Flexibility is an important, but often neglected, indicator of health. Strength training and cardiovascular conditioning are traditionally the primary focus of many personal fitness programs. Building muscle is important, because after the age of 30 we normally lose 1/2 to 1% of our muscle mass each year, and muscle strength may decline by as much as 12 - 15% per decade. Muscle is also more metabolically active than fat, so at rest, it burns more calories. This is why weight training is an effective component of any weight loss program. Cardiovascular fitness is important because the risk of coronary artery disease and all cause mortality in both men and women is decreased in those who are aerobically fit. Many people are aware of this, but what of flexibility?
Flexibility is defined as the quality of bending easily without breaking. It can best be described as the ability to move the joints through their full range of motion easily. When muscles are tight and short, they pull constantly on your bones, decreasing the normal range of motion of your joints. This can result in stiffness, limiting the movement of the joints and can increase the risk of injury by overstretching your muscles. Many people suffer from lower back pain, as a result of tight lower back, gluteal and hamstring muscles pulling on the pelvis and causing misalignment of the lower spine. These muscles become tight as a result of prolonged sitting on a daily basis. To prevent this it is important that we incorporate more movement on a day to day basis and include regular stretching into our fitness routine to improve flexibility and decrease the risk of injury. It is best to stretch already warmed up muscles gently, to the point of awareness and not discomfort. Gradually, the range of motion of your joints will increase if stretching is done routinely.
The sit and reach test measures how far a person can reach beyond their toes while in a sitting position. This is a common objective measure of flexibility. A study published in the American Journal of Physiology in 2009 found that among people aged 40 and over, performance on the sit and reach test can be used to assess the flexibility of their arteries. Arterial stiffness is the earliest indicator of cardiovascular disease. As a result of this, poor performance on this simple test has been associated with an increased risk of early mortality from stroke or heart attack. This should further encourage the incorporation of flexibility training into your fitness program, especially if you are aged 40 or older.
The other definition of flexibility is the willingness to change or compromise. When I was preparing to write this blog post, I originally intended to write only about the concrete aspect of flexibility, but then I remembered the abstract definition of flexibility. I also recalled a quote about middle age, and thought it appropriate to include some reflections about it.
Many of us tend to be inflexible in our attitudes, thoughts and expectations. This can result in increased stress in our lives because, for the most part, we cannot change other people or control most of what happens in our lives. When we try to do this, we become frustrated, angry and bitter. We may become resentful and stressed out. The only thing we can definitely control is our reaction to what happens in our daily lives. By increasing our mental flexibility by being more willing to change or compromise, we set the stage to be happier, more loving people . This has a domino effect, in that we, in turn, will attract more loving, willing people and we will have happier, more positive interactions with them. Start to change your life today by counting to ten before you react to something, and don't forget to breathe.
Yours in health and wellness,