Dear Mayo Clinic: Is it possible to increase my flexibility? I am 39 and have never been flexible, despite working out regularly. But I feel like it’s getting harder and harder to fully stretch, and I wake up feeling much older than I am. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.
Answer: Yes, it is possible to increase flexibility, no matter what age you are. Stretching on a regular basis can help improve your flexibility. It also has a number of other health benefits. Better flexibility can lower your risk of injury. It can help your muscles function their best by allowing your joints to move through their full range of motion. Being more flexible also can make it easier to do physical activities. As you work toward improved flexibility, make sure you’re following safe stretching techniques.
1. After, not before: Keep in mind that stretching should not be used as a warm-up before physical activity. You may hurt yourself if you stretch “cold” muscles that have not been warmed up. Before you stretch, do some light activity such as walking, jogging or biking at low intensity for five to 10 minutes.
The best time to stretch is after you’re finished with your entire exercise routine, during your cool-down period, when blood flow to your muscles has already warmed up the tissues.
2. Push, don’t strain: For your stretching to be effective, you should feel some tension while you stretch, but not pain. If it hurts, you’ve pushed too far. Back off to the point where you don’t feel pain. Hold a stretch for at least 30 seconds. In problem areas, hold the stretch for up to 60 seconds. Many people do not hold stretches long enough, so use a watch to time yourself as you stretch.
3. Stay still: Static stretching, where you hold a stretch in place, is helpful for enhancing the range of motion around a joint and correcting differences in flexibility from side to side. For an overview of some useful static stretches, visit www.mayoclinic.org and watch the slide show, “A guide to 10 basic stretches.”
Static stretching may not be beneficial before intense ballistic activity, such as sprinting or track and field activities. Some research suggests that static stretching before these types of events may actually hurt athletic performance.
4. Get dynamic: In addition to static stretching, you also can try dynamic stretching. Basically, these stretches involve moving in patterns similar to the activity you’ll be participating in at slow speed and at low intensity first. After that, you progress gradually to the speed you will use during the activity. This allows your muscles to get used to a specific movement and lowers your risk for injury.
5. Honor differences: As you work on your flexibility, remember that everyone’s genetic set point for flexibility is different. So don’t feel bad if you don’t have the flexibility of a ballerina or gymnast. More important is symmetry, or equal flexibility from side to side. If one hamstring is tighter than the other, for example, that may put you at risk for injury over time.
Stretching does not need to be time-consuming. It often does not take more than five to 10 minutes after a workout. You’ll achieve the best results by stretching regularly, at least two to three times a week. If you don’t stretch on a regular basis, you risk losing the benefits that stretching offers. For instance, if stretching helped you increase your range of motion, and you stop stretching, your range of motion may go back to where it was before.
Dr. Edward Laskowski works at the Sports Medicine Center at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.