Flexibility is more a daily connectivity than wild gymnastics.
Say “flexibility” and images of Olympic gymnasts and circus contortionists come to most minds. Flexibility is far more than something only applicable to the top end of sports, however, and all of us can enhance our own on a daily basis.
Flexibility is to a large extent a state of mind, as scientists concur that our ability to stretch is not physically but neurologically controlled. It’s a neurological response, not a physical certainty that your hamstrings just won’t stretch that far. To be practical, few of us can drop down into effortless splits any time just because we will it so. But we can get our heads tuned in and remain aware of how we can maintain our flexibility, no matter what we do on most days.
If we look at posture and activity to contextualise flexibility, some activities disengage and ultimately shorten muscles, while others stretch and keep them actively engaged. This is a useful paradigm in which to anchor any initial conversation on flexibility. Put another way, typical inactivity – sitting in an office chair all day, for example – works to diminish flexibility. Although a complex subject, this simplistic understanding of flexibility as it reflects in the typical office worker, for example, is valid, and it’s something we can address at work or play.
Humans are really a web of muscle and tissue on a bone frame, and it stands to reason therefore that impacts or inactivity somewhere can result in “transferred” ailments elsewhere. Indeed, ask the average office worker about their intermittent aching knees or inflamed neck muscles, and you’ll soon realise that these people are not suffering logically induced injuries. In other words, although comfortable initially, sitting, for example, isn’t a great activity to sustain for hours on end. Our glutes disengage when typically seated, and that slack in the mainframe is frequently taken up by the knees, shoulders and other joints.
Right above the bum sits the back, and the spine is the other area that usually eventually pays the price for any prolonged behaviour that reduces flexibility. In short, unless your work day involves constant walking, giving aerobics lessons or coaching rugby, the typical office environment is going to force your body to disengage the glutes, skew the spine and lead to an overall “holding pattern” in your body that reduces flexibility.
A Practical Flexibility-consciousness
What to do then, besides resigning and looking for work at the local yoga studio? Well, coming back to our physiological awareness that inhibits flexibility diminishing and indeed controls it in large part, there are very quick and minor habits we can develop to avoid the repeated, gradually-accumulating negative effects of a seated day. And they can start from the moment you open your eyes in the morning.
Flexibility at Home: Backs and Bums
- As you awake every day – and assuming you don’t own a waterbed or other very spongy mattress – lie on your back with your arms by your sides. Slowly raise your right knee to your chest and bring your arms over to pull it into your chest snugly. Hold this for 30 seconds and repeat on the left hand side. Repeat this for a minute or two.
- Once comfortable, you can add lifting both knees to your chest and holding too. A short overall routine of even two minutes will ensure your spine is correctly stretched, aligned and ready for the day. NB: It’s critical that you gently try to keep your sacrum (the coccyx area) pressed to the mattress while hugging your knees in, rather than curling into a ball. And, if the mattress feels too wobbly, rolling out of bed and doing this on the floor on the way to the bathroom or wardrobe is preferable.
- It helps to remember that even when “idle,” i.e. not exercising, we’re constantly using our muscles. So shift your understanding from athletic stretching being something you only do before dedicated exercise, to being something that keeps you constantly flexible. A simple few minutes of quiet, slow knee-hugging before you even really get up and going aligns the spine, engages your glutes’ flexor muscles and primes your body for the day.
- Early mornings are sometimes not great moments to try out a quiet flexibility routine, with kids yelling, getting toothpaste on their uniforms, your spouse grumbling and the porridge burning. But if you can squeeze another two minutes out of it, your mornings can also include another sterling exercise to maintain flexibility. This really is one for the floor, as the mattress will tend to make you wobble. Sit on your knees and hold your spine erect. Gently roll your shoulders forward, up and back, and feel your shoulder blades “slide” down your back. Once comfortable and quietly upright, lean back onto your palms. Drop back gently and push your chest forward. Astute observers will note that this is exactly the opposite of what the typical office worker experiences all day. So, to counteract the desk-hunch and accompanying disengaging of various muscles and muscle groups, put your shoulders back and puff your chest up as far as is comfortable. Hold this for even a minute, breathing comfortably, and, combined with the knee hugs, you’ll have ensured that your body’s core muscular architecture is ready for the day. If knee issues prevent you from sitting in a kneeling position, sitting on the edge of the bed will allow you the same back stretch.
Flexibility at Work
- If you’re lucky enough to have a space available where you can nip off once or twice a day to reenact your morning exercises, great. But if lying on the office floor or kneeling and swaying around will get you a psychiatrist’s number from well-meaning colleagues, there are many other ways to carry your musculature’s comprehensive functioning through your day. Stand upright somewhere out of the way and slowly swing your arms side to side around your body. This is a great combination spinal twist and glute-activator. With your feet slightly apart, gently swing your arms from side to side, allowing the palm of the front hand to slap its opposite shoulder, and allowing the back of the palm behind you to slap your back. Remember to gently turn your head to the side you’re swinging, in motion with your arms. A half minute should be enough. You should feel tugs, but no pain in the motion.
