importance of flexibility in fitness and health

What is flexibility?

Flexibility is basically the ability of your muscles to move freely through their functional range of motion without pain or restriction. It is basically how much a muscle can lengthen without being painful. Newborn babies are extremely flexible because their joints and muscles are soft and elastic. Over time, daily movement patterns affect how muscles, connective tissues and joints develop and interact, and range of motion is gradually reduced.

Overuse of some areas of the body and underuse of others can create imbalances, with some tissues becoming overly tight, and others becoming too lax. Imbalances impact the efficiency and fluidity of movement, and can cause pain and instability. As we age, imbalances can lead to falls, joint problems and back pain.

It is important to note that more flexibility is not necessarily a good thing. In some instances, being too flexible can increase your risk of injury and reduce your functional performance. Optimal flexibility and range of motion holds your body in perfect alignment, enabling fluid movement and providing stability when sitting, standing and moving about.

What is Range of Motion?

That means that each joint and each group of muscles in your body might have a different range of motion (ROM) or a different level of flexibility. Some areas of your body may be very tight, meaning that the muscles feel short and restricted.

Some areas of your body may feel very loose and you may be able to lengthen and move those muscles freely.​

What Limits Flexibility?

If your muscle fibers don’t limit your ability to stretch, what does? There are two major schools of scientific thought on what actually most limits flexibility and what should be done to improve it. The first school focuses not on stretching muscle fiber itself but on increasing the elasticity of connective tissues, the cells that bind muscle fibers together, encapsulate them, and network them with other organs; the second addresses the “stretch reflex” and other functions of the autonomic (involuntary) nervous system. Yoga works on both. That’s why it’s such an effective method for increasing flexibility.

Ligaments can safely stretch a bit more than tendons—but not much. Ligaments bind bone to bone inside joint capsules. They play a useful role in limiting flexibility, and it is generally recommended that you avoid stretching them. Stretching ligaments can destabilize joints, compromising their efficiency and increasing your likelihood of injury. That’s why you should flex your knees slightly—rather than hyperextending them—in Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend), releasing tension on posterior knee ligaments (and also on the ligaments of the lower spine).

How poor flexibility can harm you?

Poor flexibility can be harmful in several important ways

  • Full range of movement helps improve and maintain the health of cartilage and other structures within the joint by increasing the flow of blood and nutrients to joint tissues and structures. Improved blood flow also increases the quality of synovial fluid, the lubricant that helps the bones within your joint glide smoothly, without friction. In weight-bearing joints like the knees and hips, a healthy joint capsule is especially important. Limited range of motion in the joints leads to structural degradation that can worsen over time.
  • Inflexible muscles fatigue more quickly, causing your body to compensate by recruiting other muscles to perform a physical task. This can lead to imbalances in muscle tension that affect posture and movement mechanics. It can also cause injury to the muscles, and limit their ability to support and protect the joints. For example, the muscles that surround the knee joint play an important role in stabilizing the knee, protecting it from ACL tears and other injuries.
  • Poor flexibility in one area of the body can cause stress in other areas by altering posture and shifting force loads in undesirable ways. For instance, tight hamstring muscles can contribute to back pain, and tightness in the shoulder girdle can cause neck pain and headaches. People who sit for long hours may develop tight hip flexor muscles that affect the low back and pelvic region, and contribute to a host of potential musculoskeletal disorders.
  • As people age, poor flexibility can cause a number of postural and motor problems that set them up for dangerous falls, limited mobility and a reduced quality of life.

Benefits of being flexible:

Improved flexibility produces a wide range of physical benefits and can have a positive effect on your overall well-being. Here are a few ways that increased flexibility is likely to help you.

1. Fewer injuries

Once you develop strength and flexibility in your body you’ll be able to withstand more physical stress. Plus, you’ll rid your body of any muscle imbalances, which will reduce your chance of getting injured during physical activity. Correcting muscle imbalances requires a combination of strengthening the underactive muscles and stretching the overactive (tight) ones.

2. Less pain

Your body is likely to feel better overall once you work on lengthening and opening your muscles. When your muscles are looser and less tense, you’ll experience fewer aches and pains. Plus, you may be less likely to experience muscle cramps.

3. Improved posture and balance

When you focus on increasing muscular flexibility your posture is likely to improve. Working out your body allows you to have proper alignment and correct any imbalances. Plus, with an increased range of motion you may find it easier to sit or stand in certain ways. Yoga has been shown to improve balance.

4. A positive state of mind

Regularly engaging in poses that stretch and open up your body can bring about feelings of relaxation. The physical benefits can extend to a relaxed state of mind. You may find it easier to unwind once your body feels better.

5. Greater strength

It’s important to increase strength as you become more flexible. This ensures your muscles will have the right amount of tension so that they’re strong enough to support you and your movements, allowing you to become more physically fit.

6. Improved physical performance

Once you increase your flexibility to allow greater movement in your body you’ll be able to perform better physically. This is in part because your muscles are working more effectively.


Why being too much flexible is bad?

Tendons transmit force by connecting bones to muscle. They are relatively stiff. If they weren’t, fine motor coordination like playing piano or performing eye surgery would be impossible. While tendons have enormous tensile strength, they have very little tolerance to stretching. Beyond a 4 percent stretch, tendons can tear or lengthen beyond their ability to recoil, leaving us with lax and less responsive muscle-to-bone connections not to mention the risk of tearing a muscle itself.


What types of stretches are there?

Stretching improves flexibility. But you don’t have to do hours of stretching to enjoy the benefits of flexibility training. You can take a stretching class or do an online video that focuses just on stretching exercises to improve range of motion throughout the body.

These programs generally begin with a gentle warm-up to increase your body’s core temperature. Then, they progress through a series of stretching exercises to lengthen the muscles in your feet, your legs, your hips and torso, and finally up through the head and neck.

There are different types of stretching to improve flexibility.

  • Static Stretching:

     You move into a position that lengthens a target muscle and hold the position for 15-60 seconds. It’s best to remember to breathe as you hold each stretch.

  • Dynamic Stretching:

     You move in and out of a position that lengthens a target muscle. Dynamic stretching involves moving through a joint’s full range of motion either slowly or quickly to mimic a functional activity.

  • Active Isolated Stretching (AIS):

     You move your joint through a complete range of motion, holding the endpoint only briefly, then return to the starting point and repeat. Many athletes and active exercisers use active isolated stretching to prevent injuries or muscle imbalance.