We’re often told or expected to “be flexible” when it comes to work, schedules, and other life issues. But keeping our bodies flexible is just as important. Without having flexible muscles, we’re more prone to injury, pain, and even problems with balance. Fortunately, it’s easy to increase and maintain flexibility — it just takes a little bit of time and dedication, but the payoff is worth it. Learn more about how you can become flexible.
What does it mean to be flexible?
“Flexibility exercise is one of the four types of exercise along with strength, balance, and endurance,” says the American Heart Association. Unfortunately, flexibility is often overlooked, but ideally, it should be part of any physical activity routine.
The ability to stretch is what helps you to be flexible. Stretching involves lengthening muscles and connective tissues. You might think you don’t need to stretch, but when it comes to doing everyday activities, such as picking up socks from the floor or reaching for a dish in your kitchen cupboard, you quickly realize how hard it can be to do these tasks without being able to stretch. So, being flexible, then, means that you have more freedom of movement. It also helps to avoid the discomfort of sitting at a desk all day or being squeezed into a tight seat on a plane.
As we age, our muscles start to shorten up, and they also lose elasticity. Over time, aging can limit the range of motion in the hips, shoulders, and spine. The loss of flexibility with aging becomes a vicious circle: when we don’t use our muscles, we’re less likely to do activities that we once enjoyed which, in turn, leads to a further decrease in flexibility.
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What are the benefits of flexibility?
If you’re somewhat skeptical of why you should pay more attention to muscle flexibility, here are some benefits that might convince you:
- A lower risk of falling
- A lower risk of injury
- Improved posture
- Improved muscle strength
- Less muscle soreness and tension
- Less joint pain
How do you become more flexible?
You don’t have to become a ballet dancer or a gymnast to be flexible. There are simple ways to fit stretching exercises into your routine that don’t require a lot of time; plus, it’s never too late to become flexible! Here are ways to get you started:
The less physical activity that you do, the more inflexible you can become.
Take longer steps.
If you enjoy walking, see if you can lengthen your steps. Doing so helps to improve balance.
Consider doing yoga.
Try not to feel intimidated — there are a lot of different types of yoga that you can try, and you can join a class or find yoga exercises online.
Pilates is another low-impact way to increase strength and flexibility. Pilates involves doing repetitive exercises on a mat or equipment.
Try tai chi.
If you’ve ever seen a group of people in a park doing slow, guided movements, they’re likely doing tai chi, an ancient Chinese practice that helps improve flexibility and balance, and reduces stress at the same time.
Do dynamic stretching.
This means that you do exercises that involve moving. Examples include arm circles and lunges.
Use a foam roller.
Foam rollers are placed under areas of tightness, such as your hips or hamstrings. However, don’t use a foam roller if you have an injury unless advised by a physical therapist.
Add resistance bands.
Tips for getting started
- As with any type of activity program, it’s best to check with your health care provider before you get started. There may be certain types of flexibility exercises that aren’t recommended for you, and your provider should advise you as to what is safe, especially if you have certain diabetes complications or have recently had a heart attack or a stroke, for example.
- Aim to do flexibility exercises two to three times per week, spending 30-60 seconds on each exercise.
- Focus on major muscle groups, such as your hips, thighs, lower back, neck, and shoulders.
- Keep your movements smooth and don’t bounce.
- Breathe normally when stretching.
- Stop if you feel sharp or stabbing pain.
If you’re just getting started, you might benefit from some professional guidance. An exercise physiologist or a physical therapist can help devise a stretching program for you, especially if you have any physical limitations. And taking a few beginner yoga, Pilates, or tai chi classes can be helpful to learn techniques to keep you safe.
Want to learn more about exercising with diabetes? Read “Add Movement to Your Life,” “Picking the Right Activity to Meet Your Fitness Goals” and “Seven Ways to Have Fun Exercising.”