Yoga often focus primarily on flexibility and posture.

How hard should you work?

There are no explicit guidelines about how hard you should work on flexibility exercises, but generally you should aim to hold each stretch for approximately 8 seconds at first. Gradually build up to holding each stretch for 20 seconds or more to increase flexibility. If you experience any muscle quivering during a stretching exercise you have pushed the muscle too far, and should ease off. Similarly, if you feel fatigued, dizzy or your muscles are sore, stop.

How much flexibility exercise should you do?

Gentle stretches can be incorporated into your life on a day-to-day basis to increase all-round mobility. A flexibility exercise can be as straightforward as ankle circling while you are sitting at your workstation. There is no limit to the amount of these gentle stretches that you can perform. Once again, avoid exercise if you feel weak or fatigued.

Dangers of flexibility exercise

There are relatively few dangers associated with flexibility and stretching exercises because they tend to be fairly gentle. However, there are some exceptions: children and pregnant women, for example, may be vulnerable to injuries associated with over-stretching. Overstretching injuries in childhood tend to affect children who do an unusual amount of stretching; for example, child gymnasts, who may suffer from lax, unstable joints. Children have naturally supple bodies but they should not be pushed beyond their natural capacity.

Pregnant women are vulnerable to over-stretching injuries because they produce high levels of the hormone progesterone. This softens the ligaments and allows muscles to stretch beyond normal capacity.

There are some Yoga positions that should also be avoided during pregnancy.

Cross Training

To achieve all-round fitness, individuals need to pursue a range of activities that, in combination, encourage the ‘three Ss’: stamina, strength and suppleness. This practice of combining activities to include aerobic, anaerobic and flexibility exercises is referred to as cross training. Cross training not only promotes all-round fitness, it ensures that people avoid injuries sustained through overuse of certain muscle groups. Cross training also helps people to avoid boredom: practising the same exercise on a regular basis can be tedious and ultimately act as a deterrent to taking exercise. One example of a cross training programme would be Yoga (for flexibility), weight-training (for muscle strength) and swimming (for aerobic fitness).

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