We’ve all been there—wondering and seeing why some people seem to be naturally flexible while others show little movement and feel tighter than others, or they are far out on the path in the middle of a long, shuffling run, and you can tell by looking at them that they are stiff. Also, some are hyperflexible moving around to high range of motion. Then we all refer to them as less or more flexible.
Flexibility is defined by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) as the skeletal muscle’s ability to move a joint or set of joints through their full range of motion (and not any external forces).
Stretching and flexibility is vital for us to carry out daily actions, such as getting out of bed, walking, and bending down to tie our shoes.
Benefits of Flexibility.
Increased flexibility has several health benefits and may improve your quality of life. Here are a few examples where you might benefit from having more of it.
- Ward of Injuries. That’s true! Some injuries, like overuse injuries, can’t be avoided by stretching and becoming more flexible. According to an older systematic review published in the Journal of Research in Sports Medicine in September 2008, static stretching may enhance the flexibility of muscle tissues and ligaments, aiding in the prevention of muscle and ligament strain injuries.
2. Less Pain. Having greater joint mobility and a more optimal joint sequencing during functional activities is made possible by increasing your overall flexibility. Concentrating on stretching and working on your muscles can benefit your overall sense of well-being. More pain relief will be experienced as tight muscles relax. In addition, you might have fewer muscle cramps too!
3. Helps with Back Pain. Although everyone experiences pain differently, flexibility reduces lower back pain perception. A study published in Healthcare in June 2016 found that stretching the hip flexors, hamstrings, erector spinae, and latissimus dorsi in the back helped reduce stiffness and lower back discomfort when combined with other regular activity.
4. Better Posture. Muscles and joints take on more work when you’re not flexible, which might lead to poor posture. Regular exercise can help you achieve and maintain ideal posture and address postural irregularities. Also, you may realize that some sitting or standing positions are less taxing on your body now that your range of motion has grown.
5. Improved Circulation. The risk of cardiovascular disease may even be reduced by increasing one’s degree of mobility. When the body isn’t flexible enough, the stress in our muscles hinders circulation, which can hamper the appropriate circulation of nutrients and oxygen throughout the body. New research shows that 12 weeks of stretching can increase blood flow and vascular health.
6. A Healthier Mind. When you experience less pain and suffering, your mental health also improves. Thus, frequent stretching makes it easier and more pleasant for you to relax.
7. It Can Reduce Cancer. Recent animal research has demonstrated that mild stretching for 10 minutes daily can reduce fibrosis and inflammation of the local connective tissue. Comparing the stretch group to the no-stretch group, the tumor volume at the end-point was 52% lower in the stretch group. This change was hypothesized that relaxing certain nervous pathways can activate the immune system to combat the growth of tumors.
Now the question arises, how does this all happen inside our bodies?
To simplify, our nervous system controls our muscles. Our muscles move and become elongated when we stretch, giving us leeway to move further. Muscles are made up of thousands of smaller elements called myofibrils. These myofibrils are further made of smaller sections, much like a stalk of bamboo and are called a sarcomere. It is believed that this activity can cause the lengthening of sarcomeres and their filaments. So, as you stretch, the muscle fibre is lengthened by the sarcomere until it reaches its maximum length, and the connective tissue (ligament and tendon) picks up the slack. This stretching allows more fluid movement and the elastic type of collagen in them. This also helps to desensitize to pain.
All this happens if our brains allow these changes to occur in the length of the sarcomere. The brain controls these movements to ease us from getting injured by not going beyond the length and doing the required movement only.
The physiology of flexibility is the study of how and why some people are more flexible than others. Is it just a matter of genes, or are there other things at play? Let’s look at a few other important things that affect your flexibility,
- Genetics. Some people are naturally more adaptable than others, which is not something you can change. Most people’s habits throughout their lives will affect them more than their genetic makeup.
- Gender. Gender also plays a role, with women typically displaying greater flexibility than men. Females are adapted to the process of childbirth by their connective tissue composition, the types of activities in which they usually participate, and the body. This makes it easier for the female anatomy to expand, particularly around the hips.
