Flexibility and Mobility: Why They Matter As We Age
People often come to yoga because they want more flexibility. Of course, I’ve also had people tell me that it’s their lack of flexibility that prevents them from trying yoga.
Although flexibility is one of its many benefits, yoga also provides greater mobility which is important, especially as we age. Lack of mobility can affect your ability to walk, climb stairs, drive and engage in other tasks of daily living. Poor mobility also increases your chances of falling and sustaining an injury.
So what’s the difference between flexibility & mobility? Is one more important than the other? Read on to find out.
Flexibility vs. Mobility
The best way to illustrate the difference between flexibility and mobility is to think about how your thumb moves. If you pull your thumb back with your opposite hand so it moves closer to your wrist, you’re employing your thumb’s muscular flexibility. This movement is passively because in order for it to move in this manner, it needs you to pull on it.
The muscles around your thumb, like all the muscles in your body, have elastic components, much like a rubber band, designed to help the muscle stretch. If you pull both ends of a rubber band and it stretches (as any good rubber band should) it’s flexible. If it doesn’t (and hopefully doesn’t snap either), it’s inflexible. The same concept applies to the muscles of your thumb. Its ability to move depends on the ability of the muscles to stretch or lengthen.
Now if you try to move your thumb to that exact same spot on your wrist without the help of your other hand, it most likely won’t move as far. In this scenario, you are engaging your thumb’s mobility. This kind of movement is dynamic and involves actively moving the joint in one or more directions. The ability of a joint to move in multiple directions is referred to as its range of motion (ROM) and can be limited due to injury, surgery or inactivity.
The Chicken and the Egg: Which is More Important?
It’s probably already obvious to you, but when it comes to flexibility and mobility, one isn’t more important than the other. We need a blend of both.
Mobility allows us to function and move in daily life. It incorporated skills such as balance and coordination, and helps preserve muscle, bone and joint health. Mobility naturally declines with age so it’s important to find ways to maintain good mobility.
However, to have good mobility, you also need good flexibility. Flexibility of the muscles and other soft tissues surrounding a joint contribute to its mobility. The loss of flexibility can result in joint stiffness and a reduction in range of motion. In addition, muscle flexibility helps prevent falls, improves balance, decreases chronic pain and improves posture. So, believe it or not, it’s possible to be flexible but lack mobility.
In order to stay active and move easily, we need both flexibility and mobility. Happily, yoga fosters both.
Flexibility and Mobility in Action
A well-rounded yoga practice moves the body’s joints through their full range of motion while simultaneously increasing muscle flexibility.
As someone who works regularly with individuals with osteoporosis, arthritis and other joint issues, I like to start my classes with mobility exercises to warm up the joints before transitioning to flexibility and strengthening poses. To do this, I’ve adapted the Joint Freeing Series (JFS aka Pavanmuktasana) created by Mukunda Tom Stiles, founder of Structural Yoga Therapy. This sequence of 21 poses starts with movements of the feet and ankles and moves upward to the knees, hips, spine, torso, wrist, elbows, shoulders, and neck.