How flexible are you? If you’re past middle age, you’re less flexible than you were in your twenties or thirties. You may feel this lack of flexibility when you try to do an advanced yoga pose! Age takes a toll on flexibility for a variety of reasons, some of which is related to the aging process itself. That doesn’t mean you’ll relentlessly become stiffer and less flexible over time. Lifestyle matters too. People who sit in an office chair most of the day without taking breaks are less flexible and are more prone to neck and back pain.
Judging by the attendance in yoga classes, you might also assume that men are less flexible than women, as men tend to gravitate toward other athletic pursuits, like weight training. Is it because they lack flexibility or do they consider yoga a “woman’s thing” while they hang out in the weight room? Let’s see what science says.
What is Flexibility?
Flexibility refers to how far you can stretch or lengthen a muscle. A more flexible individual will be able to lengthen a muscle more than someone who lacks flexibility. Flexibility differs from joint mobility, a term that refers to how mobile a joint is. A person with good joint mobility can move a joint through its full range-of-motion, whereas someone with reduced joint mobility has some limitations in motion.
Being flexible sounds like a good thing, up to a point. However, you can be too flexible for your own good. Some people have a condition called Ehlers-Danlos, a syndrome where the composition of their connective tissue causes tendons to be too “lax.” In some cases, they can bend their hand all the back so that their fingers almost touch the arm behind them. People with this condition are, of course, flexible. But blood vessels are made up of connective tissue and, with Ehlers-Danlos, they’re too weak and flexible too. So, people with this condition develop ruptured blood vessels and other health problems that go along with their phenomenal flexibility. They can also experience joint dislocations and early onset arthritis. So, there’s a “sweet spot” for flexibility. Not too stretchable but not too stiff.
Gender and Flexibility
A variety of factors determine how flexible an individual is. The structure of a joint and the ligaments, tendons, and muscles are a big factor. As mentioned, age is a factor too. Flexibility declines with age. One study found that flexibility in the upper body falls by 0.5 degrees each year in males and 0.7 degrees yearly in females. It also found that hip flexion decreased by 0.6 degrees each year in men and 0.7 degrees in women. We seem to lose flexibility in trunk extension the fastest. After the age of 70, women continue to lose flexibility at a slow, controlled rate while it accelerates in males.
Other factors affect muscle flexibility too. Even body temperature plays a role in how flexible our muscles are on a given day. Warmer muscles are more pliable and stretchable. That’s why warming up before exercise is so important. We want our muscles to be warm and flexible before we start to move.
So, do women have an advantage in terms of flexibility? Females, on average, are more flexible than men. For one, men train in a way that can lead to shorter, tighter muscles. Guys are more likely to focus on heavy strength training without balancing it with training that lengthens the muscles, like yoga. Men tend to be bulkier as well, and bulkier muscles tend to be less pliable.
What about the hormonal differences between men and women? Men have over 10 times the testosterone relative to women. This means men often have bulkier muscles that are less flexible than the long, leaner muscles of women. Women have more estrogen. Higher levels of estrogen during the growth years leads to wider hips that allow greater mobility in the pelvic region.
Can Men Become More Flexible?
One way men and women improve flexibility is to stretch regularly. Although stretching only lengthens the muscle temporarily, the theory is that repeated stretching reduces the nervous system’s tendency to “clamp down” when a muscle elongates, so you progressively increase a muscle’s tolerance to stretch. However, stretching doesn’t change the structural characteristics of a muscle. One meta-analysis found that stretching regularly can boost the range-of-motion of a joint by around 8 degrees. However, the improvement lasts for only a day. That’s why it’s so important to stretch consistently.
One study found that women get more benefits from stretching than men. It found that women who passively stretched their calf muscles developed a heightened tolerance to stretch, meaning their muscles became more flexible. But men didn’t experience an increased stretch tolerance in response to passive stretching. So, women may get more benefits from passive stretching than men. In lieu of these results, the IDEA Health and Fitness Association recommends that men do less static stretching and more dynamic movements to improve flexibility and mobility.
The Bottom Line
Women have an advantage in the flexibility department. Females are naturally more flexible, and women seem to respond better to static stretching than men. But even women lose flexibility with age and the loss impacts day-to-day function by the age of 70. You don’t want to hit your seventh decade with a limited range-of-motion. Incorporating yoga into a workout routine can help improve flexibility but take it slow when you’re first starting out! Trying to bend your body into a pretzel too early is a recipe for soreness or injury. With so many styles of yoga, there’s one that will work for you. Whatever you do, keep moving your body! It’s the most important way to preserve your physical function as you age.
· J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Oct;24(10):2618-26. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181e73974.
· J Aging Res. 2013; 2013: 743843. Published online 2013 Jun 19. doi: 10.1155/2013/743843.
· The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 24(10):2618-26 . October 2010.
· IDEA Health and Fitness Association. “Flexibility Differences Among Men and Women”
· ACE Fitness. “Does Yoga Really Do the Body Good?”
· WebMD.com. “Yoga”
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