What Is Flexibility? Health and Fitness Benefits of Stretching

Flexibility allows your body to move through a range of motion. Good flexibility can improve range of motion and allow for better, more functional movement. Working to become more flexible has many benefits aside from improving range of motion, such as reducing fatigue and improving overall well-being. But many people tend to overlook the importance of flexibility, assuming it is only for those looking to boost sports performance.

Incorporating flexibility training into your day could improve fitness for everyday activities and enhance overall health and well-being. If you frequently experience muscle fatigue, muscle stress, or poor joint health, these could be signs that you could significantly benefit from flexibility exercises.

Here is what you need to know about flexibility and how to make it part of your daily routine.

Flexibility and Range of Motion

Many times people confuse flexibility with range of motion. Range of motion (ROM) is the movement of a joint without pain in all directions possible. Flexibility is the ability of the muscles, ligaments, and tendons to elongate through the ROM. Using flexibility exercises to improve your range of motion helps decrease your risk of injuries and avoid tightness and soreness around your joints. Plus, having a good range of motion can impact your other workouts and activities. For instance, you are more likely to use proper form and activate your muscles, making your exercise safer and more effective.

One way to improve flexibility is through regular stretching exercises. You should stretch as part of a consistent workout routine, but you should also stretch after exercising. Even stretching after sitting in your office chair for an extended period is essential.


There also is such a thing as being too flexible. This phenomenon is called hyper-flexibility or joint hyper-mobility. Hyper-flexibility could signify a connective tissue disorder like Ehlers–Danlos syndrome (EDS). If you can move a joint past a normal range of motion, you might have joint hyper-mobility.

This excessive range of motion can cause joint pain, swelling, dislocation, cracking, tiredness, and widespread pain. These symptoms typically come on during or after exercise. If you suspect that you are dealing with hyper-flexibility, speaking with a healthcare provider for a diagnosis and treatment plan is crucial.

Benefits of Flexibility

Poor flexibility can impact your health and well-being in several ways. You may experience muscle fatigue, stress on your muscles, and inadequate joint health. Increasing your flexibility helps you avoid these problems and reap various benefits.

Improved Muscle Condition

One way to reduce injuries and improve the condition of your muscles is through flexibility-enhancing activities like foam rolling and dynamic stretching. Foam rolling can help loosen tight muscles and is particularly useful if you have contracted or tight muscles that fail to fully release.

When you use a roller along your muscle's length, you encourage it to return to its original and intended length. Having lengthened muscles that are not tight or contracted will improve your flexibility in the long run.

Stretching increases the blood flow to your muscles. This improved circulation nourishes your muscles and helps rid them of waste byproducts. Improved circulation can help shorten your recovery time, particularly after a hard workout. This is particularly important if you have experienced injuries like a pulled or strained muscle.

One option is dynamic stretching before your workout and foam rolling after. Research shows that dynamic stretching boosts muscle strength and decreases muscle stiffness.

Better Balance

Having good balance is something many people take for granted. But having good balance can help make you lighter on your feet and improve your athletic performance. It also is imperative as you age because it can help prevent injuries and falls.

Improving flexibility and balance also can help strengthen the core and improve stability. One study asked a group of adults over 65 to participate in stretching and mobility exercises twice a week for 12 weeks. They experienced improved balance, which decreased their risk of falls. Participants also showed improved flexibility and lumbar strength.

Reduced Risk of Injury

When combined with exercise, flexibility can reduce back pain and stiffness. Aerobic exercise increases blood flow to soft tissues and muscles, while flexibility improves the range of movement for muscles, ligaments, and tendons. When muscles and the surrounding structures are well-nourished and mobile, injury is less likely.

If you're looking to reduce the risk of injury, research suggests specifically stretching the muscles in the back, hamstrings, and hip flexors may help. Stretching can even help you in everyday activities like walking, bending, and reaching.

The act of stretching lengthens muscles and improves blood flow (which promotes recovery and healing), so investing a few minutes in gentle, targeted stretching may pay off in the long run.

Types of Flexibility Training

You can improve flexibility with four different types of stretching exercises: static stretching, dynamic stretching, activated isolated stretching, and myofascial release.

