Flexibility, or having a full range of motion throughout one's joints, is an often overlooked but nonetheless essential component of fitness. As children, because of healthier joints and softer bones, humans are generally at their most flexible. As human joints age and lose their youthful fluidity, it can be difficult to maintain peak flexibility. But unlike the ability to order kids meals without shame, flexibility lost needn't be lost forever.

What It Means to You

Why make the effort to maintain flexibility? The two most obvious benefits are injury prevention and improved athletic performance. Injuries can result from a range of physical activity, from skiing down a mountain to reaching for that TV remote from the couch. Less flexible muscles and joints are more likely to suffer trauma as a result of such movements. Most suggest maintaining and building flexibility through (surprise, surprise) stretching, which increases blood flow to muscles and reduces the risk of injury. The Mayo Clinic offers some helpful tips on how and when to stretch, including:

  • Reconsider stretching as a first warm-up. Focus instead on warming up with light cardio such as jogging, biking, or jumping jacks and save the full stretching routine for post-workout. Or throw them all in! One recent study found that 5 minutes of stretching between a warm-up and workout is also beneficial Warm-up and Stretching in the Prevention of Muscular Injury. Woods, K., Bishop, P., and Jones E. Human Performance Laboratory, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA. Sports Medicine 2007;37(12):1089-99..
  • Don’t bounce while stretching to prevent potentially tearing muscles.
  • Try to focus on major muscle groups, such as chest, back, and hamstrings.
  • Don’t aim for pain. Expect tension, but not to the point of hurting.
  • Stretch consistently and stretch often.

Stretching is the most direct route to increased flexibility, but not all studies agree on its benefit for athletic performance. Multiple studies report stretching prior to exercise, perhaps even after a proper warmup, may have no effect An acute bout of static stretching: effects on force and jumping performance. Power, K., Behm, D., Cahill, F., Carroll, M., et al. School of Human Kinetics and Recreation, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, Canada. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 2004 Aug;36(8):1389-96. or, worse, significantly weaken muscles Stretching and injury prevention: an obscure relationship. Witvrouw, E., Mahieu, N., Danneels, L., et al. Department of Rehabilitation Sciences and Physical Therapy, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Ghent University, Belgium. Sports Medicine 2004;34(7):443-9.. For example, static stretching prior to exercise has been shown to impair sprint performance in collegiate track and field athletes Static Stretching Impairs Sprint Performance in Collegiate Track and Field Athletes. Winchester, JB., Nelson, AG., Landin, D., et al. School of Human Kinetics and Recreation, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NF, Canada. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 2008 Jan;22(1):13-9.. Other recent studies disagree, at least on a sport-specific basis A review of the acute effects of static and dynamic stretching on performance. Behm, DG., Chaouachi, A. School of Human Kinetics and Recreation, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NF, Canada. European Journal of Applied Physiology 2011 Mar 4 (epublished ahead of print).. One finds, for example, that in sports requiring quick bursts of energy (football, baseball, basketball, and others), stretching can prepare tendons and muscles for the rapid contractions necessary for fast movement. For more steady-state activities like jogging or cycling, stretching prior to the workout seems to provide no observable benefit Stretching and injury prevention: an obscure relationship. Witvrouw, E., Mahieu, N., Danneels, L., et al. Department of Rehabilitation Sciences and Physical Therapy, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Ghent University, Belgium. Sports Medicine 2004;34(7):443-9.. Though the specific role of static stretching in athletic performance remains somewhat unclear, what's less murky is stretching's overall role in building flexibility. Static stretching can be tedious and boring, so alternatives such as yoga and pilates may be more fun. Another increasingly popular trend is the incorporation of “dynamic flexibility training” immediately following a warm-up.

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