As a child, you probably moved your body effortlessly. You sprawled on the floor to watch TV and hopped up when you wanted a snack. You reached overhead to swing from the monkey bars and dangled from your arms. You even got out of bed in the morning without a thought about how your back or hips might feel.
But as you get older, you might notice that you don’t have that flexibility and mobility anymore. Yet, being able to move your body easily through a wide range of motion is a vital part of your strength and your overall health.
“Increasing flexibility and mobility can help with joint pain, posture and even walking,” said Sarah Chapman, a physical therapist with Banner Health. “Tightness in your leg muscles can contribute to back pain. Tightness through the chest muscles impacts your posture and can lead to shoulder, neck and upper back pain. Being more flexible allows your joints to move optimally.”
Flexibility and mobility are related, but they aren’t exactly the same.
- Flexibility is the way your muscles and connective tissues can lengthen and stretch. When you’re more flexible, you can stretch and move through a larger range of motion in a specific joint or part of your body.
- Mobility is broader. It refers to the way you move larger parts of your body, or your body overall. Flexibility is part of mobility, but it also includes joint stability, strength, coordination and control.
Benefits of building your flexibility and mobility
You can see a lot of improvements in your health and overall fitness when you stretch and increase your mobility, such as:
- Increased range of motion: Lengthening your muscles, tendons and connective tissues can enhance your athletic performance and make it easier to move in your day-to-day life. For example, you might be able to squat more deeply when you improve your mobility.
- Injury prevention: You can lower your risk of muscle strains, joint stiffness and other issues.
- Less tightness: This benefit is especially important for people who sit at desks a lot.
- Better posture: You can correct imbalances, improve your alignment and have a more confident, upright stance.
- Improved muscle function: Mobility increases blood flow to the muscles, which can help them get the nutrients they need and eliminate waste. They can perform better and be more coordinated.
- Reduced risk of falling: When you’re more mobile, your balance is better so you’re less likely to fall, which is especially important for older people who are at higher risk of injury from falling.
- Relieving stress: These types of exercises release tension in your muscles and promote relaxation. They can bring mindfulness to your routine and improve your mental well-being.
What you can do
Many different stretches and activities can improve your flexibility and mobility. In general, it’s a good idea to:
- Warm up first with a few minutes of walking, cycling or light aerobic exercise to get the blood flowing to your muscles.
- Target the major upper- and lower-body muscle groups, such as the calves, hamstrings, quadriceps, hips, shoulders and chest.
- Hold each stretch for 15 to 30 seconds, breathe deeply and relax into the stretch. Don’t bounce or force the stretch, since you could hurt yourself.
- Start with gentle stretches and add longer, more intense movements as you get accustomed to stretching. Listen to your body, and don’t push through discomfort or pain. If you’re uncomfortable, your muscles will probably tighten, and your stretch won’t be as effective.
- Be consistent and stretch regularly.
You can try different types of stretches, since they all help in different ways and are all part of a well-rounded routine:
- Static stretching is what many people think of when they think of stretching. It’s when you hold a stretch for a while.
- Dynamic stretching is stretching where you move through your range of motion. You often use dynamic stretching to target the muscles you use in a sport or workout.
- Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretching combines stretching with contracting muscle groups.
Mobility tools can help you improve your flexibility and overall physical function. They can enhance your stretches, help your muscles recover, reduce soreness and improve your movement patterns and mechanics. They include:
- Foam rollers, which release muscle tension and tension in the fascia (tissue that’s woven throughout your body). Relieving this tension is called myofascial release.
- Massage balls, which target specific areas for muscle relief. They work on smaller areas than foam rollers.
- Resistance bands, which can be used in stretching and strengthening exercises.
- Mobility sticks, which improve joint mobility and flexibility.
How you can get started
If you’re ready to begin improving your flexibility and mobility, you have lots of options. “A lot of community gyms and fitness centers offer flexibility or stretching classes, often with both standing and sitting options,” Chapman said. “There are a lot of different ways to work on stretching, so if one particular stretch isn’t working, there’s often another version that you can do.”
You can also find YouTube videos and stretches recommended by health and wellness professionals. The American Heart Association recommends stretches that target your inner thighs, calves, chest, hamstrings (back of thigh), hip flexors, lower back, shoulders and quadriceps (front of thigh).
You don’t have to devote a big chunk of time to flexibility and mobility. It’s better to have small, regular exercises than long but infrequent sessions. Try a short yoga routine when you wake up, a few stretches during a break at work, rolling a massage ball under your feet when you’re sitting at a desk or foam rolling at the end of the day.
For best results, balance stretching with strengthening. “You need good flexibility to move the right way, but you also need strength to control that movement,” Chapman said. “If you’re stretching without strengthening, you’re missing out. If you’re doing all strengthening and no stretching, you might be cheating yourself out of progress. You need a blend of stretching and strengthening for optimal movement.”
Work within your limits
Many people can begin a gentle flexibility and mobility program on their own. “But it’s important to keep your specific history in mind when choosing stretches, as some may need to be modified if you have had surgeries or joint problems,” Chapman said. If you have concerns, injuries or medical conditions, talk to a physical therapist or exercise specialist who can help you create a customized plan.
If you’re not used to stretching, you might find it uncomfortable at first. “By continuing and being consistent with your stretching, it should start to feel good,” Chapman said. “If stretching is painful and doesn’t improve after a month or two of regular sessions, you may have restriction in your joint mobility or something else causing pain. You should consult with a professional for tips to make sure you’re doing your stretches correctly, and also to see if you need additional exercises.”
If you can’t get up and down from the floor, that doesn’t mean you have to give up on stretching. And if you need to be in a lying position to stretch, you can do it on a bed instead of on the floor. “Many stretches can be modified to do in a sitting position if lying on your bed is not an option,” Chapman said.
The bottom line
Stretching and mobility work are great additions to your routine. With them, you can increase your flexibility, prevent injuries, improve your posture and enhance your overall well-being. Start gradually and be consistent, and you’ll likely see your tension and stiffness lessen, and your flexibility and mobility improve.
An expert can help you design a stretching and mobility program that meets your needs and addresses your concerns and issues. To connect with someone who can help, reach out to Banner Health.