We know that strength decreases once we reach our 40s, but what about our ability to touch our toes? We asked a stretch expert how flexibility fluctuates throughout our lives.
Our bodies are constantly changing, which means that our capabilities, strength and nutritional needs also fluctuate throughout the days, months and years. But does your flexibility and the range of motion in your muscles and joints change, too?
The trope of older people not being able to pick things up from the floor thanks to their stiff knees and aching muscles suggests that age is the primary reason that we become less flexible. Yet, there are older people who stay mobile well into their dotage. So, what role does growing older actually play on our ability to move and stretch, and what else might impact flexibility?
We asked Rachel Gilman, founder of assisted stretch studio stretchinc, to explain everything about flexibility throughout our life.
Does age affect flexibility?
Ever seen how flexible a baby is? They think nothing of rocking around with their feet touching their head… and yet, despite hours of yoga classes, you can barely bend to touch your kneecaps. “When we’re born, we have a lot more cartilage and we’re more malleable because we’re still growing,” explains Rachel. “As we grow up, especially around nine to 11 years old, our bones solidify and our muscles and ligaments lengthen at a rate that we’re not used to. That can cause them to get tighter.”
However, you probably didn’t become noticeably less flexible aged 10 because, as children, we are active. “If you experienced growing pains as a child, you probably just got on with it,” says Rachel. Constantly moving keeps the muscles loose, despite the bodies natural tightening.
As we age into our 20s and 30s, flexibility requires work – but your natural range shouldn’t take too much effort to maintain. “Up until middle age your body is holding enough water, your muscles are working at the right capacity, we’re not as prone to injury and we heal faster,” Rachel explains. “Around age 36 is usually when these things start to decline. With them also goes our natural flexibility.”
According to a 2013 study from the Journal of Aging Research, men and women will experience a decrease in flexibility of the shoulder and hip joints by approximately six degrees per decade between the ages of 55 to 86. That doesn’t mean that all people past middle aged are resigned to a life without ever touching their toes. “There are many people who are just naturally flexible. They may have or be on the edge of hypermobility and they might be able to maintain that for their entire lives without much work. But the average person’s flexibility can be maintained with a little more effort than before, and it will also ebb and flow as they work at it.”
Does your flexibility change throughout the month?
We talk a lot about how we exercise in tune with our monthly cycles and how periods can impact our strength. Can your fluctuating hormones also result in you feeling more or less stretchy? “There’s not quite the same amount of research on the hormonal impact on flexibility as there is with strength,” says Rachel. “Yet it’s important to remember that your body will feel different every single day and you need to be aware of it personally because you’re the one practicing.”
Even if you are usually very flexible, there will be some days when you feel stiff or less stretchy. Whether that is because of hormonal reasons, a change in your energy levels, having an illness or doing a tough workout the day before is (almost) irrelevant, says Rachel. The important thing is that you’re assessing your body every single time before you move it, and not just assuming you can always stretch to your full capability.
Does your flexibility change when you have children?
“When people have babies, certain hormones are released that increase their flexibility so that they can give birth with a little bit more ease,” explains Rachel. This isn’t just reserved for the muscles surrounding the stomach and pelvis, but can impact the entire body.
“Many women experience extra flexibility in pregnancy. It’s not necessarily a good or bad thing, but it’s something to be aware of because you can injure yourself if you overstretch without realising. If you notice that you are hyperflexible in ways that you weren’t before, especially in your main joints like your knees, hips and shoulders, you should speak with your healthcare professional,” Rachel explains.
How long this extra flexibility lasts after pregnancy depends on the person. For some people, it may never go away, for others it might disappear pretty sharpish. Again, Rachel’s message is to check in with your body every time you go to move it.
Does your flexibility change after the menopause?
A lot of the decrease in flexibility as we age can be traced back to one thing: the menopause. “We have less collagen and water, we have to work harder to lift weight as we’re losing bone density and we become more prone to injury, which all limits our flexibility,” says Rachel. A 2019 paper by researchers at the University of California found that estrogen directly affects the structure and function of muscle, tendon, and ligament. A reduction in the hormone during menopause can therefore result in a less stretchy body.
While that might mean yoga classes become more challenging, the more important aspect is that it can reduce overall mobility. “Remember that mobility is strength plus flexibility,” says Rachel. “They all impact each other, so reduced mobility will in turn make you weaker, and without the strength to do flexibility exercises, you won’t be able to work through a functional range of movement.”
So what’s the message? Mainly, to keep stretching and strengthening your muscles throughout your life. But most importantly, to keep an eye on your individual range of movement and do what feels right for you. “Flexibility is always going to depend on the person. Some of it is genetic, some of it is to do with life changes in the body, and we should respect that,” says Rachel.
To increase your flexibility, check out our collection of 15-minute mobility workouts on the Strong Women Training Club.
Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).