For many adults, the idea of being flexible is like a ship that sailed a long time ago. After all, your body loses flexibility as you get older, since your ligaments and joints get more rigid over time. The biggest issue with this? Flexibility becomes even more critical as we age, says Shari Roberson Belmarez, C.P.T. and yoga therapist at VFit Studio.
“Being flexible is not about doing the splits or putting a leg behind your head. It’s about maintaining a healthy range of motion and preventing injury,” Belmarez explains.
Improving your flexibility as an adult has many everyday health benefits, such decreased pain, improved balance, and better posture. These can all make it easier to perform your daily activities, like carrying groceries or going up and down stairs.
Thankfully, there’s hope for even the most un-supple folks. Below, experts share four tips to help you become more flexible and what to do if you feel pain.
“Stop slouching” is more than an annoying reminder from loved ones; good posture plays a key role in good flexibility. “Poor posture can cause the shortening of some muscles and over-lengthening of others, and that can impact your range of motion,” says Jennifer Perry, D.P.T. It can also negatively affect the spine and cause joint imbalances, ultimately leading to pain, especially in the back and shoulders, according to a 2015 study published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science. In the study, 88 college students followed a simple stretching routine for eight weeks. The program included movements like calf stretches and head and neck stretches, and study participants ultimately reported reduced pain levels.
Practice being mindful of when you’re beginning to slouch. It might feel awkward at first, if you’re used to slouching, but over time, it should feel natural and comfortable. If anything, just remember to “stand tall.” The muscles that help you straighten out and seem tall (and confident) are also the ones that help with good posture. Keep your weight on the balls of your feet and your shoulders down and back. Suck your abdomen in and keep your head level, according to the National Library of Medicine.
If you sit at a computer for the majority of your day, it’s still important to check your posture. Taking the effort to make sure your workstation is ergonomically correct will pay off in the long run, according to the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences. Your desk should be at a height so that your forearms and wrists are parallel to the floor when you’re typing. Additionally, your shoulders are relaxed and not hunched or up by your ears. Your back should be flush against the chair and your feet flat on the floor.
Stretch It Out
“Stretching is important because a tight muscle can restrict blood flow and lymphatic flow to and from the muscle,” says Belmarez. “I like to think of it like a water hose—if the water hose has a kink in it, the water can’t get through the hose very well. Stretching keeps the muscles flexible, and flexibility helps maintain a range of motion in the joints.”
Following a light full-body stretching routine can help loosen up your muscles. Belmarez recommends doing the following stretches for about a minute each, two or three times a week.
- Child’s pose to stretch the shoulders and torso
- Seated side bend to open the obliques
- Seated side twist to stretch the outer thighs and glutes
- Bound reclining twist to stretch the front of the body
- Straddle pose, which releases tension in your back
- Forward fold, which stretches the back of your body
Roll It Away
Rolling—with a foam roller, massage ball or massage roller—is a type of self-myofascial release (SMR) that is believed to help prevent injury and increase flexibility by warming your muscles and increasing blood flow. It’s also possible that foam rolling stimulates nerve receptors that tell the brain to loosen up our muscles.
A systematic review of 14 articles on SMR in the International Journal of Sports Therapy found that foam rolling—in tandem with static stretching—increased people’s hip flexion range of motion. Foam rolling also helped with people’s hamstring flexibility during the good ol’ sit-and-reach test. (Remember that from middle school?) While more research on foam rolling needs to be done, it seems promising to incorporate it into your fitness routine.
“No matter what type of tool you use, rolling is a great way to break up adhesions [scar tissue] and smooth out fascia so that the layers slide more easily,” Belmarez says. For the record, fascia is the thin casing (think sausage casing) of connective tissue that holds your internal parts in place. It’s also not just one layer, but multiple layers with liquid in between. “Rolling also allows blood supply and lymph to move through the body more readily, which improves health.”
Practice sitting on the floor and getting up into a standing position a few times a week, which is called the sit-and-rise movement. While it seems like a simple activity, it’s actually a good litmus test to figure out your fitness levels. “Many adults lose their flexibility without realizing that they are unable to get down and up off of the floor,” says Perry.
Here’s how you do it: Sit on the floor with your legs crossed or straight out in front of you. Now try to stand up and see if you need a hand or knee to help you off the ground. By the way, needing assistance doesn’t translate to being unfit—it’s revealing areas of weakness that you should address, like imbalances. Working on this movement a few times a week can help with flexibility as well as core stabilization.
Note: This exercise isn’t safe for everyone, such as those with poor balance, arthritis, or another type of mobility limitation.
Pro-tip: Listen to your body
At the end of the day, your body is your ultimate guide. If you feel pain during any of these flexibility exercises, take note and stop. While stretching can sometimes cause mild to moderate discomfort, you should never be pushing through pain, explains Perry. Instead, stretch until you feel a mild sensation and hold it there before a gentle release. After a while, as your flexibility improves, you’ll be able to hold the stretch more deeply.