If you work out, you know that cardio and resistance training both offer valuable benefits—including boosting your heart health, strength, and metabolism. But there are two other cornerstones of physical fitness we often overlook: flexibility and mobility. And before you ask: No, they’re not the same thing,
“Flexibility is the length or elastic property of your soft tissues (muscles, ligaments, tendons), which gives your body the potential ability to move through a range of motions,” explains Michael Camperlengo, M.S.P.T., M.D.T., a physical therapist at Professional Physical Therapy. Try to touch your toes. If the length and elasticity of your muscles, ligaments, and tendons allows, you’ll be able to reach all the way down. But if those soft tissues are shorter, you might only be able to reach to your shins, or even your knees.
Why is that important? “When our joints are restricted by inflexibility and can’t move through their natural range of motion, dysfunction and pain can occur,” says exercise physiologist Tom Holland, C.S.C.S. “Our daily life activities become more difficult and quality of life is diminished.”
Mobility, on the other hand, is how your body moves through its available range, says Camperlengo. “It’s the degree to which the bones and tissues (like fibrous connective tissue and cartilage) that meet to form a joint (like your femur and pelvis for your hip joint, or the arm bones at your elbow joint) are free to move before being restricted.” If you’re lacking mobility in, say, your shoulders, you may not be able to fully rotate your arms or extend them straight up over your head.
“Mobility is essential to our overall quality of life, especially as we age,” says Holland. “The ability to move unrestricted and pain-free allows us to comfortably perform not just our daily activities but leisure activities and sports.” If your body isn’t moving through certain functional patterns correctly, you set yourself up for injury and musculoskeletal issues.
Flexibility and mobility are very closely related. “The biggest difference is that flexibility gives a person a greater range of potential mobility; however mobility requires motion in the joint itself,” says Camperlengo. “Plus, a person must have the necessary strength and control to utilize the body’s range of motion to full potential.”
You can be flexible yet not have complete overall mobility, and you can be mobile without being particularly flexible in a certain area—but for peak health and performance, you need both.
Flexibility is something many of us struggle with, especially as we get older. “The most important areas to keep flexible are the lower extremities: The hamstrings and quadriceps have a significant impact on both your pelvis (hip joint) and knee, and the calves influence your lower back as well as your knee and ankle joints,” says Camperlengo.
“The pectoral or chest area is also a key area to pay attention to,” he adds. “Life today has us in many sedentary postures, where we’re slouching and looking down (like when using electronic devices), and keeping the pectoralis muscles flexible has significant impact on both neck and shoulder pain, as well as the maintenance of proper posture.”
Luckily, it’s super-easy to work on improving all-over flexibility. Stretching before and after workouts and incorporating yoga into your routine can help. You can also run through these five stretches several times a day:
1. Supine Two-Knee Twist: Lie on your back and press your lower back into the floor. Raise your feet off the floor, bring both knees toward your chest, and extend your arms straight out to the sides with palms facing down. Keeping feet and knees stacked, slowly lower both legs to the left. Keep your shoulders on the floor and turn your head to the right. Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.
2. Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch: Start in a half-kneeling position with your right foot planted on the ground in front of you and a 90-degree angle in your right knee, and your left knee on the ground directly under your left hip. Keeping your back straight, pull your shoulders down and back, squeeze your belly button towards your spine, and lean forward into the right hip while keeping the left knee pressed into the ground. Hold the stretch for at last 30 seconds for two to three reps. Then repeat on the other side.
3. Kneeling Hamstring Stretch: Again, start in a half-kneeling position with your right foot planted out in front of you and your right knee on the ground below your left hip. Shift your weight back into the left knee, sitting toward your heel, and keep your back flat as you bend at the hips and straighten your right leg. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.
4. Corner Pectoral Stretch: Stand facing the corner of a room. Place your palms and forearms on the walls at 90-degree angles, with your elbows slightly lower than your shoulders. Stagger feet to decrease the stress on the lumbar spine, then press chest in towards the corner of the wall until you feel the stretch across the chest area. Hold for 15-30 seconds.
5. Calf Stretch: Stand arm-length away from a wall with your hands flat against the wall. Without bending your knee, extend your left leg back and place your heel flat on the floor. Lean into the wall until you feel a stretch in the calf of your left leg. Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side. Perform two or three reps on each side.
Unsurprisingly, the joints you want to keep mobile are closely related to the muscles you want to keep flexible. “The main areas to keep mobile are the hips, low back, upper back, and shoulders,” says Camperlengo. Incorporate these five moves to your warm-ups before working out or just do them throughout your day to keep all of your joints in working order.
1. Cat Stretch: Start on all fours with your hands under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Press the floor away with your hands and knees, drop your head, and round your spine. Hold for 15 seconds.
2. Carioca: Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip-distance apart and a slight bend in your knees. Push off with your left foot and step it behind your right foot. Then step your right foot to the side so you’re back to your starting stance. Now, step your left foot in front of your right foot. Step your right foot out to the side to get back into starting stance. Continue grape-vining to your right for 15 to 30 seconds, then reverse directions.
3. Child’s Pose: Start in a kneeling position with your knees wide. Crawl your hands forward so your arms extend straight in front of you (palms on the floor) and your torso lowers down toward your thighs and your forehead rests on the floor. Extend your hips back towards your heels and lengthen your spine. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds.
4. Hip Hinge: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your hands placed on the crease of your hip flexors. Keeping your chest up and shoulders pulled down and away from the ears, squeeze your belly button towards your spine and push your hips back. Allow your chest to drop forward until parallel with the floor. (This is not a squat; knees should be soft but not bent.)