By Vadim Vilensky.

Flexibility is probably the most neglected aspect of fitness. Observations show that even people who exercise on a regular basis are not stretching enough. By definition, flexibility is the ability of the joint or series of joints to move through their full range of motion.

Flexibility is important in sports (gymnastics, golf) and the performing arts (ballet), as well as in the ability to carry out the activities of daily living. Aging and inactivity contribute to the loss of flexibility over time. Reductions in the joint's range of motion affect our mobility and balance, which impacts our routine physical functioning status. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, it is important to maintain flexibility in the lower back and posterior thigh regions. Lack of flexibility in these areas may be associated with an increased risk of developing chronic lower back pain.

Decreased flexibility can also lead to postural changes such as shortened pectoral muscles (chest), which pulls the shoulders in and down leading to a round-shouldered condition.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has identified the need for adults to perform flexibility exercises, preferably daily. There are a few ways to stretch. Perhaps the simplest one is a static stretch. With this technique the risk of injury is low, and it requires little time and assistance. It is performed in a slow, sustained manner, holding the stretch at a point of mild discomfort for 30 seconds. The stretch should be felt in the muscle, not the joint.

Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation stretching (PNF) involves a combination of alternating the contraction and relaxation of opposite muscles through a series of motions. Research has suggested that PNF stretching produces the greatest improvements in flexibility. These stretches usually require a partner trained in the technique. Ideally, they should be done with your coach or personal trainer.

Ballistic stretching uses the momentum created by repetitive bouncing movements to produce muscle stretch. This type of stretch can result in muscle soreness or injury if the forces generated by the ballistic movements are too great.

Yoga, Pilates, and Tai Chi movements may also be used to improve flexibility.

It is a general recommendation to warm up muscles before stretching them. A study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research by a group of scientists from the University of Texas demonstrated that the best time to stretch for improved flexibility is right after a workout. PNF stretching after exercise significantly improved hamstring flexibility in a group of college athletes who participated in this study.

Flexibility training should be balanced with strength training to prevent connective tissues from becoming too loose and weak, subjecting them to damage through overstretching, or sudden, powerful muscle contractions.

Very often fitness instructors and coaches incorporate static stretches into a warm up routine. However, there are a number of studies that show that static stretches before exercise or competition can DECREASE performance and INCREASE the risk of injuries.

Post-exercise stretching helps to relax and can create the sense of rejuvenation. Dr. Michael Yessis states that after completing a workout, the nervous system continues to contract muscles, and does not allow them to completely relax. Stretching will help to relax the muscle and accelerate recovery.

Whether you are looking to improve your sport performance, accelerate recovery from injury, or are coming home from a long day at work, you will feel results immediately after a few stretching exercises.

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