By Brian B. Parr, Ph.D., ACSM Certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist
Achieving and maintaining a high level of physical fitness is essential for good health and an active lifestyle. Regular exercise can promote weight loss, enhance wellbeing, and improve endurance, strength, and flexibility. Of these three components of fitness, flexibility is the one that often gets the least attention. Unfortunately, this can lead to limitations in movement that can interfere with activity and may cause injury. Improving flexibility alone is not the answer – you should also focus on improving mobility, which is the ability to move without limitations. If flexibility allows your muscles and joints to move, mobility promotes proper movement and posture.
Flexibility refers to the ability to move joints through their range of motion. Poor flexibility can limit movement in exercise and other activities of daily living, contribute to feelings of pain and stiffness, and may increase the chance of injury. You can improve your flexibility by stretching, the process of lengthening muscles and relaxing connective tissue that surrounds muscles and joints. Static stretching, where you hold a stretch for at least 10–30 seconds is most common, but there are many other methods, including yoga, to improve flexibility.
Mobility training goes a step further to enhance movement through a combination of strength, flexibility, and motor control. Good mobility goes beyond being flexible and is as much about knowing how to move as it is about being able to move. For athletes, this means building strength, endurance, and flexibility, as well as training to apply that power in a sport-specific way. For example, jumping and landing safely is something most athletes need to do well to optimize performance and prevent injury. For the rest of us, mobility matters because it allows us to complete our daily activities, including exercise and occupational requirements, without restrictions.
For example, imagine you need to move a heavy box from the floor to a high shelf. This involves squatting down to grab the box, standing up, then lifting the box over your head. Poor mobility will limit your flexibility to squat down, strength to stand and lift, and control your movement to do it all in a smooth, stable motion. There is a weightlifting exercise called “the snatch” in which you lift a weight, typically a barbell, from the floor to over your head with your arms extended in one movement. Training to do a snatch involves developing good range of motion of your ankles, knees, hips, back, and shoulders, the strength to lift the weight, and the motor control to coordinate these complex movements.
As important as mobility is, most people lack the strength and flexibility to properly and comfortably do many common activities. Much of this is attributed to poor mobility in the hips and spine, largely due to something that we all do – sitting! Prolonged sitting at work, home, or in the car requires that you assume an unnatural body position which, over time, causes muscles and joints to adapt in a way that limits other movements. You may notice this as a feeling of tightness or stiffness when you stand after sitting for a long time.
The first step in reducing this is to sit less whenever possible and to take activity breaks at least every hour. Even a short walk or a minute or two of standing and stretching will help limit the damage of sitting. Exercise to improve mobility can restore strength, flexibility, and proper movement. These exercises frequently target the hips, legs, core, and shoulders which are often weak from poor posture. Two exercises that are simple and effective are a simple squat and a plank, but more complex movements are included in mobility training. Tools like foam rollers, elastic bands, and therapy balls can be used to target and release tight tissues. Just like stretching, working on mobility should be a part of your regular routine.
Mobility is important for everyone, but especially so as we age. Movement limitations with aging are due to natural declines in strength and endurance. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Focusing on mobility can preserve the capacity to do basic activities of daily living. Sitting in a chair and rising from a seated position becomes challenging for many older adults. This movement is essentially a squat, a basic functional exercise. Climbing stairs, another challenge, involves strength, coordination, and balance, all of which are improved with exercise to promote better mobility.
You may already be familiar with mobility training since it is a component of many popular functional fitness classes and programs. If not, spending time on improving your mobility should be a regular part of your exercise routine. Many fitness centers have resources to help you get started and you can find examples of exercises you can do at home on the web. Either way, you should think about improving your mobility along with your strength, endurance, and flexibility when you exercise. The bottom line is that we should all sit less, move more, and mobilize!
Brian B. Parr, Ph.D., is an ACSM Certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist and Associate Professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at the University of South Carolina Aiken.
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