- Anatomy. The anatomy of each and every one of our joints is unique. Humans can move their limbs in various directions thanks to the existence of ball-and-socket joints (such as the hips and shoulders). . Some individuals have unique joint anatomy, such as a longer or shorter femoral neck or a deeper hip socket. This impacts the range of motion.
- Exercise History. Our lives are significantly more shaped by habits and decisions like spending most of your time in office work or a comparable occupation that needs you to sit for lengthy periods, causing your flexibility to decrease gradually. Natural flexibility decreases with inactivity. On the other hand, staying active, exercising, and moving more than usual may help you remain more flexible as you age.
- Menopause. Menopause is largely responsible for the decline in mobility that comes with middle age. Scientists at the University of California published a study in 2019 showing that estrogen directly affects the composition and performance of skeletal muscle, tendons, and ligaments. Menopause causes a decrease in estrogen hormone, which may make the body less elastic.
- Age. As our bodies age, we lose flexibility due to the typical ageing processes. In reality, staying flexible is a primary factor that allows a person to age independently. Typically, 25%-30% of overall flexibility is lost by age 70. (In an average population). Several factors contribute to it: decreased levels of elastin, the protein responsible for giving these structures their flexibility, changes in collagen fibers in connective tissue, and rigidity of joints. In addition to the above, the surrounding muscles tighten and become dysfunctional. Research published in 2013 in the Journal of Aging Studies found that between the ages of 55 and 86, both men’s and women’s hip and shoulder flexion stiffen by about six degrees per decade. It has also been studied that flexibility decreases almost 10% after every decade once you reach your 20s. Learn more about what happens to bones and joints as we age in this article here.
These may seem like small issues of aging, but they can become chronic conditions if we don’t start moving more and putting more stress on our joints. When you can’t move about freely, your range of motion decreases even further, putting additional stress on your joints.
Once you hit your 30s or 40s, you’ll see a steady decline in your flexibility, with males experiencing this decline at a faster rate than women.
How Can We Improve Flexibility?
Although we can’t halt time, the bright side is that the rate of these age-related changes is highly controllable. Flexibility declines slower in those who regularly engage in physical activity. Multiple studies have demonstrated that physically active people, even those in their later years, have a far greater range of motion than sedentary people. (1) (2)
Andrew Huberman is a Stanford-based neurologist with many research papers to back up his claims. One of his more recent podcast episodes explains the physics of stretching in great detail.
If you’re over the age of 50 or 60 and you want to increase your flexibility, it’s necessary that you stretch in a variety of methods. They all contain stretching of some kind. Three types of stretching exist. Static, dynamic, ballistic and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF).
During static stretching, a muscle is stretched to its limit and then held in that condition. Our bodies consist primarily of antagonistic muscle groups. Arm extensors oppose arm flexors. The same is true with our legs. Muscles in the back work to counteract the pectoral muscles in the chest. These pairs are known as antagonistic pairs. This is essential because the length of opposing muscles is one of the essential aspects of flexibility.
The muscles of a joint can only be used to the extent that the opposing muscles can stretch. You may hold a posture for 30 seconds, relax, and then repeat this process three to five times before going on to the next stretch.
A 2004 study found that 30 seconds of static stretching thrice a week for six weeks dramatically increased hamstring flexibility. Studies conducted afterwards confirmed these findings. While static stretching is widely practiced, mounting research that suggests it is unproductive to spend more than 10 to 30 seconds in each stretch if you’re doing it before a workout. This is because there is concern that it could negatively influence fitness progress and overall performance. This is why static stretching is best done on different days or after other types of exercise.
In dynamic stretching, the muscles and joints actively move through their complete range of motion. The benefits of dynamic stretching have been demonstrated, making it the ideal method of warming up before exercise or strenuous activity. However, these actions shouldn’t be “ballistic,” as that could reduce efficiency. When warming up with dynamic stretches, we should mimic the motions of the actual exercise. Rather than using as much force or stress, the goal is to engage the same tissues.
