Can you touch your toes?

And does it matter?



I’ve been asking myself this question on and off over the years. 

As someone who enjoys all that yoga has to offer but not being particularly flexible, I’ve been self-critical when comparing myself to others. Should I be? Why would I be? I’ve come to realise it’s the same as being self-critical because I have rather frizzy hair and I’d prefer shiny, sleek, wavy hair.

To really know how flexible you are, its best to think back to your childhood and ask yourself, could I do a back bend easily, touch my toes easily etc? If you’ve noticed a big change in the range of movement in your joints or sense of stiffness, it is possible to get some of that flexibility back. For instance, in my 20’s I noticed a huge change in the flexibility of my hips. They were so stiff at one point I couldn’t get my pants on in the morning! I felt 90. At the same time, I developed a constantly aching back even though I was active and relatively fit. This kind of lack of flexibility, this onset of stiffness showed a problem with my muscle tone and chronic muscular holding patterns throughout my body.

I’m happy to say, now in my 50’s, I haven’t had back pain for a very long time, and I can touch my toes most days. 

As with many things, some of us are born more flexible than others and those of us who aren’t very flexible are very impressed with those of us who are. Levels of flexibility is to do with the proteins that make up the joint connective tissue, ligaments and tendons. About 10% of the population are what we would call hypermobile – our very flexible friends. Those people who do the impossible yoga poses with ease. Being naturally flexible has its advantages especially for some profession such as dancers, gymnasts, musicians, athletes, contortionist….. you get the picture. I have heard that to get into the Royal Ballet school your hips have to have a natural range of movement beyond what most of the population have. 

However, some of our more flexible friends can be prone to joint problems especially if their muscle tone is poor. Also, poor postural habits are harmful to everyone but can have more profound effect on someone who is very naturally flexible, through no fault of their own. For people who are very flexible, having a strong, toned and balanced muscular system is really important to give the joints the extra support they need to be healthy and prevent injury. 

I work with a range of people from 11 to 84 years old and in my opinion, many of them are hypermobile. Some have subsequently been diagnosed by a doctor. Being hypermobile isn’t in itself a problem but can develop into problems if for some reason they have poor muscle tone, are quite sedentary or developed poor postural habits causing chronically tense muscles. If this sounds like you, I would encourage you to find out more as my clients have really benefitted from understanding their bodies better and how hypermobility makes them experience life differently to most people.

In terms of looking after yourself through exercise, if you are really flexible, my advice is, take care not to stretch to your full capacity. Enjoy the range of movement to enhance blood flow and improve and develop muscle tone. Stretching too far (although it may feel good) especially if you know you haven’t got great muscle tone and strength, can take your joints beyond a healthy range of movement and cause problems over time. If you suspect this is you and would like to know more visit www.hypermobility.org.

If, on the other hand, you develop stiff inflexible joints, again, don’t push it but enjoy activities that give your body a full range of movement. Trying to over stretch a muscle will cause the muscle sensors to pull back to prevent muscle tear or injury. Just go as far as it is comfortable and do it regularly to improve blood flow to the muscle, muscle tone and elasticity.

However flexible you are or are not, giving your body a chance to engage in a full range of movement like in yoga and tai chi or any moderate exercise is going to be good. Good for blood flow and healing, joint health and developing healthy muscle tone but don’t push it. Build it up very gradually.  

The thing that has improved my own flexibility has been developing awareness of muscular holding patterns from poor postural habits and learning to let the chronic tension go, allowing my body to move with greater ease. It takes time as it’s like learning any new skill. Alexander technique lessons teach individuals how to become aware of chronic tension and poor postural habits as well as an understanding of why they are experiencing stiff and/or painful joints. It teaches how we can move with more ease in line with the body’s natural design and this way, muscles can work in a healthier, more elastic way. Muscle and joint pain can drop away through this process. 

In a nutshell, there is a balance to be found between flexible and inflexible and for both a sedentary way of life is detrimental and my advice is to find enjoyable interests that get you moving. A strong, balanced, healthy musculoskeletal system protects us from stiffness, pain and injury, makes us feel more confident and happier all round!

If you suspect you are struggling with hypermobility, Alexander technique lessons are invaluable. 

For more detailed information about hypermobility visit:

https://www.hypermobility.org/posture-and-movement

A paper written by an American expert in hypermobility, Alan G. Pocinki, which covers in detail everything you could want to know:

https://www.dynainc.org/docs/hypermobility.pdf

An article about new research on how stretching can enhance muscle strength:

http://www.nbcnews.com/id/21489011/#.X3W5DS2ZOlN



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