Flexibility is the ability of the muscles to lengthen through their range of motion. Mobility is the ability of the whole joint to move through its range of motion. Ideally, we want both. It’s not just muscles surrounding joints, but also connective tissue, ligaments, joint capsule, tendons. The good news is that most yoga classes incorporate both flexibility and mobility!
To maintain function or keep reaching that top shelf!
If our shoulder joint (the muscles, the joint capsule and ligaments) can move fully through its range of motion, i.e. if we can reach our arm up to our ear, we are going to be able to keep reaching the hidden treats jar on the top shelf! This means we are going to be able to maintain function in our everyday lives and keep doing the activity we need and want to do. Maintaining our mobility is all the more important as we age and perhaps start to do less. So keep reaching those arms up; it’s all about maintenance!
To help correct those static working from home postures and ‘text neck’
How many of us can admit we spend a lot of time (maybe even most of the day!) looking down on our phones or slumped over our laptops…? Chances are our joints, most likely neck, shoulders and back may shorten, weaken, tense and tighten up from that prolonged positioning. This means our movement in these joints will become less. This can lead to pain or stiffness. It can then also lead to other surrounding structures and muscles to then compensate and become tight, overworked, weak or painful… and you’re back at the physio again! Stretching and mobility are important to try and correct tightening joints and prevent compensations.
The list keeps going… have you started stretching and mobilising yet? Perhaps you should roll those shoulders forwards and backwards, turn your head a few times…
Stretching and mobility also increase our body awareness and proprioception (a term used to describe our sense of where our body is in space)
A flexibility/mobility routine or yoga class is a great way of allowing us to focus on our body’s movement and get an awareness of what areas feel tight/overworked/tense to help address these before compensations, pain and injuries strike. Increased awareness of how our muscles and joints are feelings can help us be more mindful of where we might be holding tension or carrying imbalances so we can work on it or seek professional advice early on.
Increased flexibility is also associated with increased recovery after exercise, reduced pain, reduced injury risk, improved sleep, improved posture.
Ok, I’m sold on flexibility and mobility…so how do I increase my flexibility and mobility…?
Start simply by moving a joint through its range of motion.
Take the neck for example… it flexes (bends down): think chin towards the chest to get a stretch across the back of the neck. It extends: look up towards the ceiling as far as is comfy to stretch the front of the neck. The neck also rotates (turns to either side): take a look around you, can you see comfortably into your blind spot? So important for driving! It also sides flexes (think ear towards shoulder). Move through these joint ranges now and observe how it feels. Is it free, stiff, painful, restricted or reduced? Based on your answer, perhaps some good mobility exercises to start with!
How far, how long?
The ACSM guidelines 2021 recommend stretching to a point of mild discomfort, just to where it feels tight for 10-30 seconds for adults and 60 seconds for older adults. So no need to push hard into pain with stretching and mobilising.
What about how often?
The ACSM guidelines 2021 recommend at least 2-3 x weekly but daily is best. Think little and often. You don’t have to do an intense 90minute yoga class every day to keep on top of your flexibility or mobility, however, yoga classes are great if you enjoy yoga.
What about 10minutes of mobility in the morning? Maybe once you shut down your computer for the day, or during the adverts of your evening TV perhaps complete a few rounds of some yoga poses ‘cat-cow’, ‘thread the needle’ and ‘child’s pose’ to stretch out your back? Perhaps cut your run 5 minutes short so you can do 5minutes of stretching and mobility? It’s about finding a manageable routine to help you maintain and keep on top of your mobility and flexibility.
Where and what?
ACSM guidelines recommend all the major muscles groups. If this sounds overwhelming, perhaps also think about what you have been doing during the day and where may have developed tightness. Have you been sat all day and then cycled home so your hamstrings (back of the legs) have been in a shortened (bent) position most of the day? If so, perhaps make sure you target your hamstrings and extend (straighten the knee) as part of your stretching and mobility routine: lie on your back and lift one leg holding behind your thigh and gently bend and then straighten this leg. Remember not to push deep into the stretch, just a gentle movement is best. How does it feel?
Other considerations and tips:
Balance your stretching and mobility with strengthening. Muscle weakness is associated with a reduced range of motion in your joints and muscles, and strengthening has been shown to increase flexibility and mobility. So it is important to keep up the weights and squats for your mobility and flexibility too!
Be careful not to overstretch (hold long deep stretches) in the early days of an injury or if you are experiencing muscle spasms: e.g. if there is already a tear in your muscle we don’t want to aggravate this further by holding long deep stretches. However gentle mobility and gently moving the joint is important and do seek professional advice as soon as possible.
Remember to breathe! It’s common to hold your breath while stretching and mobilising without even realising. However, this can increase tension. So remember that long sigh out as you move through range.
Be careful not to overstretch if you are known to have hypermobile joints (double-jointed or increased range through the joint) or are already very flexible. This is where strengthening is important to keep the joint stable.
Be mindful if you are outside and it’s very cold or can play dynamic sporting activities. Think about keeping the stretching movements fluid and moving rather than static holding to get blood flow to the tissues, increase temperature and circulation and prepare the joints for activity. Think arms circles, hip circles, jogging on the spot, lunges.
Yoga involves movements and poses that focus on flexibility, mobility, stability and strength and endurance. There are many different styles and it’s about finding a style and teacher that you engage with. Why not ask for recommendations from local yoga teachers? If you are a gym member, speak to the class instructors and ask to try or even observe the class so you have an idea of what it involves and the different styles if you haven’t done yoga before. The teachers are there to help you and give modifications if needed. You could even have a private 1:1 before starting classes to build confidence. Yoga is a great way to slowly build flexibility and mobility.
Lastly, the more you mobilise and stretch, the easier it becomes so now’s the time to get started!
Flexibility and mobility; it’s all about fuller, freer movement and better function!