The Use it or Lose it of Flexibility

By Di Westaway

Last week I had a lovely surprise. 

Our Head Office team were taking an exercise break to test their fitness levels with Mark Sisson’s Primal Fitness 11 step assessment. They were attempting to sit on the ground and stand up using just their feet. 

Lisa popped down and up easily on two feet. I refused to try on account of my bad knee. Then I decided to give it a go with my good leg. Incredibly, I was able to lower myself to the ground and back to standing on one leg. 

What a surprise. This simple activity which is easy for most kids, stumped most of our office including a superfit 35 year old male Crossfitter.

Yes, that’s right. Sitting and standing using only your feet is a measure of fitness. And I haven’t done this since I was an aerobics instructor in the late 80’s.

So, why, at 55, can I still do this? Because I have restored my mobility by moving and exercising daily.

I prioritise an active lifestyle including walking, riding, swimming, Trek Training, climbing and yoga. I haven’t been to a gym in 20 years, but I move and exercise daily – not super hard, just frequently. 

It’s hard to squeeze in – I have a desk job for 6-9 hours a day, 5 days a week. But it is the everyday factor and my full range of motion activities that have given me back my suppleness and improved my mobility. 

Recent research by stretching expert Jules Mitchell shows that stretching harder does not actually change our tissue. In fact, our ability to stretch at any range is determined by our nervous system’s tolerance to that range rather than our tissue getting longer. 

Jules suggests not trying to force override your nervous system when you stretch. She says “It will win. It will be unpleasant.” What we need to do is move through our full range of motion several times a day rather than short bursts of painful stretches.

We can also learn from biomechanist Katy Bowman, author of “Move Your DNA”.  Katy Bowman explains our deep need for movement—right down to the cellular level - supported by the latest research: you are, actually, how you move.

Bowman has been a champion of getting people to understand the difference between frequency and intensity. In short, that what we are doing with our bodies most of the time thoroughly trumps how hard we may be capable of working out (or stretching) for a small portion of our day. In relationship to flexibility, this means that if we, for example, sit in a chair with our hamstrings contracted from both ends all day long, we will gradually develop short hamstrings.

When you are often in the same position - as with our contracted-hamstrings-in-the-chair example - your muscles change on the cellular level in a way that makes it easier for you to do more of what you are already doing. Yes, those naughty muscle cells will actually cannibalize themselves and grow themselves to set your chair-shape as your new normal.

The way to rehabilitate this is to move with more normal hamstrings length more frequently. For example: to use a standing desk for all or part of the day; sit on the floor with our legs outstretched in front of you; wearing neutral-heeled shoes; to walk and to take frequent movement breaks.

The road to rehabilitation is not to stretch your hamstrings at their absolute maximum end range for thirty and ninety seconds per day.

Frequent, intermittent stretching that is within your range helps you to explore your movement ranges and therefore helps you to become more flexible. 

Stop with the no-pain-no-gain crap and instead go for: not too much, not too little, but just frequent little amounts of input keep us healthy and mobile.

•Stop with the “stretch tight bits to make them looser” and “we are inanimate lumps of clay” models. We are alive. Our nervous systems are in charge. We need to have a long-term dialogue with it, not pretend we can boss the CNS around.

•Stop pretending we can put movement into a bento box of “exercising” and “non-exercising” time when what we are doing all the time - movement not exercising -is what is determining our shape and mobility.

•Stop stretching at extreme maximum capacity at rare intervals and instead take kinder intermittent stretch breaks.

•And while we’re at it, let’s altogether drop the idea that being bendy is somehow better. Functional length is better; hypermobile is trouble.

I love the ability to do the things I’ve always done, like climbing a ladder to clear out the gutters, dragging the vacuum cleaner up steep stairs to the attic, climbing trees with my kids, walking around the rocks at the beach, jumping puddles or jumping a fence to take a short cut home.

You’ve just gotta keep moving. 

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