In a healthy individual, exercises to increase flexibility are just one part of a comprehensive fitness routine. For those recovering from a period of immobilization, flexibility exercises can become an integral part of a rehabilitation program.
Loss of mobility can occur in conjunction with a number of medical conditions, and can significantly delay your path to full recovery. Working with a doctor or physiotherapist, you can follow a specific flexibility program that will soon have you back on your feet.
Loss of Mobility
When prolonged bed rest or medical recuperation leaves a limb immobilized for an extended period, the joints, soft tissues, and muscles adapt to their static position. Muscle fibers weaken and shorten, and the tough connective tissues surrounding the muscles and joints stiffen into a fixed position.
Decreased mobility can create a self-perpetuating cycle. You might avoid using the affected parts due to pain or discomfort, only to prolong the atrophy and stiffness of the limb. Over time, the cycle of pain and inactivity can become debilitating.
Types of Exercises to Increase Flexibility
Depending on the nature and severity of your condition, your program might include flexibility exercises designed to target limitations either to the joint, to the muscle, or both. Accomplish this in a number of ways:
Joint mobility is a prerequisite for all other exercises to increase flexibility. This type of exercise involves the manual movement of a limb through its range of motion without any activation of the associated muscle fibers. It is usually easiest to perform joint mobilization exercises with the assistance of a partner. For example, use the following exercise to increase mobility of the knee joint.
- Lay face down on a bench or table with your knee positioned just at the edge.
- Have your partner stabilize the upper leg by placing one hand just above the knee.
- The partner should then gently flex and extend the joint through its full range of motion.
Active Assisted Range of Motion
This type of flexibility exercise also moves the affected limbs through a full range of motion, but does so with a combination of manual assistance and muscular participation. Active assisted range of motion exercises build strength in atrophied muscles, yet keep the stimulation at an intensity level that is safe and achievable. Perform this simple shoulder flexibility exercise at home, using only a broom handle or other long stick for assistance.
- Grasp the top of the broom handle with your right hand and the lower part of the broom with your left.
- With both arms working together, slowly move the broom upward until you feel a slight pull in the right shoulder.
- Hold the position for 15 to 30 seconds and repeat for the opposite side.
Active Range of Motion
Active range of motion exercises to increase flexibility are performed independently, either moving limbs through their range of motion against the resistance of gravity or using gravity-limiting positions. Perform these exercises while seated, reclining, or laying down to modify the level of resistance.To promote flexibility of the neck using active range of motion exercise, you can perform a series of head tilts, head turns, and chin-to-chest exercises.
- Begin with your neck in a neutral position.
- Move your head in each plane of movement until you feel a slight stretch.
- Hold each position for a moment, and then slowly return to the starting position.
Static Stretching Exercises
Static stretches relax the muscles themselves by softening and relaxing the muscular connective tissue. Normally, you move into a position or posture just until you feel a slight stretch in the muscle, and then hold that position for a predetermined length of time. A simple static stretching exercise to stretch the muscles of the back can start with sitting in a chair.
- Sit straight up with your knees pressed together.
- Take a deep breath and let it out as you bend over and reach toward the floor.
- Hold the position for about thirty seconds or as long as is comfortable, then slowly return to the starting position.
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation
Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNR) is a type of assisted stretching commonly used in physiotherapy programs. The technique alternates brief muscular contractions with the desired stretches, taking advantage of the body's natural contraction-relaxation reflexes to facilitate stretching. PNR is commonly performed with professional assistance, but can also be replicated with the help of a family member, or independently using a towel or rope to create the necessary resistance or assistance.To stretch the hamstrings and gluteus muscles using PNR, try the following exercise:
- Lay supine on the floor or a low bench and extend one leg upward.
- Have a partner gently grasp your foot and hold it in a stretch position for about 20 seconds.
- Release the stretch, and isometrically contract the same muscles against your partner's resistance for four or five seconds.
- Relax the muscles and allow your partner to guide the leg gently, just beyond the normal range of motion for another 20 to 30 seconds.
- Repeat for the opposite leg.
Increased flexibility will make everyday movements safer and easier. Once your range of motion is no longer a limiting factor, you will be free to add strength and cardiovascular exercises to your training program. With time and determination, your efforts will be rewarded with a fitter, healthier, and ultimately more rewarding future.