Why Is Flexibility Important?
The role of flexibility in physical fitness has been debated since the 1950’s, and studies have shown inconsistent results when measuring flexibility outcomes with physical activities. That being said, few clinicians would argue against the benefits of maintaining range of motion to effectively perform activities of daily living (22). Moreover, some studies show reasonable benefit from stretching in the setting of age-related loss of functionality and management of chronic illnesses [1-3].
While more research is still needed regarding the specific role of flexibility in overall physical fitness and health, most experts agree that structured flexibility exercises improve patients’ general health.[1-3] Preliminary studies have suggested that flexibility may reduce arterial stiffening, which could theoretically reduce cardiovascular disease rates.[4, 23] Stretching can also improve heart rate variability, reduce resting heart rate in patients, and decrease blood pressure. [5, 24, 25] Finally, flexibility exercises have consistently demonstrated benefits in short-term and long-term balance performance.[6,7]
Current research suggests that warm-up stretching does not immediately reduce the risk of athletic injuries.[1, 20] However, with regular stretching over weeks, there appears to be a long-term benefit in improving muscle power and force, which can positively impact athletic performance (26). Some studies have also shown a correlation with less work-related injuries when chronically stretching in the workplace (21). Additionally, certain medical conditions such as osteoarthritis and adhesive capsulitis often warrant special attention to chronic flexibility training to preserve or regain function and reduce discomfort.
Despite inconsistencies in current research on flexibility training, being able to move the body in a wider range of positions and movements gives us more options for accomplishing work, enjoying play, and expressing ourselves. When flexibility increases, our range of possibility increases.
What Factors Affect Flexibility?
There are a variety of factors that contribute to a given persons tendency to be more flexible or stiff. Females tend to be more flexible than males, and flexibility generally declines with age.Numerous genetic conditions such as Marfans syndrome and other connective tissue disorders affect flexibility. Joint hypermobility and joint hypermobility syndrome are two overlapping and somewhat poorly understood conditions associated with pronounced flexibility. These conditions exist on a continuum of severity, affect up to 30% of the population, and exhibit a strongly heritable risk pattern.
High degrees of flexibility achieved at a young age may be subsequently maintained into adulthood. For example, athletes and artists who exhibit high degrees of flexibility, such as gymnasts and contortionists, typically require initiation of flexibility training at a young age. Long-term conditioning through training and habit undoubtedly contributes to long-term flexibility differences.
How Can Flexibility be Measured?
Though the sit and reach test primarily focuses on hamstring extensibility (and is not a reliable measure of lumbar flexibility), it has been used around the world as a basic instrument for measuring baseline flexibility).If patients are interested in establishing their baseline flexibility, consider providing the instructions included at the end of this handout under additional resources. Other measures of flexibility include the zipper test, which evaluates shoulder flexibility, and the sitting-rising test, which may also predict overall mortality risk.
How Can Flexibility Be Developed?
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that healthy and older adults perform stretching exercises at least 2 days per week, spending about 1 minute on each major muscle tendon group (shoulder girdle, chest, neck, trunk, lower back, hips, posterior and anterior legs, and ankles) for about 10 minutes per session.[1,3] Many studies have noted benefit in improving range of motion in joints with just 10-30 seconds of stretching on a regular basis (27, 28). Current literature does not consistently suggest immediate benefit from performing static or dynamic stretching before exercise, but warming up with light aerobic activity and, in some cases, stretching, is still recommended due to the long-term benefits of these activities.[15,16]
There are many forms of exercise and physical activity that emphasize flexibility. The following is a short list to consider recommending to patients interested in improving their flexibility:
- Yoga - Research supports the use of yoga to increase flexibility.
- Pilates - Research also supports Pilates for increasing flexibility.
- Massage - Many types of massage seek to maintain flexibility of the joints and soft tissues.
- Tai chi - This inner martial art expresses the ideal of strength with flexibility and has been consistently observed to facilitate flexibility.
- Other martial arts - These often work explicitly to develop flexibility.
- Dance - In many forms from around the world, dance is a fun way to stay flexible.
- Gardening - For much of human history, humans have been bending, squatting, and kneeling for horticulture.
- Housework - Depending on how it is done, housework can be a great way to exercise the ability to stretch, bend, and reach.
Keep flexibility in mind as part of a broad-based approach to Moving the Body. Patients may see long-term improvement in range of mtion and muscle power along with other systemic health benefits if engaging in a consistent stretching regimen.
- Mayo Clinic
- Illustrated guide to basic stretches
- Guide to stretching
- Yoga Journal
- What Science Can Teach Us About Flexibility article
- Australian College of Sports and Fitness
- Description of how to perform sit and reach test for flexibility assessment
- “Moving the Body”: https://www.va.gov/WHOLEHEALTHLIBRARY/self-care/moving-your-body.asp