Can you do a full split, or even a half one? Can you touch your toes without bending your legs? With your forehead pressed firmly to your knees?
I don’t mean to flexi-shame you, I really don’t. In a world filled with Covid-anxiety, it’s hard enough to keep sight of one’s regular fitness goals and muster up the motivation to exercise with any semblance of regularity, let alone throw one more goal into the mix. And yet, now is the best time to factor in flexibility into your fitness plan.
The endless hours many of us spend in often-awkward positions – whether working from home or from an office desk – creates a lot of tension on unstretched muscles. Think about those little creaks of the joints when you move suddenly or in a way you wouldn't normally, or even when you wake up in the morning. Or the sudden tightness or soreness in the shoulders, neck or lower back when you reach out to grab something from a shelf high above. Or the way your hamstrings and calves feel when you bend over to pick up something from the floor, like rubber bands that are about to snap. These are some of the telltale signs of inflexibility.
Nidhi Agarwal, a physiotherapist and co-founder of Health Seasons, calls flexibility the oft-ignored stepchild of the fitness world.
“In the rush to lose weight, sculpt the body and build muscles, flexibility often falls by the wayside. It’s a shame because we’re born flexible and it really doesn’t take that much to stay in a state of relative flexibility. Inflexibility and how it negatively impacts the quality of our lives is not immediately visible in the way being overweight or untoned is, which is why most of us tend to not pay attention to it.”
Benefits of being flexible
The benefits of flexibility are manifold. For starters, it makes daily living a lot easier. “When your muscles and joints enjoy the full and free range of movement that nature intended, you will have better muscular co-ordination, blood circulation, and posture,” Agarwal explains.
"You will feel more energetic, mobile, and balanced; be a lot more protected from injuries; and suffer far fewer incidents of lower back pain, which is well on its way to becoming a global health crisis," she adds.
According to a series of papers in medical journal The Lancet, 540 million people – or more than 1 in every 10 people – across the world suffer from lower back pain. According to a Global Burden of Disease study, the prevalence of years lived with disability due to lower back pain shot up by 53 per cent between 1990 and 2017.
While not all LBP can be attributed to issues caused by inflexibility, experts believe that sedentary lifestyles coupled with poor muscular health have compounded the issue. Flexibility, on its own, is still a largely under-researched area of fitness.
Power of stretching
Agarwal emphasises the importance of stretching in order to build flexibility, saying that the ideal flow for any workout is a warm-up followed by the workout followed by a series of stretches.
“Never stretch cold muscles. Even if you’re not working out, make sure you warm up for five to 10 minutes before stretching,” she says. “Muscles need some time to lengthen and loosen. So don’t stretch and drop, but hold your position for 45 to 60 seconds.”
Pain management and an awareness of your abilities and limits are also essential. Those who don't stretch regularly tend to have short and brittle muscles. "These might tear if stretched beyond their limit suddenly, so don't go from 0 to 100 in a day – you need to build up to a wider range of movement," says Agarwal.
“Don’t overdo one group of muscles while ignoring others; rather, break up your stretches into five-minute chunks for all muscle groups.
“Remember, flexibility is a spectrum. You don’t have to twist your body into a pretzel the way your favourite Insta influencer does. Your starting goal is to be flexible enough to not feel pain and soreness in your muscles as you go about your life.”
Finally, she says, while pain is not OK, tension is. “Stretching should make your muscles feel tension and pull, which is normal. But if it hurts, you’ve gone too far and need to pull back until it stops hurting. While stretching is easy and can be done practically anywhere – in bed, at your desk, or while watching TV – consult a doctor if you have a persistent pain or injury.”
Bollywood fitness expert and author of Balance, Deanne Panday is a staunch advocate of fitness regimens that incorporate strength training, such as lifting weights, combined with yoga.
“I’ve seen this over and over again in my 25 years of training – you need both. Just lifting weights without yoga is a recipe for disaster. You will have strong muscles that are prone to injury because they are tight, and filled with tension and knots.”
Nutrition, too, can play a significant part in helping you reach your flexibility goals. Clinical nutritionist Stephanie Karl, from Up and Running Sports Medicine Centre, recommends a diet rich in vitamins C and D, good quality protein, calcium, magnesium, and a healthy intake of foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
"Vitamin C is important for the health of the joints, while protein is essential for the repair of muscles. Calcium, vitamin D and magnesium are all major players when it comes to the health of the bones and skeleton. And finally, omega-3 fatty, present in foods such as flaxseeds, walnuts and chia, are necessary for muscle and cartilage health," Karl explains.
Yoga postures for flexibility
Here are three asanas recommended by Panday:
For the spine: Your spine is supposed to bend backwards, but most of us just bend towards the front. So the cat-cow pose is good for beginners to loosen the spine. Get on your fours so that your knees are in line with the hips and hands in line with the shoulders. Look up as you arch your spine like a cow and inhale, then exhale when you crouch like a cat, lightly digging your hands and knees into your yoga mat. Repeat 10 times.
For the hips: Women tend to store their stress in the hips, so hip openers are especially important for them. The low lunge is a wonderful asana to open up the hips as well as lengthen the spine. Kneel firmly on the floor, then bend one knee gently and place your foot flat in front of you. Arch your spine, neck, and crown upwards. Lift your arms and stretch, clasping your palms high over your head. If you're doing it right, you should feel tension in the hip that is forward. Switch sides and repeat after holding the pose for 30 to 45 seconds.
For the neck & shoulders: Sit in a comfortable position, preferably cross-legged on a yoga mat. Start with pushing your chin against your chest to lengthen the spine. Now roll your shoulders and tilt your head so the ear can touch the shoulder. You can also gently press your head so the ear can meet or come close to the shoulder. Use your other hand to push the other shoulder in the opposite direction. Hold the pose for about 30 seconds. Repeat on either side.