By Sarah Hughes
My husband is completely inflexible. And I don’t just mean his point blank refusal to allow me to buy a fuchsia velvet sofa.
No, I mean he’s inflexible in the sense that he can’t touch his toes. I mean, scratch that; he can’t touch his knees. He is as stiff as the proverbial board. And unfortunately it seems that two of our three sons are going to suffer from the same affliction.
It’s not that he’s unfit. Quite the opposite in fact. He runs a seven minute mile, swims every week and is up at 5am at least two days per week to lift weights in the gym. He even cycles for an hour uphill to work most days in Summer, which sounds absolutely grim to me, but each to their own. My sons aren’t exactly sedentary either. Football is lifein our house and they both train three or four times per week then have matches in addition to this.
I’m sure they’re all pretty confident about how fit they are and have never given a moments thought to the fact that they can’t touch their knees…
So is flexibility genetic?
Or is there a nature/nurture element going on here? Well, it seems that if it’s in our nature to be inflexible, the way that we nurture (or neglect to nurture) our flexibility can still have a big impact. Scientific research has proven that our genetic make-up does indeed affect our flexibility. And it is true to say that some people are just more bendy than others. They have more range of movement at their joints, they might also have longer muscles and less tight tendons. Lucky them, right?
Well yes, but even those naturally stretchy types won’t be able to smugly jump into the splits at the drop of a hat if they don’t maintain their flexibility. As we age, we lose collagen which can negatively impact our muscular elasticity. With less fluid in the fibrous parts of our body, we end up having to work much harder to do a stretch which might have been easy for us in our twenties. Damn those youngsters.
So maybe genetics wasn’t on your side… and maybe age isn’t on your side either. But don’t lose hope! We cannot underestimate the power of lifestyle habits when it comes to maintaining or increasing our flexibility. Staying generally physically active each day and incorporating just 10-15 minutes of stretching really will set you up for long term fitness.
Why is flexibility so important?
There are so many reasons, but the one I talk to my clients about most often is injury prevention. Maintaining range of movement around the joints is absolutely vital if we want to get older without being afflicted by injuries, aches and pains. The most common effect of muscular tightness I see is tight hamstrings, which over time leads to pain in the lumbar region and a reduced ability to move. Preventative maintenance stretching of the hamstrings is an investment in your lower back!
Another less talked about benefit of stretching is improved posture. It’s why I’m such a fan of Pilates and Yoga. They’re both disciplines which have flexibility at theheart of their practice.
Stretching also encourages relaxation and lower stress levels, it has even been shown to lower blood pressure.
So when should I stretch?
It’s great to get into the habit of regular gentle stretching throughout the day, especially if like me, you spend a lot of time hunched over a laptop. A couple of minutes every couple of hours should be easy enough to implement.
Back when I did my training twenty years ago, static pre-workout stretches were thought to be an important part of your workout. We now know that they weren’t particularly beneficial and research instead advocates a gradual warm-up, followed by your main workout, followed by a cool down and a stretch of all the major muscles. Although these post-workout stretches are a great bare minimum, we really should be putting more emphasis on our flexibility training.
I would advocate planning it into your weekly workout schedule ensuring you get two dedicated deep stretch sessions of 20-30 minutes each week. Prioritise it in the way you do your cardio and strength training; you’ll feel so much better for it!
What stretches should I be doing?
After a strength or cardio workout, think quads, hamstrings, calves, shoulders, chest and back, holding each stretch for 15-30 seconds. If you’re doing a class or an online workout, your instructor should take you through these.
If you’re a sports person, make sure your stretching is specific to your sport. Tennis players will need to dedicate time to triceps and shoulders in the same way that cyclists will need to focus on quadriceps, hamstrings and calves.
YouTube has a wealth of yoga or deep stretch videos for beginners right through to those of us wanting to be able to master the splits. Treat yourself to a couple of sessions of stretching a week in addition to your quick post-workout stretches… your bodyand your mind will thank you for it.