Flexibility a key component of staying fit
Don't forget to improve your flexibility as you work on fitness.
Special to the Seattle Times
Cardio is great for the heart, strength training is great for the muscles, and both are amazing for burning calories, but there is one more part to the fitness equation many people overlook: flexibility.
Improving flexibility, or the range of motion of a joint, is important for proper muscle balance, and alignment and to prevent injury.
Flexibility improves with consistent stretching of the muscles, tendons and ligaments of the body. The more flexible the connective tissue around a joint, the more range of motion (ROM) the joint has.
For example, if the hamstrings are tight, one may not be able to reach their toes. For someone with more flexible hamstrings, touching their toes, and maybe even the floor, can be done with ease.
ROM differs for everyone, depending on the balance of the muscular system, which can be affected by over- and under-use of some muscles or from previous injury. The goal is to achieve muscle balance around the joint, or have the muscles on each side of each joint the same in strength and flexibility.
When you exercise, you tear muscle fibers, which then heal back together tighter and stronger — this is where strength improves. Because of this, however, without proper stretching, the tightness of these muscles can cause ROM to suffer. Despite popular belief, stretching does not prevent or cure muscle soreness, but it does help to loosen up the body, allowing it to move and respond more freely, and safely, to movement.
Consistent stretching will ensure that those muscle fibers rebuild in a more balanced fashion around the joint and work out any tightness it may already have.
Tight muscles are prone to pulls and tears as they can't give and bend to different movements of the body. Muscles are like taffy; warm taffy stretches and cold taffy snaps.
A stretchy and springy joint is less likely to suffer permanent damage in the event of a twisted ankle or knee, unsafe movement with the back or a quick motion using the whole body.
To improve flexibility, stretching should be done daily. According to the American Council on Exercise, a stretch should be held for a minimum of 30 seconds to increase flexibility.
Stretch only after the muscles are warm, either after 5-10 minutes of warming up with light movement or at the end of the workout. Be sure to stretch all the major muscle groups, especially the notoriously tight hamstrings, hip flexors, chest and quad muscles. If static stretching isn't your thing, yoga can be a great way to get a full body stretch while strengthening your muscles.
Muscle strength is important, but so is the flexibility of those muscles, so make time to stretch everyday. Not only does it feel amazing, but you may be surprised how differently your body moves and adapts to your workouts.