- Follow with a few calf raises, repeatedly lifting your body upright on your toes. Immediately after, squat down slowly and purposefully a few times to ensure your glutes have forgotten all about that office chair and are fully engaged. If your knees have issues, raising a bent leg one at a time for a number of reps per side will do just as well to engage the glutes.
- Wall presses are another full-body flexibility exercise, and can even be done in the company toilets, or against any clear wall where you won’t obstruct others. Lean on the wall with your palms, arms outstretched, feet slightly apart, and step first the right then left foot back. Gently push away from the wall with your arms, while also pushing towards the wall from your toes. The idea is not to move, but to engage the whole of your frame in a stretched posture. Step back further and further as you become comfortable, simultaneously raising the position of your palms on the wall, keeping your body in a leaning but straight line. Then step first the right then alternatively the left foot forward, holding each side for 30 seconds or so. Very gently roll your head forwards and backwards once you’re in maximum stretch position on a side, and hold with your head down for a half minute to end on each foot. Glance at yourself to make sure that from the shoulders down to the back foot, you’ve created a long, straight line.
Remember, the best defence against diminished flexibility from our working lives is to keep your glutes and spine consciously active. Not only will these simple and short routines maintain your flexibility, they’ll also result in enhanced blood circulation, carrying more oxygen to the brain, something that also makes for a happier, clearer mind.
These exercises might seem inconsequential but, like sleep deprivation, flexibility is one of those things that are hard to quantify yet have noted scientific results that end up shaving away at our innate fitness. Women who carry handbags, men and women who carry cargo during an otherwise immobile day, and even schoolkids with rucksacks can all pick up unwelcome ailments from not understanding overall body engagement and flexibility.
On the plus side, a primed muscle takes a while to become truly disengaged, so a routine of even only morning and lunchtime exercises should see you eliminate all of the common aches and pains of an office environment. It will also aid that harder-to-quantify concept of your basic “fitness.” These quick and simple exercises counter the negative realities of an office position, most usually a seated one without demands on overall activity. The benefits might not be as obvious as high-energy sweat and muscle mass gain, but in many ways are more important, even in achieving those aims too.
Can you eat your way to flexibility? Well, not really, but what you certainly can do is eat your way to a maintenance of flexibility, while also enhancing your future flexibility potential. For our welcome readers, here’s a truly hot tip from years of sports experience: The Gymalie Secret Recipe for Flexibility! And it only has two ingredients: MSM and sodium oil. MSM (methylsulfonylmethane) is essentially a sulphurous compound found in cabbage and other sources. Although “sulphur” sounds like a yucky thing to eat, MSM is one of two absolutely essential ingredients for cell function, read: cell repair. Sodium too has tons of bad press, based largely on lumping all sodium in with the bad type, common in processed foods. In reality, making sodium in the form of celery, oatmeal and other sources available in your body is absolutely essential for quick cellular repair and maintenance.
These two ingredients are not of themselves medicinal, yet they work together as essential components of cellular communication and repair. They have been shown to drastically increase a body’s ability to heal, stretch, and stretch further. Runners will find a remarkable uptick as well, as typically in formulation the MSM comes with an extra oxygen molecule attached too, resulting in a feeling of enhanced fitness and stamina on the road. Bodybuilders trying to step up from a 3-day routine to a split 4-day or more routine, will find that sodium hastens recuperation, allows for quicker recovery and mass accumulation. If you can find a chemist making herbal products, you can buy these as single supplements. Otherwise seek out supplements that feature them as primary ingredients. Both are highly soluble and easily expelled if taken in excess, so they’re also really safe additives to any diet.
Great raw food sources of MSM include cabbage, tomatoes, tea, lucerne sprouts, corn and even – miracles upon miracles – beer! Excellent sources of the right kind of sodium include oatmeal (at around 18%, probably one of the healthiest things you can ever eat), turnips, celery, beet, artichokes and spinach.
To conclude, a daily morning routine with a recap at some point during a working day is a baseline practice that will eliminate a host of either intermittent or eventual minor aches and injuries. Don’t, however, think that you can overdo it. Tuning into your body’s overall musculature is something that can be done as often as you get a chance, really an “as often as possible” practice.
To be clear, even hourly flexibility exercises won’t compensate for overdoing it in the gym or on the track. They are not a substitute for always careful exercise and practice, in tune with your body’s abilities. But by becoming aware of your overall inter-connectedness and giving yourself a few minutes as often as you can to practice a few, simple exercises, you’ll be doing yourself a service unavailable elsewhere for any money. One that reconnect glutes to feet, knees to shoulders and your carriage and posture to everything else, giving you the edge to perform at your peak, no matter what you’re busy with.