Chapter 5 – Flexibility
Regular stretching provides many benefits, the most important of which is simple: flexibility provides freedom of movement and the ability to complete activities with greater ease.
Healthy Joints and Pain Management
As many as 26 percent of all adults report pain and stiffness in joints. That number increases dramatically with age, and women are more likely to develop joint symptoms.2 For adults, arthritis is one of the most common conditions, with 54% of people 75 years and older having been diagnosed with arthritis.3 Regular exercise, including regular stretching, is essential for people with arthritis to maintain function and manage joint pain. Even for those not affected by joint conditions, stretching increases joint mobility and function, and decreases joint stiffness and pain.
Imbalances in the muscles can cause discomfort and pain. For example, if the front of a person’s thighs and hips gets too tight from a lack of flexibility, the tension will pull on the hips, where the muscles are attached. The result is the pelvis may be pulled forward and cause greater sway in your lower back. This affects posture and can eventually lead to pain and stiffness in the neck, shoulders, and lower back. Stretching all major muscle groups and joint areas regularly promotes good alignment and balance.
Muscle Relaxation and Stress Relief
Staying in one position for long periods of time, repetitive movements, and other everyday stressors can result in stiff muscles and knots, also called trigger points. Regular stretching decreases anxiety, blood pressure, and breathing rate, which help to relax muscles and aches and pains related to neuromuscular tension (stress). Flexibility has also been prescribed successfully to treat dysmenorrhea, which is painful menstruation. It also relieves muscle cramps that can occur during exercise or participation in sports.
In addition to the benefits listed above, research has documented additional benefits that provide good reasons for maintaining a routine of stretching:
- Increased blood flow: Blood carries vital nutrients and oxygen to muscles and tissues. Stretching increases blood flow to the muscles being stretched, which helps them recover from exercise faster.4
- Reduced risk of developing future lower back pain: Although research is still inconclusive, most experts agree that muscle fitness and stretching exercises reduce the risk of developing lower back pain by counteracting the natural loss in muscle and connective tissue elasticity that occurs with aging.
Flexibility and Aging
For many college students, maintaining long- term flexibility is not a concern. For young adults, bending over to tie their shoes is painless. Walking around campus with a backpack requires minimal effort. However, ROM declines with age. Simple activities like rotating the head and neck to glance over the shoulders, getting in and out of a vehicle, or carrying groceries can become painful. Therefore, flexibility is critical in maintaining a high quality of life throughout the aging process.
The Inactivity-Mobility Cycle
Anyone who has suffered an injury and had to wear a splint, cast, or brace to immobilize a joint knows how important mobility is to overall health. Unfortunately, when the joints’ ROM becomes restricted by arthritis or other injuries, activity declines. As activity declines, the ROM continues to diminish as a result of inactivity, and a vicious cycle ensues. A simple stretching program can help alleviate this problem and break the cycle.