The American Council on Exercise defines ballistic stretching as any stretch that needs “repeated bouncing action.” Ballistic stretching is similar to dynamic stretching in that it uses motion to bounce in and out of a stretched posture and requires more momentum than a static stretch. Because ballistic stretches demand more effort, they stretch the muscles and tendons over a wider range of motion.
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation.
Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, or PNF, comprises both active and passive procedures and is carried out under the supervision of an experienced trainer. These strategies are believed to influence a less-understood element of flexibility, namely how our nervous system interacts with joints and surrounding muscles to affect flexibility.
One of the things you must avoid is improper stretching. Stretching is essential for maintaining physical fitness and increasing flexibility, but improper implementation can be harmful. Suppose you have a history of poor balance and falls or chronic illnesses that impact your muscles and joints, including arthritis. In that case, you should never push through the pain.
So, the question is, what kind is ideal for increasing flexibility, and how should it be done? Luckily, Andrew simplifies the information in his podcast and determines that static stretching (including PNF) is the most effective method for increasing flexibility. Dynamic and ballistic are the most effective forms of stretching as part of a warm-up before working out. They had been studied for their use in cardiovascular training as well as before a resistance training session, both in range of motion improvement and neural activation effects. However, research shows that static stretching is preferable for a pure stretch session or for stretching after a workout.
Even though stretching is a gentler kind of exercise, it is important to remember that it is always best to perform stretches after warming up. However, doing static stretching after cardiovascular or resistance training doesn’t require extra warm u as the body’s core temperature is already warmed up.
Protocol to Follow.
Huberman suggested a science-based strategy that produces the greatest results,
- How Long? Each stretch should be held for 30 seconds. (1) More than 30 seconds of stretching or increasing the frequency had no additional effects, as proven by another study.
- How Many Sets? Stretch each muscle twice or three times.
- How much to Rest? Huberman suggests that the time between stretches can be around 60 seconds.
- How Many Days? 5 days per week and 5 minutes per muscle of static stretching could be useful for improving the range of motion ROMs. (1)
This protocol can be used as a sample according to our specific goals. It is recommended that you consult with a Physical Therapist who can assess your muscle health and create a stretching program specifically for your requirements.
Stretch for Success.
Here are some tips for having a perfect stretching session.
- Warm up for a few minutes before stretching since straining cold muscles may increase your risks of injury.
- Begin with a low-intensity warm-up, such as easy walking with arms swinging in a wide circle.
- If you don’t have time to warm up properly before stretching, consider completing a few stretches after a shower or soaking in a hot tub. The hot water raises the body’s and muscles’ temperature, making them more responsive to stretching.
- Warm up for at least five to ten minutes before stretching.
- Don’t go after pain. You will experience muscle tightness but not pain. If you felt discomfort, it suggests you pushed much too far.
- Gentle dynamic-type stretches before a workout and static stretches after exercise are generally recommended for people just starting an exercise regimen.
- Participate in a stretching class, such as yoga or tai chi. Scheduling lessons can help you stay on track.
And if you are trying to start a stretching program for yourself, you don’t need to push yourself to the point of the pain of the stretch, as a study has proved that doing a minimal effort of almost 30-40% of stretch can also bring about the same changes in the range of motion as that done with 80-100% of stretch. Stretching should be done with moderate motions to enhance flexibility. Throughout stretching, it is essential to keep proper posture by holding the spine and hips neutral and the shoulders back. Proper breathing technique is frequently beneficial in enabling the complete range of motion movement.
But it is very important to remember that stretching once will not provide you with complete flexibility. You must do it gradually and be devoted to the process. It may have taken you months to develop stiff muscles so that you won’t be completely flexible after only one or two sessions.
Many people disregard flexibility as an important part of their health. However, tight muscles can cause issues all across your body. Therefore, stretching is essential. But it is also important to remember that moving your body should be fun and a celebration of what you can do, not a punishment for what you can’t. Stretching can be thought of in the same way. So, stretch out, everyone. It could add years to your life, making your body feel better and Prime with Time.!