Getting regular physical activity is important for overall metabolic health. Whether your goal is to build muscle, improve cardiovascular health, or lose weight, there are so many ways to get moving.
Activities like weight training, hiking, tennis, or cycling may be what comes to mind when you think of exercise. But there are other ways to move your body that don’t even require leaving your house.
One of those activities is flexibility training. There are lots of ways to improve your flexibility, and doing so has a surprising host of health benefits.
Read on to learn what flexibility training is and how increasing your flexibility can improve different areas of your health.
What is Flexibility Training?
Flexibility training is a type of exercise that increases the range of motion of a certain group of muscles or joints. Increasing your flexibility isn’t necessarily a standalone type of exercise. It can be incorporated into different types of workouts in a variety of ways.
Flexibility training is considered a low intensity exercise. If you’ve ever done yoga or pilates, you may have already gotten a taste of this activity.
This type of training takes stretching further by encouraging you to focus on the mind and muscle connection, and perform specific movements that can have a variety of benefits, including improving your range of motion.
Other activities such as warm ups and cool downs before or after a workout can improve flexibility in the form of stretching. However, these types of stretches may be more beneficial in reducing your risk of injury or soreness.
Types of Stretching
There are a number of different types of stretching that can be used to improve flexibility. The main categories are active or static stretching, passive stretching, dynamic stretching, and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretching.
Static stretching involves holding a muscle stretch for a period of time (15 to 30 seconds), and is one of the most common forms of stretching. Some common static stretches include the hamstring stretch, hip flexor stretch, or calf stretch.
Dynamic stretches are movement-based and use a full range of motion to release stiffness without holding the stretch before a workout or activity. Dynamic stretches include lunging with a twist and high kicks.
These stretches are often used as a warm up in sports such as running. In fact, some research has demonstrated an improvement in endurance among runners who incorporate dynamic stretching into their routine.
Passive stretches usually require some sort of equipment, such as a band or rope to intensify a stretch. These stretches are typically held for a longer period in order to fully release the muscle.
PNF stretching is used to increase range of motion and overall flexibility by stretching and contracting the muscle being stretched. This type of stretch is usually held between three to ten seconds and can also be beneficial after a workout.
The partner quad and partner calf stretch are just two examples of some common PNF stretches. These stretches, along with dynamic stretching routines, have also been found to be beneficial in sports such as running.
The Health Benefits of Being Flexible
Here are seven benefits that increased flexibility and regular stretching can have on your health.
1) Increases Physical Activity
Like cardio or weight training, flexibility training is a type of exercise. Even though it is a low impact workout, it still contributes to your daily physical activity.Being more active throughout the day can contribute to more calories burned, helping with overall weight loss. Exercise can also improve your mental health and boost your mood.
Because flexibility training requires focus on the mind and muscle connection, it can feel meditative and help to increase mindfulness and even reduce stress and anxiety. You can even incorporate flexibility training into other workouts, such as resistance training, yoga, or as a post-workout to cool down.
2) Reduces Chance of Muscle Imbalance
Low flexibility can be an important factor in muscle imbalances. In a study conducted on a group of elite fencing athletes, for example, a training plan with active and passive stretching exercises was found to improve imbalances in their lower limbs.
Lower body flexibility is required to perform certain movements in fencing and other sports. A training plan that incorporates focused stretching may be one way to increase flexibility and improve range of motion in areas that are tighter.
Other research suggests that when done with enough tension, stretching can potentially even elicit muscle hypertrophy in some individuals, though more research is needed to confirm this link.
If there‘s a specific area you find yourself noticing imbalances in, you may want to try some of the stretching exercises we mentioned earlier to loosen up that muscle group.
3) Can Help Regulate Blood Sugar Levels
Exercise has long been observed to help improve metabolic health and support healthier glucose levels, and using a CGM for fitness can be a helpful tool to gauge this. What you might be surprised to know, however, is that stretching for 20 minutes a day may also help regulate glucose response in some individuals.
A small study in people with type 2 diabetes found that daily passive stretching led to lower blood glucose levels. Though the study conducted was small, it showed promising results for helping to control postprandial blood sugar spikes in this group.
More research may be needed to determine if daily stretching can support normal blood sugar levels in groups without diabetes.
4) Can Improve Back Pain
Certain static stretches have been found to improve lower back pain in some individuals. One study found that regular stretching using a load on the tensor fascia lata muscle was linked to improved back pain symptoms.
Another small study observed that increasing an individual’s range of motion through lumbar flexibility exercises was found to reduce back pain. More research may be needed to confirm the effectiveness of this treatment over time however.
While these studies do have limitations due to their size, these results indicate that there may be a benefit to regular static stretching for pain reduction. If you’re someone who experiences back pain, you may want to consider implementing a stretching routine.
5) Supports Healthy Posture and Balance
Flexibility training and stretching may also help improve poor posture. A study conducted on older, inactive individuals found that participating in a flexibility training program improved posture and quality of movement in those who were studied.
In another study, students with poor posture and musculoskeletal pain were found to have improved symptoms of pain after following an exercise program that included stretching and flexibility exercises. These subjects also saw improvements to their posture.
Some research has also shown that regularly practicing yoga to improve flexibility can also lead to better overall balance. In older individuals, improved flexibility and range of motion has also been linked to better balance and less risk of falling.
If poor balance and posture is something you struggle with, working with a personal trainer or physical therapist to create an individualized stretching and flexibility training plan may be beneficial.
6) Can Help with Soreness and Tight Muscles
Tight muscles can create discomfort and cause pain, and are also linked to soreness. Luckily, the benefits of flexibility training can be seen in every muscle group.
While the research for stretching and improved soreness is sometimes debated, some studies have shown small, but statistically significant evidence indicating that stretching may help to reduce soreness.
7) Can Improve Athletic Performance
The link between increased athletic performance and stretching is sometimes debated by researchers. However, for activities such as yoga and pilates, stretching and improving balance through flexibility exercises has been found to lead to better performance.
Stretching regularly may also be beneficial for injury prevention. One study even found that flexibility and range of motion could be beneficial in predicting which sprinters could be at higher risk for sustaining hamstring injuries.
As we discussed earlier, research has also shown that including dynamic stretches in a warm up routine can improve running economy in endurance runners. It’s important to note, however, that in activities such as weight lifting, pre-workout static stretching may actually hinder performance by temporarily reducing muscle strength.
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Heather has worked in healthcare and nutrition for over 15 years, with bachelor's degrees in Microbiology and Philosophy and a master's degree in Nutrition Science. Her professional background includes nutrition and diabetes research, nutrition education, medical writing, and extensive clinical work in a functional neuroendocrine specialty practice.