Fitness can be broadly split into three categories: cardio, strength and flexibility. It’s not quite as simple as that, but that covers the basics.
As a teen, I had the cardio one covered. I did not stop. Early morning swimming training, badminton every lunchtime, running most evenings, football training a couple of times a week, cycling to see mates … my heart and lungs were sorted!
However, I was no Arnold Schwarzenegger! Having had the rapid growth of a boy destined to be 6 foot 2, my arms and legs were more spaghetti than penne. I was not exactly what you would call ‘strong’.
And if you asked me to touch my toes? I’d be lucky to get past my knees. My muscles felt like lead wires, creaking under the tension. But, I was 16, so I didn’t care.
However, at that age, the testosterone kicks in. Suddenly, the reflection in the mirror with the spaghetti arms was not good enough, so I did what a lot of young men do and I went to the shop, bought a magazine on weightlifting, read it cover to cover and went and lifted weights.
My mates and I became mildly obsessed with this hobby and over time we added a couple of stone to our skinny frames and strength started to take hold.
However, I’m sure you can imagine, we weren’t exactly into the stretching side of things. By prioritising strength (actually, by prioritising biceps) our bodies had become immobile lumps of meat. Despite looking athletic, we couldn’t really move!
This model of training worked for a time, while the testosterone was raging at least. But then something strange started to happen. I started to get injured. Through my twenties, I would have fairly common joint pain.
It didn’t make sense to me – I thought I was fit! But as I trained to be an osteopath, and did further study into biomechanics after my degree, my obsession with the reflection in the mirror dwindled and it switched to ‘human movement’. Whereas previously I cared about the circumference of my biceps (literally, tape measure and all. Cringe!), my focus shifted to how well I could move in the space around me.
In my training, I asked my body questions like how well can I get up and down from the floor? Can I reach my hands down to the floor, up over my head and behind me? How clean do my hips feel?
Initially, the answers weren’t good! But I’ve had these questions as my main focus for about 5 years now and the transformation has been incredible.
My point of this story is that I have been through stages in my life where I have had good levels of all three forms of fitness, and I can honestly say the flexibility is the one that feels the best.
Obviously, it’s not an all or nothing. By having one form of fitness, it doesn’t mean you have to ignore the others, and I still think it’s super important to have enough strength to cope with life and we should do some cardio from time to time. But day to day, the feeling of being able to move in my own body and through the space around me trumps the other two.
So this begs the question, what’s the best way to stretch?
In my ten years of practice as an osteopath, I have researched many different styles of stretching. When I say ‘style’, I am not talking about Pilates vs Yoga. Both of them are excellent forms of exercise that bring many other health benefits than just flexibility. By ‘style’, I mean the sort of stimulus one is putting through the muscle.
Research changes over time and one style will become very ‘in vogue’ for a while, then it will be discredited and another one takes its place. I have become a bit bored with it all because I have discovered in both my own body and in that of my patients that there is only one thing that works:
Static vs dynamic, passive vs loaded, isolated vs functional – it doesn’t matter if you don’t do it consistently!
I have started to think about flexibility training in very simple terms. It is merely the practice of trying to get your body more comfortable in moving through the space around you. The only way to do this is to test yourself most days.
If you are currently feeling inflexible and don’t know where to start, you’re in luck! It has never been easier to get information thanks to YouTube. Type in “beginner stretching routine” and fill your boots. Just five minutes a day is a very powerful thing. Make it a habit and it becomes effortless. Eventually, it even becomes enjoyable!
Slowly, over time, you will gain freedom in your movement and you will notice fewer niggles. It’s a wonderful feeling!
Get stretching, reclaim your movement, and have a healthy month!