Avoid over-stretching. Pushing yourself too hard or trying to stretch beyond your capabilities could work against your progress. Take it slow and steady, and stop if you feel any pain.

Static Stretching

Static stretching means moving into a position that lengthens specific muscles and then holding that stretch for 30 seconds to start, working your way up to 60 to 90 seconds. Move into the stretch and stop when you feel some slight discomfort (not pain). Hold the position there for the desired length of time.

You've overstretched if you feel pain. Bring it back a bit. Move out of the stretch gently. Aim to stretch your major muscles, muscles used during your workout routines, and muscles that need flexibility improvement.

Dynamic Stretching

Dynamic stretching is movement that stretches your muscles and joints. This type of stretching provides a warm-up. It improves power, jump, and sprint abilities.

To do a dynamic stretching routine, look to the movements you're preparing for in whatever exercise or sport you're performing. For example, runners may do hip circles, lunges, and leg pendulums. Swimmers may do shoulder rolls and arm circles.

Active Isolated Stretching

Active isolated stretching is done by stretching a muscle while simultaneously contracting the opposite muscle, holding it for 2 seconds, and then relaxing. You go a little further into the stretch each time and repeat 8 to 10 times.

Active isolated stretching requires resistance (such as with a resistance band, or even just your hands) to contract one muscle. For example, you can stretch your quads by starting in a kneeling lunge position. With your hands on your hips, move your front knee forward. In this stretch, you're contracting your glutes while stretching your quad.

Myofascial Release

Foam rolling is a type of myofascial release that targets the fascia, a connective tissue, to increase flexibility and relieve tension. You can use foam rollers on muscles on your legs, arms, and back. For example, to roll your calf, start in a sitting position with the foam roller under your calf. Then move your lower leg back and forth over the roller for 30 to 60 seconds.

Stretching regularly improves flexibility, which is crucial for joint health and overall well-being. Stretch daily to improve your flexibility, whether it's with static stretching, dynamic stretching, foam rolling, or a combination of all three.

Stretching multiple times a day, particularly if sitting a lot for work, can be beneficial. Contact a healthcare provider if you have recurring joint pain or muscle fatigue or if you notice hyper-flexibility. They can help you determine what is causing your discomfort and offer a treatment plan.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How often should I stretch?

A: Stretch daily to maintain and improve your flexibility. You can include stretching in your warm-up and cool-down routine, as well as during your regular exercise sessions. If you sit for extended periods, take breaks throughout the day to stretch and move around.

Q: Can you improve flexibility at any age?

A: Yes, it's never too late to start working on your flexibility. As you age, your muscles and connective tissues naturally become less elastic, but regular stretching can help maintain and even improve your flexibility regardless of your age.

Q: What is the difference between static and dynamic stretching?

A: Static stretching involves holding a stretch for a certain period (usually 30 to 90 seconds), while dynamic stretching involves moving through a range of motion that stretches your muscles and joints. Static stretching is typically done after exercise to help with recovery, whereas dynamic stretching is usually performed before exercise as a warm-up to prepare your muscles for activity.

Q: Can I become too flexible?

A: Yes, being too flexible, or hyper-flexible, can lead to joint instability and a higher risk of injury. If you suspect that you may be hyper-flexible, consult with a healthcare provider or a qualified fitness professional to determine the best course of action for your individual needs.

Q: Should I stretch before or after exercise?

A: It's best to do dynamic stretching before exercise as part of your warm-up routine and static stretching after exercise during your cool-down. Dynamic stretching helps prepare your muscles for activity, while static stretching helps with recovery and maintaining flexibility.

In conclusion, flexibility is a crucial aspect of overall health and fitness that should not be overlooked. Regular stretching and flexibility training can provide numerous benefits, such as improved muscle condition, better balance, and reduced risk of injury. By incorporating different types of stretching exercises into your daily routine, you can work towards improving your flexibility and overall well-being.

William H. McDaniel, MD

Dr. Robert H. Shmerling is the former clinical chief of the division of rheumatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), and is a current member of the corresponding faculty in medicine at Harvard Medical School.

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