Can you touch your toes and do the splits? Relax your mind, loosen your muscles and improve your flexibility with these tips from Diana Timmins

Improve your flexibility - Women's Health and Fitness Magazine.

 

Would you bend over backwards for a more flexible body, or does the idea of doing the splits send shivers down your stiffened spine? Often the word flexibility conjures images of painful pretzel-like postures, but it extends far beyond the aesthetics.

Flexibility is a vital component of physical fitness as well as muscular endurance. It has long been known that flexibility is a major component in the preventative treatment of muscle and tendon strains, but a recent study by Japan's National Institute of Health & Nutrition suggests increased flexibility could also prevent or reverse stiffening of arteries. Arterial stiffness often precedes cardiovascular diseases, so it seems that by simple stretching you can potentially lengthen your lifespan at the same time as your limbs.

Flexibility comes with many other benefits, which Natasha Kusen, a dancer at The Australian Ballet, can vouch for.

"Having a dancer's type of enhanced flexibility has not only had its benefits physically in my career as a ballet dancer but also socially and mentally," she says.

"When your body is feeling strong and agile your sense of balance, coordination, reflexes, speed and stamina is also enhanced. Feeling physically healthy, strong and agile not only puts a skip in your step but prepares you to take on daily mental and physical challenges."

Stretch without strain

Part of a safe stretch program is setting the goal of enhancing joint mobility (flexibility) while maintaining joint stability (strength). Along with this, it is important to be mindful that flexibility is achieved in stages, as injuries are more likely to occur when the process is hurried.

Even the professionals take measures to ensure their stretch does not become a strain.

"At The Australian Ballet, even with our enhanced flexibility, we are strongly advised to gently mobilise our joints first before any sustained stretching," Kusen says. "This is important for keeping connective tissues nourished and avoids any tears and damage to our muscles."

Establishing an understanding of different types of stretch will also help you on your journey to suppleness:

Dynamic stretching: Postures using speed of movement, momentum and active muscular effort. Examples of this are walking lunges (without weights) and arm circles.

• Static stretching:Slow movements, with the end posture held for anywhere up to 30 seconds.

• Ballistic stretching:Similar to dynamic stretching but with a bouncing or jerking movement to increase the stretch. Extreme caution has to be taken when adopting ballistic stretches, as they tend to activate the stretch reflex, which can result in painful muscle tears.

Physiotherapist and director of Yoga Synergy, Simon Borg-Olivier, explains: "Muscles respond to sudden increase of length via contractions, which can cause tears, the abdomen to tighten, and increase heart rate. The stretch reflex says, 'I don't want to stretch' and tenses up."

Moving slowly into a stretch and making full use of the exhalation to relax, the muscles will help inhibit the stretch reflex and instead engage the reciprocal reflex.

"In this instance the stretched muscles automatically stress less, relax and suppress," Borg-Olivier says. "Reciprocal muscle groups always work in pairs. When one works in one direction, the other will release to allow that to happen."

Loosen up like a yogi

Even those who know little about yoga are aware that its physical component is largely based on increasing flexibility. Bikram yoga, and other forms of 'hot yoga', incorporate heat and humidity to further relax muscles into deeper postures, and are traditionally performed in a room set to a scorching 40 degrees and 40 per cent humidity.

Needless to say, this makes for a fairly sweaty stretch, but could potentially see you move into all sorts of contortions not even Gumby thought possible.

Yoga fundamentals play a role in the foundation of numerous other stretch programs, including the evolution of yogalates. You guessed it: yogalates is indeed an infusion of yoga and Pilates, founded by one of today's leaders in holistic health, Louise Solomon.

"Yogalates is a movement system that stretches and strengthens all major muscle groups, developing a streamlined slenderness rather than bulk," Solomon says. "In yogalates, we work with a physio resistance band that aids the stability of the joint while the muscle is being lengthened."

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