Updated: Nov 17
If you’re reading this, you may not need to be told, but it gets harder to stay flexible as we age. In fact, research suggests that from at least age 20 to 50, we lose about 10% of our flexibility each decade… that’s potentially a 30% decline in our ability to touch our toes, reach behind our backs, lift overhead, etc.. However, research also shows that our flexibility can be significantly improved with a consistent stretching routine, among other methods to help increase and maintain flexibility and mobility throughout our lifespan.
Aging certainly does affect our flexibility, but what else contributes to our ability to stay stretchy? Here are some of the main factors:
Like with many aspects of our physical and mental makeup, our bodys’ abilities to stretch and move through a large ROM is largely dictated by what we inherited from our parents. In fact, about 60-70% of our flexibility can be accounted for by our genetics. This is great news for those who come from a long line of flexible family members, but not so much if your dad (like mine) can hardly get their foot to their knee to take a sock off. As far as the science world knows so far, we can’t really change the genes related to flexibility, but if you’re at all familiar with epigenetics (the study of changes in genetic expression due to behavior and environment), it may be possible. We’ll keep you posted. Until then, don’t hold your breath.
Similarly to genetics, our bony anatomy is predetermined and unfortunately, unmodifiable… in these two cases, we have to work with what we’ve got. Although bony anatomy is generally not the main limiting factor in our ability to attain large ranges of movement, it can create a ceiling effect for some. For example, many males, especially of Eastern European descent, have relatively deeper hip sockets. This anatomy is great for stability, but not so much for being able to squat deeply or rotate the hip through a large ROM. In these cases, assuming reasonable muscular flexibility, the end ROM won’t feel “stretchable”, it will feel like it’s blocked… and it is… by their bones! In most cases, we can work around it by optimizing the strength and flexibility of muscles around the joint and finding movement patterns that work for that anatomy.
Activity Levels and Exercise
This is our favorite determinant of flexibility because it’s the only one that is modifiable. In other words, it’s in our control. Unfortunately, it only accounts for about 10% of our mobility. So, if you have trouble touching your toes, there is likely no amount of stretching that is going to get you into that full split like the gymnasts and dancers you idolize no matter how intensely, long, or consistently you do it. Now, that’s an extreme example to highlight the fact that stretching won’t create massive changes in our bodies, but most of us recognize that a full split is unattainable… and we’re fine with that!
With that said, don’t lose hope! Stretching and mobility drills, among other types of exercise can significantly change how well we can move, and how we feel when we move.
Stretching has been shown to have many benefits including, but not limited to:
range of motion (by several mechanisms)
balance and stability
parasympathetic activity (relaxation)
stress and anxiety
it may even have anti-cancer effects!
So, while we acknowledge that stretching may not be a magical cure for your tight hamstrings, it will certainly move them in the right direction. Considering the long list of benefits outside of increasing flexibility, it’s surely a worthwhile technique to include in your normal routine to feel good, move well, and live long.