I CAN’T touch my toes. I can’t straighten my arms above the head. My body is just too stiff so I can’t do yoga.
How often have you come across these statements?
It always perplexes me that so many people think you need to be flexible to do yoga, but has it occurred to you that flexibility is built from doing yoga? Or from doing simple stretches daily?
Flexibility or limberness refers to the range of motion possible at a given joint or series of joints.
Some sports and professions demand extreme flexibility and these include gymnastics, synchronised swimming and dance, so these artists spend a considerable amount of time stretching in an effort to increase their range of motion.
Flexibility is not only desired to achieve the required aesthetics, but is important to injury prevention… to a certain degree.
To build fitness, what we need is a balance between endurance, strength and flexibility, but most gym-goers, especially men, pay little attention to stretching after a workout.
Some studies suggest that as flexibility is developed, a comparable amount of strength should be developed to support the joints, which becomes less stable as flexibility increases.
Similarly, adequate flexibility is seen as a protective factor, whereas excessive flexibility may actually make an individual more prone to injury.
But can everyone be super pliable?
Flexibility is joint-specific i.e. some joints are simply more flexible than others.
If you’ve been trying for years to get that perfect side split or get your head between your knees and have failed, chances are you may never achieve your goal.
Don’t despair. It’s not your fault as we all have limits on flexibility, which are influenced by active and passive factors.
Active factors include voluntary (conscious) and reflex input, which can activate or contract (tighten) a muscle.
Passive factors do not involve activation of the muscle being stretched, i.e. it is influenced by the body’s architecture or structure.
A particular joint will determine in how many different directions or planes movement can occur.
Other passive factors include ligaments, tendons, the joint capsule, the quantity and texture of connective tissue within the muscle, fat deposition, and skin thickness and tightness.
Take the shoulder and hip joint, for example. Both have the same type of joint (ball and socket), but there is less flexibility at the hip joint due to the greater limitations imposed by the strong ligaments, restrictive capsule and the arrangement of numerous muscles that cross this joint.
Some passive factors can be changed when one is young (ideally before 12 years of age), and although the fundamental type of joint cannot be altered, genetics plays a role and changes can occur.
Never too late
But, if you aspire to start gymnastics or acrobatic training in your 40s, it’s best you see a shrink.
That’s what my editor suggested when I voiced my intention to sign up for a two-week trapeze training stint with a circus group.
Hey, my 30-odd years of dance training should come in handy, I argued.
Besides, I’ve tried the trapeze before and can do some pretty cool tricks, and I like the liberating feeling of swinging and flying high!
He wasn’t amused.
A part of me is still harbouring that unrealised dream, although as I get older, the thought of sustaining injuries and having another body part in a cast sounds less and less appealing.
Actually, I was inspired by a retired medical doctor I had interviewed almost a decade ago.
Then 68, he took an interest in pole dancing and was aghast to discover the instructor wouldn’t let him go up the pole due to his age.
Not only did he fight his way through, he also proved her wrong and managed to climb and swivel down, albeit, in his words, “unmajestically”.
“Age is just a number. If the body is willing, why not?” he told me.
Now at 77, and despite several stents inserted in his heart, he continues to do amazing things.
So, even if you’re middle-aged or a septuagenarian, it’s never too late to start working on your flexibility.
It may take you longer to get there, but you’ll still see results.
Stretch it out
More importantly, stretch when your muscles are warm as not only does this decrease muscle soreness, it also improves your degree of flexibility than if you stretch cold muscles.
Avoid bouncing or ballistic stretching where momentum is used dynamically to stretch a muscle group.
The concern with this technique is that the quick stretch enhances active reflex factors, causing a protective reflex contraction of the muscle.
Persistent stretching of this tightening muscle can produce muscle tears.
To see improvement, all you need is to stretch 15 to 20 minutes a day, at least five times a week.
Hold each stretch for about 20 to 30 seconds at a level of low discomfort (not pain), and watch how your body transforms and becomes more flexible.
Revathi Murugappan is a certified fitness trainer who tries to battle gravity and continues to dance to express herself artistically and nourish her soul.