What do you think of when you picture a flexible person? A yogi, bending over backwards into a crab? Or perhaps a gymnast, nonchalantly falling into the splits?
All too often, flexibility can seem unobtainable and many of us assume we’ll never fit that description. But it doesn’t matter if you can’t put your nose to your knees – being flexible can simply mean being able to cross your legs when you sit down, or tying your shoelaces without putting your foot up on a bench.
Flexibility is good for our health. There are several key benefits, explains Kenny Butler, head of health and wellbeing at ukactive and former physiotherapist. The first is that your mobility improves over time, which will continue to have long-lasting benefits as you age.
If, for example, someone sits down to put their socks on, rather than stand up, they’re restricting the way their muscles stretch. The longer they do this, the less likely they’ll be able to stand up and put their socks on in the future. “What’s next?” asks Kenny. “You have to sit down to put your trousers on?”
Being flexible is also a great way to prevent injury. This is especially the case for athletes or people training for sporting events like marathons. Health professionals also believe improving your flexibility can improve your posture, as well as reduce aches and pains.
Of course, flexibility isn’t the only component of fitness that has health benefits. We should also be thinking about strength, endurance and balance – but trying to improve all of these every day is unrealistic. So if you’re looking to focus on flexibility in particular – and improve it in a manageable way – what can you do?
Don’t shy away from slow exercise
It’s probably no surprise that yoga is a great option to boost flexibility, as it works your muscles against gravity. Pilates is also beneficial. Both build strong foundations to improve how flexible you are.
“Yoga is probably one of the reasons why Ryan Giggs had his longevity in football and didn’t have as much injury as his colleagues,” says Butler. “You’re moving your joints, your muscles, your joint capsules. It’s a superb exercise and something that can be done very cheaply.”
Speaking back in 2012, 38-year-old Giggs said: “Yoga helps me train every day because it gives me the flexibility and the strength not only to play the game, but to train as well.”
Annie Clarke, a yoga teacher based in London, believes many of us “shy away” from slower workouts like yoga and Pilates, because we’re so used to rushing around. This ultimately means we’re less likely to improve our flexibility.
“But if you’re someone who does a lot of aerobic exercise or sports, or sits at a desk for most of the week, it’s important to remember how important things like stretching are, whether or not that is combined with the other elements of practices like yoga,” she says.
If you do tend to veer more towards faster exercises – for example, running, cycling or swimming – doing the exercise alone will still boost your flexibility to an extent (you’re still moving, after all). Especially if you warm up first.
Warm up well
Many people tend to only do static stretches prior to cardio workouts, which you’d assume would improve flexibility – but actually, there’s research that suggests this has limited benefits on its own, says Butler.
The key to better flexibility is warming up with dynamic [movement-based] stretches, as well as static stretches. You often see footballers swinging their legs about or running along the side of the pitch prior to a match. Or, you may see swimmers swinging their arms before jumping in the pool to compete. “That’s how people become more flexible,” says Butler.
When you’re warming up, the best thing to do is to prepare the body for the specific activity you’re doing. This gets the blood flowing to that particular area. “You’re almost practising the skills and movement that you’re about to do, before you do it,” Butler explains, “to make your body aware of that specific activity.”
If you’re going out for a run, for example, walk fast and build up to the run. Don’t just stand there stretching your hamstring. This is something Jessie Pavelka, a personal trainer of 15 years who has launched fitness app, JP4, agrees with. “Generally speaking, if you haven’t warmed up [before a workout], I’d always suggest beginning with more dynamic stretches,” he says.
“The idea here is to not place strain on a cold muscle. Without the increased blood flow to the area that dynamic stretching stimulates, you risk injuring or tearing the muscle.”
Be aware of your body
Knowing your body and the areas where your muscles seem tight can be a good indication of what you need to focus on when it comes to improving flexibility.
It’s an incredibly individual thing, after all. Pavelka recommends developing a heightened awareness of your body – so, becoming familiar with the areas that feel tighter than others. “It doesn’t mean that you only focus on those areas, but they should be your target zones for mobility,” he says.
“Ultimately, you want to feel good. If you’re sat down for six or seven hours a day without much movement, stretching could do you the world of good.”
This might be building 10 minutes into your schedule and simply saying, “I’m going to stretch”. And you don’t have to do this before or after exercise – you can just do it on its own.
Take a look at the one stretch personal trainers advise people to do to improve flexibility – including yoga poses like downward dog, as well as the pigeon – or search online for specific stretches that might work for you. It’s best to consult a trained professional before doing this if you’re building them into a routine.
The NHS has suggested flexibility stretches and exercises that can be done at home to help improve your mobility. People are advised to do these at least twice a week.
But don’t over do it, and know your limits. Clarke often sees people in yoga pushing themselves too hard and over-stretching. “People push into the deepest pose by relying on flexibility,” she explains. “This can cause injury, so having an awareness of your body, or developing one, is really important.”
Simple ways to improve flexibility day by day:
:: Practise yoga at home. There are plenty of yoga videos on YouTube, or go to a gym class.
:: Active travel. Instead of sitting on a train then sitting at a desk, add some activity into your commute. This could be standing on the train or bus, rather than sitting, or getting off a stop early and building a bit of a walk into your day.
:: Active sitting. This basically means standing up and sitting down at intervals throughout the day.
:: Have a walking meeting. This is great for meetings with two to three people, says Butler, but not many more than that.
:: Take the stairs instead of the lift. If you want to push yourself even more, take two stairs at a time.
:: Reach down to tie your shoelaces, rather than putting your foot on a chair, or a higher level.
Ultimately, focusing on flexibility takes time, patience and knowledge – so speak to a physiotherapist or personal trainer if you want a more focused routine.