If the idea of touching your toes feels impossible, you may be wondering how to improve your flexibility. Being flexible and having a good range of motion is important, yet an often overlooked element of fitness.
Improving your flexibility can have a range of physical benefits, with the American Council on Exercise reporting that flexibility training can allow greater freedom of movement and improved posture, increase physical and mental relaxation, help to release muscle tension, and reduce the risk of injury.
There are many ways to improve flexibility, from stretches you can do at home, to more structured workouts such as a yoga or Pilates class. All you need to get started is a yoga mat, an open mind and realistic expectations. You might not be able to touch your nose to your toes within a week, but with regular practice, you should be able to see an improvement in your flexibility.
How to improve your flexibility: Where to begin
Popular activities to improve your flexibility include stretching, yoga and Pilates. These can all be practiced at home, but most practitioners will recommend that you attend at least one taught class to make sure you are using the correct form. This will help you avoid injury.
If you have a chronic condition or injury, you might need to adjust your exercise routine. Talk to your doctor about the most appropriate way to exercise if you have any health concerns.
How to improve your flexibility: Stretching
There are two main types of stretches: static stretches and dynamic (movement-based) stretches. Static stretches are those where you stand, sit or lie still and hold a single position for a short period of time. Dynamic stretches are controlled movements that prepare your muscles, ligaments and other soft tissues for activity.
Personal trainer Christopher Anderson told Live Science that movement-based stretches are a great pre-workout warm-up. "Dynamic stretching helps to raise your body temperature, improve joint flexibility and increase muscle elasticity, preparing the body for the activity to come," he said.
Many people use static stretches as a "cool-down" after working out. For a general fitness program, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends static stretching for most individuals at least two to three days per week. Each stretch should be held 15-30 seconds and repeated two to four times.
Flexibility training should be performed after the muscles of the body have been properly warmed up to allow effective stretching to take place. For some ideas on where to get started, don't miss 10 stretches to do every day.
How to improve your flexibility: Yoga
Yoga is an ancient form of exercise that aims to improve strength and flexibility through a series of moves that typically involve physical postures (asanas), breathing techniques and meditation. According to the Yoga in America survey, as of 2016, approximately 36.7 million people were practicing yoga in the U.S, up from 20.4 million in 2012. And the most popular reason given for starting a yoga practice? Flexibility.
It's a commonly held belief that you must be flexible to do yoga. In fact, it's quite the opposite: Doing yoga regularly is a great way to improve your flexibility. Yoga and breathwork teacher Geraldine Joaquim believes yoga is for anyone and with each practice, your flexibility can change. "You work with the body you’re in today, as your strength, flexibility, energy will be different on different days," Joaquim said. "It's not about getting into the deepest expression of each pose, but just gently moving your body without over-stretching."
Results of a randomized control trial, published in The Journals of Gerontology showed that an eight-week course of Hatha yoga was just as effective as conventional stretching and strengthening exercises in improving flexibility in middle-age and older adults. The researchers noted: "The gentle and modifiable nature of practically all Hatha yoga postures promises to be a well-received, safe, and enjoyable exercise that is easy to adopt and maintain."
How to improve your flexibility: Pilates
Pilates is a series of repetitive, low-impact exercises, commonly performed on a mat to promote flexibility, stability and strength. It's suitable for all ages and fitness levels. Many people think Pilates is just about improving core strength, but there are moves to help to improve flexibility from head to toe.
Integrated movement specialist Stacy Weeks told Live Science: "Pilates works the whole body through all planes of movement which helps to 'unkink' the body, which is why people feel they walk out taller from a good Pilates class."
A 2018 study published in the Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation found that participants who practiced Pilates for one hour, three times a week for eight weeks improved their scores on a functional movement test, which measures things like balance, stability and mobility, more than people who did yoga, or a control group who didn't exercise at all.
If three hours of Pilates a week sounds daunting, don't worry. Pilates expert Beverley Densham told Live Science that six minutes of Pilates every morning before breakfast can be beneficial, once you have worked with an instructor to ensure you are doing the moves correctly.
Does your diet affect flexibility?
There is no direct correlation between diet and improved flexibility, but certain foods may aid recovery after exercise and help you to avoid stiffness which can affect flexibility.
Research in the Journal of Biomedicines suggests that people who follow a Mediterranean diet with a high intake of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, fish and healthy oils may have a reduced risk for inflammation and chronic disease. In addition, antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids found in some foods appear to possess anti-inflammatory effects.
According to a study published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, the fatty acids in fish oil have been found to reduce the duration of morning joint stiffness and decrease the number of swollen or tender joints. It's always advised to consult your doctor before making any significant changes to your diet.