Strength isn’t the only thing we lose with age; our muscles become less flexible too. Research shows flexibility declines by about 5% during each decade of life. How flexible are you? One way to measure flexibility, particularly hamstring and lower back, is the “sit and reach” test. You can even do this test at home.
Test Your Flexibility at Home
For the sit and reach test, you need a box about 12 inches in height, a meter stick and someone to help you. Place the meter stick so the 26-centimeter mark on the stick is even with the front edge of the box and the zero end points towards you. Tape the stick in place. Do a 10-minute warm-up to increase the temperature of your muscles and tendons. Then sit with your legs extended in front of you so your feet touch the box and your legs are straight. Place one hand on top of the other and reach forward in this position and touch the meter stick at the most distant point you can without bending your knees. Do this three times and record your reach each time. Then average the values.
How’d you do? If your reach was 37 centimeters or more, you have excellent flexibility. Between 33 and 36 centimeters, your flexibility is above average. If you averaged between 29 and 32 centimeters, you’re about average, whereas a reach of 23 to 28 centimeters is below average. If it was less than 23 centimeters, you really need to work on your flexibility.
Flexibility begins to decrease early in life, around the age of 12 and continues to decline over time. You can preserve much of your flexibility as you age by spending as little as ten minutes a few times a week stretching. The type of stretching you do matters. Most people don’t stretch properly.
Why Flexibility is So Important
Simply staying active helps with flexibility. If you sit for long periods of time, your muscles, tendons, and ligaments shorten and become tighter. Tight muscles and tendons increase your risk for back pain and adversely affect posture. Most people take flexibility for granted until they lose it. Think about it. You need a certain degree of flexibility to turn your head to look over your shoulder and to bend down to pick something up off of the floor. Older people who aren’t active lose the ability to do the everyday movements most of us take for granted. Tight, inflexible hip flexors make even simple activities like walking uncomfortable.
The Drawbacks of Not Being Flexible
If you play sports or do any type of fitness training, having flexible joints and muscles could help your performance. Being flexible can, according to some but not all studies, reduce the risk for sports and fitness-related injuries, at least up to a point. One study on military recruits showed both the least flexible and most flexible men had a higher risk for injury. Too much flexibility increases the risk for certain types of sports-related injury like dislocations whereas lack of flexibility increases the risk for muscle strains. This suggests there’s a “happy medium” in terms of flexibility. As we age, lack of flexibility becomes a greater problem than being too flexible.
What Factors Determine How Flexible You Are?
How flexible your muscles and joints are is partially determined by genetics and the way your joints are constructed. Ballerinas and gymnasts have greater flexibility than the average person, at least partially due to genetics. Age and gender are other factors that influence flexibility. Women are more flexible on average than men and maintain this advantage with age. On the other hand, an active man will likely be more flexible than an inactive woman.
Body composition is another factor that affects flexibility. If you have more body fat around a joint, it interferes with the joint’s range of motion. Maintaining a healthy body fat percentage and staying active are two things you can do to keep your joints nimble as you age.
The Importance of a Warm-Up and the Role Stretching Plays in Flexibility
Warming up prior to more intense exercise increases the temperature of the muscles you’ll be working. Warm muscles are more flexible than cold ones. What about stretching?
There are two main types of stretches – static and dynamic stretching. Static stretching involves lengthening a muscle and holding it for 20 to 30 seconds. When you stretch a muscle, it reflexively tightens. Holding a static stretch overrides this reflex, giving the joint a greater range of motion. Dynamic stretches consist of fluid movements that work the muscle and joint over its entire range of motion. Examples are hip rotations, knee raises and arm swings. The key is to keep things fluid, not static.
What about timing? The best time for static stretching is after a workout. Static stretches decrease strength and power and can reduce exercise performance when you do them before a workout. Dynamic stretching as part of a general warm-up won’t reduce power and strength because you’re not holding the stretch. Stick with dynamic stretching prior to a workout and save the static stretches for afterward.
. Only stretch your muscles when your muscles are warm. The best time is after your cardio workout. Don’t do static stretches before a workout. Do them once you’ve finished.
. You only need 10 minutes of stretching a few days a week to get the benefits. Don’t overdo it.
. If you work a desk job, get up and move around every 20 to 30 minutes, and do stretches at your desk.
Add Yoga to Your Fitness Routine
Yoga is good for stretching tight muscles while reducing stress. Add a weekly session of yoga to your workout to create balance. After a high-intensity session, use yoga to help your body recover.
The Bottom Line?
Stretching to maintain flexibility becomes more important as we age. Simply staying active helps preserve flexibility but you’ll get even more benefits if you add stretching and yoga exercises to your routine, like yoga, and do a few minutes of stretching after a workout once your muscles are warm. Save the static stretches for after your workout to avoid limiting your performance.
About.com. “How to Perform the Sit and Reach Test”
IDEA Fitness. “Does Stretching Reduce Injury Risk?” (2004)
EFDeportes.com. “Relationship Between Flexibility and Sports Injuries”
Clinical J of Sports Med 2004; 14(5):267-273.
J Athl Train. 2005 Apr-Jun; 40(2): 94-103.
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