The three main components of fitness are: muscular strength, cardiovascular endurance and flexibility. Today I’d like to focus on flexibility. At its most basic, the definitions of flexibility and range of motion (ROM) are interchangeable, that is: the ability of your joints to travel through a full arc of movement. It is important, however, to understand that while we are discussing movement at the joints, this movement is created entirely by our muscles in combination with gravity. And that movement is entirely dependent upon the flexibility of the muscles surrounding that joint.
Good flexibility is important to our overall health in that it promotes better posture, allows for better circulation, reduces the risk of injury, decreases the incidence of lower back pain, and (as previously mentioned) increases the effective range of motion in our joints.
So, how can we stay (or become more) flexible … stretch regularly. Those who are exercising regularly, can very easily incorporate stretching into your physical activity. Yoga is another avenue to increase your flexibility, as it Pilates.
A number of myths regarding stretching persist, so let us take a few moments to debunk some of the most prevalent.
*** Myth #1: “Stretching helps you warm-up before an activity.” The opposite is actually true. Static stretching, that is, holding a position that puts a muscle in a lengthened position, is best done on muscles that have already been properly warmed up with at least 5-10 minutes of aerobic activity.
*** Myth #2: “Stretching before activity can help prevent injury.” The theory is that unstretched muscles are more prone to strains and sprains. Studies actually show that a muscle that has been stretched before activity produces less force than a muscle that was exposed to a more general warm-up.
*** Myth #3: “Stretching before and/or after activity will prevent muscle soreness.” This is not backed up by any meaningful research. The thought is that stretching can help increase circulation to a muscle, which will in turn help reduce muscle soreness. But, since soreness can be caused by different factors (i.e., lactic acid build up in the muscles, or micro-tears in the muscle fibers themselves), stretching will not necessarily help alleviate it.
What we do know is that good flexibility allows us to perform all movements with more fluidity and coordination. When our muscles are pliable and work better in conjunction with one another, we are better balanced and more efficient in our movements. Life in the world today brings a lot of imbalance, whether it be sitting at a desk all day or making repetitive movements on an assembly line. If left unchecked, these wreak havoc with our bodies. Sitting for long periods causes problems with the muscles of the hip and lower back. Some muscles get too tight and pull on the surrounding structures. Others are constantly stretched and may not be able to contract enough to provide support. These conditions invariably throw something else out of balance – now you have lower back pain … and the cycle continues.
At the JRMC Wellness Centers, our BodyFlow classes directly address these issues. A “Flow” class, as we call it, follows a set sequence of exercise disciplines including Tai Chi, Yoga, and Pilates. Each class is made up of 45 minutes of simple yet challenging exercises followed by 10 minutes of relaxation and meditation. In addition to lengthening your muscles, Flow can also calm you down from a hectic day. And while a few more may bring results more quickly, one class a week is enough to begin seeing positive results. From warm-up to cool down, all you need to bring is yourself and a willingness to try something new!