Select the Best Exercise
Yoga, pilates, tai chi and stretching are all recommended for improving flexibility by the NHS. While pilates and yoga concentrate on building strength and flexibility, yoga is generally regarded as having a deeper focus on increasing the range of joint motion. “Within the physical movements, there are lots of opportunities to elongate the muscles,” says Chris Magee, head of yoga at Psycle London. Tai chi loosens muscles and stretches the whole body. It is especially useful for people with limited mobility, recovering from injury or balance problems as it can be adapted to suit a range of abilities.
Make Sure You Get Enough Protein
There are no direct links between diet and improved flexibility, says Claire Fudge, clinical dietician and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association, but including good-quality protein post-exercise, as part of a balanced diet, is a good move. When collagen, which is made from the building blocks of protein, is combined with vitamin C, it may help to decrease joint pain, supporting tendons and aiding recovery, says Fudge. “While it won’t be a wonder cure for making someone more flexible, it may help reduce muscle soreness after exercise.”
Hold Stretches for Long Enough
Stretching is crucial, but not doing it for long enough is a common mistake, says Dr Tony Kay, professor of biomechanics at the University of Northampton. “Most people only hold a stretch for five to 10 seconds, but if you want to affect the stiffness of the tissues, it needs to be for quite a bit longer.” Dr Polly McGuigan, a senior lecturer in biomechanics at the University of Bath, agrees, explaining that there are differing opinions on the duration of a static stretch, but she recommends around 30 seconds.
“Flexibility is not something you can change quickly,” says McGuigan. “It takes time and a concerted effort with a static stretching programme.” How flexible you need to be depends on your lifestyle. Generally, for day-to-day activities, repeated essential tasks, such as bending down to put on socks, is enough. In a sporting environment, it depends on the type of exercise, says Kay. Tennis, squash, running, gymnastics and martial arts are among the sports in which an increased range of motion helps to reduce the risk of injury.
Take a Warm Bath
While a warm bath or shower may have more of a psychological benefit, McGuigan believes it is worth a try. “One of the things that you have to overcome in stretching and increasing flexibility is the muscle’s natural protective response. So if you can relax the muscles via a warm shower or bath, you could potentially get more out of your stretches because you are starting with nice, warm, relaxed muscles.”
Amy Sedghi is a freelance writer and former data journalist at the Guardian.