fitness · stretching

Why Catherine’s working on flexibility (but not doing the splits challenge)

Is it just me, or are the social media fitspo promoters much more concerned about our flexibility than they used to be? I’m getting blammed with ads from people like this guy:

Don’t get me wrong– I’m all for increased flexibility. Well, sort of. But signing on to a 21-day hip opening challenge strikes me as:

  • rushed– why 21 days? what will happen if I can’t do a lotus by day 22?
  • expensive– even though it’s currently available for the discount price of $69
  • wildly unrealistic– I studied ballet for years, and I can tell you, there are things my body won’t and can’t do, even with much more than 21 days of smart-phone video training
  • potentially harmful– pushing ourselves too far too fast can cause injury
  • deflating– when we reach that magical day 21 and we still can’t do a lotus, or a split, then what? keep trying? decide we’re not worthy of stretching and moving? I think not.

But wait– isn’t flexibility supposed to be good for us? I’m sure I read somewhere that it’s supposed to help us (women especially). Oh, wait, maybe that was one of those Facebook ads. Like this one:

Ads mentioning "hyperbolic" and "revolutionary" and "pelvic floor" raise my suspicions.
Ads mentioning “hyperbolic” and “revolutionary” and “pelvic floor” raise my suspicions.

In a recent article in Outside magazine, author Alex Hutchinson looks at studies on the effects of static stretching on sport performance. It’s worth taking a look. Here’s what he says, though, in general, about flexibility:

So what does being flexible do for you? … greater flexibility as measured by the sit-and-reach test isn’t associated with longer life—unlike the ACSM’s other four “major components” of physical fitness. It also doesn’t predict more successful aging (like avoiding falls), except in ways that are better predicted by muscle strength.

Contrary to a half-century of locker-room wisdom, being flexible doesn’t seem to protect you from injury either. This topic is the focus of hundreds of studies, and there are admittedly a few that do find benefits. At the other end of the spectrum, there are a few that find that being too flexible is also associated with injury. But overall, it just doesn’t seem to make much difference. It’s also not associated with non-sports-related problems like low-back pain.

Does that mean that we needn’t work on flexibility, and not worry about stretching? No, I’m not saying that, either. So what am I saying?

Flexibility matters for range of motion and also general physical comfort and ease. When I sit too long– and who isn’t in these era of all-Zoom-all-the-time?– I get creaky. For some people it’s their back. For me, it’s my hips. I’ve lately been doing some of these yoga poses in between Zoom meetings, or at intervals during my work-at-home day. It’s amazing what a little supine twist and and gate pose will do for you.

Woman kneeling and stretching. This one feels good, no matter what your range of motion.
Gate pose: woman kneeling and stretching. This one feels good, no matter what your range of motion.

As we say often (or maybe it’s just me, but anyway): with movement, a little often goes a long way. And a lot doesn’t always go as far past a little as we think. Well, you know what I mean (I hope).

Readers: what kinds of flexibility exercises do you do in your movement lives? Do you yearn for splits? Do you spurn stretching? I’d love to hear from you.

7 thoughts on “Why Catherine’s working on flexibility (but not doing the splits challenge)

  1. I love stretching but I think that’s because it’s something that is easy for me. I especially like lateral stretches that elongate my side body, twists and hip openers. And stretching my feet and lower legs. Hmm that’s most of my body.
    I find stretching is more about recovering from intense cardio or strength activities. 1-2 days after those intense workouts stretching feels good, it’s achy but in a pleasing way?
    Flexibility is my body fun time. In karate it gave me my surprise round house kick and the full splits. In the water it makes me feel like a aquatic creature.
    For me flexibility is ensuring I cultivate a range of motion so I can fall on ice and not get as injured. So I can do entertaining yoga postures that feel playful. And. Uh. It doesn’t hurt to stay flexible to keep the. Uh. Sexy fun times interesting.

  2. My daughter has some sort of joint hyper mobility syndrome and I appear to as well. I have stiffened significantly over the years, and have osteoarthritis in a number of joint, as a result.

    I practice yoga pretty much daily. I will never do the spilts, but I really wanted to touch my head to the floor in a seated wide leg forward fold.

    It took me 5 years. 5. Now I can. Some days. Others I am excruciatingly stiff and I respect my limits.

    Many things take consistency and practice. I suppose change can happen in 21 days…perhaps it is even sustainable for some people.

    Most of the time I ask myself if I am doing physical things to help make my regular life easier, or for something else. Motivation is important.


  3. I’ve always had a lot of natural flexibility, but have learned via circus training about the differences between active vs passive flexibility. Active flexibility are stretches that require using the muscles while in an extended range of motion and seems to be the type of flexibility that supports the joint. Passive stretching is the kind you can just sink into and increase range of motion, but doesn’t develop the joint support needed for injury prevention. Working these days to find a combination of both types.

  4. I probably have a body shape that could potentially do some of those many yoga stretches. But I’m not that motivated do to it.

    Alot of my floor exercises on the home carpet, are simple stretching, beginner’s level. Some of them are more non-yoga Asian style stretches..meaning borrowed from tai chi warm ups. I find stretching helps release small backaches and upper shoulder stiffness. And necessary for cycling more easily, when twisting a bit to mount on/off bike and to look to side for cars behind you.

    So I see stretching as ongoing healing my body to maintain odinary flexibility …to allow me to do other movements for cycling, even housework…since there is a certain amount of bending over, stretching abit to get at corners of a home.

  5. I do #8, 22, 21 (a version but I actually fold down both legs up by my hips while lying down). 22 is very good for releasing lower tight back muscles. It relieves minor backaches for me when I get too lazy and don’t do any stretching for weeks.

  6. Thanks for writing this. I’m so not flexible. It’s the way I’m in built. I also have family members who are very flexible but who have serious joint issues. I still need to remind myself that flexibility isn’t a virtue and that it’s okay to have a body that isn’t very bendy. I’m solid and strong but not particularly stretchy. No splits challenge for me either.

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