As a child, it did not take me very long to figure out that I was not a “flexible” person. I saw my friends being able to bend down and touch their toes and easily pass the sit and reach portion of the Presidential Fitness Test. I, on the other hand, could not even reach to the ruler to begin to be measured. While my flexibility or lack of flexibility has not stopped me from fully participating in physical activity and sports, I am constantly working on my flexibility so that I can stay limber and pain-free.
What determines flexibility?
First, the flexibility of a joint is determined by the nature and the structure of the joint. What I mean by this is that joints have various roles and functions in the body and therefore have a variety of movements associated with each joint.
For example, hinge joints like your fingers and knees are designed to only allow movement forward and backward. When a hinge joint is forced beyond its natural range of motion, an injury is likely to occur. Even though a hinge joint is designed for forward and backward movement, each individual has unique flexibility within the joint specific to their body. Flexibility has also been shown to be hereditary and there is a tendency for women to be more flexible than men.
Another determining factor for flexibility is muscle elasticity and length. Along with the designated range of motion of the joint, other factors like skin, muscles, tendons and ligaments limit the flexibility of the joint. Muscle tissue, when stretched regularly and correctly, is important in developing or maintaining flexibility. If muscles are not stretched regularly, then they will go back to their resting position.
The nervous system also plays a role in flexibility by being the link between the brain and the body. When proprioceptive messages are sent about the muscular or skeletal system, the brain replies with a message and the body responds accordingly. If a muscle is stretched beyond its capacity, the brain sends a signal and the body reacts in a way that will protect the muscle from injury.
This is why it’s important to warm up slowly and avoid bouncing or rapid movement which can lead to powerful muscle contracts. Sudden to rapid movements can lead the muscle to contract and stretch at the same time, resulting in injury.
What are the health benefits of flexibility?
Flexibility can improve your quality of life, especially as you age. Studies have indicated that people tend to exercise less as they age, which leads to tighter joints and limited range of motion. Working on your flexibility helps to keep your joints lubricated and pain-free.
Oftentimes, back pain, especially low back pain, is associated with the amount of strength and flexibility in the back. Good hip and knee flexibility supports the body’s range of motion and protects the spine against excessive motion while performing daily tasks like walking, sitting and bending down. In addition, flexibility improves our posture and gentle stretching can provide relief from aches and pains associated with exercise or tension.
Any time you engage in a stretching program or exercise, be sure to warm up slowly so that you are minimizing your potential for injury. Also, after exercise is the best time to stretch because your muscles are warm. So be sure to include a proper warm-up and cool down to work out or flexibility routine.