Flexibility is one of those flowery terms that I always associate with A) Olympic gymnasts and B) anyone in my yoga class who can break into a full splits. In other words: I have a vague idea of what it is, but it’s actually an incredibly important skill that everyone—especially those who are fitness fanatics—should know about and work on regularly. To get the DL, I went straight to the physiology pros to answer the question: Why is flexibility important, exactly?
“Flexibility is often overlooked, but the benefits of it are universal and impactful—whether you’re a hard-working corporate executive, an athlete, or a weekend warrior, implementing a consistent stretching routine can have a positive impact on your life,” says Austin Martinez, director of education for StretchLab. To understand what it is, begin by knowing that flexibility has a lot to do with how your muscles can move. “Flexibility explains the current state of muscles when it comes to their elastic properties and how they change over time,” he says.
On a more concrete level, flexibility’s a measurement. “It’s a measure for the range of motion of your individual joints,” says Elizabeth Barchi, MD, a sports medicine pro with NYU Langone Health. “So a lot of your muscles will span across at least one joint, and their purpose is to provide leverage and move the muscles and the joints so we can do things like walk. When those muscles are very tight, you’re not able to move your joints quite in that same range of motion—so it’s more difficult for you to do daily activities when you’re less flexible.” Aha! So your flexibility is essentially a marker for the range of motion of your individual joints.
That means that flexibility spans your whole entire body—not just, say, your hamstrings, which may or may not allow you to bend over and touch the floor. “Between every bone is a joint of some sort, so whether it moves or not, it’s connecting in some way,” says Dr. Barchi. Also key? “The length of the muscle is really important, which is a part of flexibility,” she says. “When you have a longer muscle, it’s more resistant to things like straining injuries or tears.”
That brings me to the reason why flexibility is so important: Because you can get hurt if your flexibility level is zero. “Research has shown that increased flexibility can decrease the risk of injury,” says Martinez. Think about it: If your body has a very limited range of motion, and you go off and do something like go on a long run or lift heavy weights, you can definitely put your body at risk for getting injured. “By having more flexibility, a joint can move through an increased range of motion before incurring injury,” he adds.
Having increased flexibility, in general, reduces your risk for strain-type injuries, says Dr. Barchi. “Flexibility also takes some pressure off of your tendons—at the end of every muscle, attaching it to the bone is a tendon,” she says. “So when you have really tight, shortened muscles, that can put extra pressure on your tendons and cause pain.” To summarize: tight muscles can equal strain and pain.
The good news? Working on your flexibility is relatively easy, and it’s just all about stretching. “The best way to improve your flexibility is to implement a consistent stretching regimen and stick to it,” says Martinez. You don’t have to spend hours doing it, either. “What we know is that stretching each muscle group for at least a minute and a half every day really helps increase your range of motion,” says Dr. Barchi. “So that’s 10 minutes of stretching a day, depending on how many muscles are tight. And stretching at just 50 percent of your max stretch is also enough to increase the range of motion.” AKA you don’t have to go full splits for the benefits.
Dr. Barchi recommends stretching before and after exercising. “You want to do dynamic-type stretches, which is moving through ranges of motion and slowly increasing them—like a leg swing—to warm up the muscles in the hips and thighs to get ready for running,” she says as one prime example. “Then, after activity, to cool down, you want to do static stretching, which is like reaching for your toes.”
Something to keep in mind, though, is that working on your flexibility is a process—not a one-and-done type of situation. “Flexibility is a marathon, not a race,” says Martinez. “If you put a plan in place and implement it on a regular basis, then you will see positive results.” Dr. Barchi adds that patience is important, too. “It’s key to start low and go slow—take your time in increasing your flexibility,” she says. “It’s easy to over-stretch, so be patient with yourself. It’s slow gains over time, and it should be part of a complete exercise routine throughout your week.” With practice, you’ll be a proverbial Gumby in no time.
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