Two parts of fitness that are often overlooked are flexibility and balance. This may be because of conflicting information regarding their importance or relevance. However, both can play a vital role in overall fitness and function. Tight muscles can contribute to back pain or difficulty performing simple tasks, such as putting objects into overhead cupboards. While poor balance is known to increase the risk of falls in older persons, it may also affect sports performance in younger individuals. Luckily, it is very easy to work on both flexibility and balance on your own.
To train flexibility, stretching or repeated movement through a joint’s complete range of motion will work to increase joint range or prevent loss of motion, respectively. To stretch a muscle, it should be put in a position that produces a slight pull on the muscle but not to the point of pain. With a static stretch, the position in which a slight stretch is felt should be held 15-30 seconds, and each stretch should be repeated 3-5 times on each side of the body. The primary note regarding stretch position is that it should not cause pain or take the joint past the normal range. There are several forms of dynamic stretching, with the key difference being that dynamic stretches take the joint and muscles through the full range of motion, often repeatedly.
ACSM guidelines recommend that stretching activities be done at least two days per week. If you have lost some joint motion or feel stiff, range of motion or stretching activities should be done daily. The muscles that are most often tight are the hamstrings, hip flexors, calves and chest muscles. Each of these can be stretched using different positions, and some general motions may stretch more than one muscle group. For simplicity’s sake, only common static stretches will be described below.
• Hamstrings. Sit on the ground with legs straight in front of you. Gently lean forward from the hips (try to keep the back fairly straight) until a stretch is felt on the back of the thighs.
• Hip flexors. Stand on one foot, and bring the other foot to the buttocks. Pull back gently, while keeping your knee pointed at the ground and your hip straight. If needed, hold onto a counter or chair to keep your balance.
• Calves. Step forward with one leg. Shift your weight toward the front leg while keeping the back heel on the ground. If you press the hip of your back leg forward, this will also help stretch the hip flexors.
• Chest muscles. Standing in a corner, bring hands up to shoulder height and place against the wall on either side. Keeping hands in position, lean body forward until a stretch is felt in the front of the chest. This can also be done using a doorway, turning away from the hand that is on the wall.
Problems with tripping or falling often indicate difficulty with balance. Ideally, you should be able to stand on one leg for at least 20 seconds unsupported for static (not moving) balance. Balance activities can be started with simple position shifts for those that already have balance issues. Shifting should take place in all directions, including angles, with different placements of the feet. Improving balance requires a progressive challenge. This can be done by increasing the number of repetitions or the length of a balance activity, adding movement to make the activity more dynamic, or by reducing input from other senses, such as by closing the eyes. In addition, the amount of support from the arms can be progressed by using both hands, then one hand, then one finger, and finally no assistance. ACSM guidelines suggest such activities be done at least two days per week. A simple progression at home might be:
• Weight shifts. Step side-to-side, forward and backward. Then step forward and backward at an angle.
• Single leg stance. Stand next to a counter or chair for support. Stand on one leg and touch the toe of the other leg to the front, side and back.
• Single leg stance with movement. Stand next to a counter or chair for support. Stand on one leg and perform a partial squat. Repeat five times with each leg. This will also help with thigh strength. Alternative: turn slightly to the left, then right, moving only at the hip. Repeat five times with each leg.
Other activities can also be used for flexibility and balance. Tai chi, an activity based on martial arts, is excellent for balance because it uses multiple types of weight shifts as well as standing on one leg for short periods of time. Yoga uses different body positions and more sustained holds, thus it can also be used to improve static balance and flexibility. There are numerous DVDs and other aids available for those wishing to learn one of these activities. The key to any stretching or balance program is regularity, and these activities are not meant to be done at a high intensity.