If I were to ask you to define what it means to be physically fit, you probably would say something about having strong muscles, a healthy heart, and little body fat. But would you know that flexibility is also a key component of physical fitness?
Being flexible means that you can move your body through its entire range of motion comfortably. You can reach high over your head, lift your knees high, lift your leg out to the side, and bend down to pick something up from the floor.
Our level of flexibility can start to decline as early as in our 20s. It’s important to maintain our range of motion because it allows us to do everyday activities like bending, lifting, reaching and walking without pain. Muscles and joints that are stiff, tense and immobile can create changes in our posture that make us more prone to falling down. Being more flexible can also help us to perform better in sports and in our daily workout by allowing us to reach farther, lift more, and go longer distances.
You can improve your flexibility by incorporating some basic stretching exercises into your daily routine. A calf stretch is a good place to start because many people walk for exercise and calf muscles can tighten with walking. To stretch the calf muscle, stand facing a wall, arms length away with your feet hip-width apart and toes facing forward. Place your hands on the wall slightly higher than your shoulders. Pull in your abdominal muscles. Step back with your right leg into a split-stance position, keeping both feet flat on the floor and toes pointing forward.
Begin slowly moving your body toward the wall. Allow the elbows and the left (front) knee to bend. Keep your back straight. Continue to bend the left (front) knee while keeping the back leg straight. Push the right (back) heel into the floor with toes pointed forward. Increase the stretch by leaning your body more deeply into the wall and increasing the bend in your left knee. Continue to press your heel into the ground. Then switch legs and repeat the process for the other calf.
This type of stretch, called a “static” stretch, should be performed slowly and steadily with no bouncing movements. Static stretches should be held for 15 to 20 seconds and can be repeated 2 to 4 times.
Stretching doesn’t have to take a lot of time – just 5 or 10 minutes each day will do it. And you may be surprised to learn that the best time to stretch is after you have exercised, not before. That is when muscles are warmed up and more pliable.