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We love to ooh and aah at what flexible people can do: Gymnasts, dancers and acrobats are fun to watch because their bendy bodies move in cool and unexpected ways. But for the rest of us, flexibility doesn’t have to be a floor show. It’s not about trying to contort yourself into a pretzel. Rather, it’s about good health — and joints that have a fuller range of motion are healthier joints. That means more enjoyment and ability to move in all the ways that your busy life demands. The way babies move is the best illustration of range of motion: Their loosey-goosey bodies allow them to eat their toes and sleep completely folded in half. But unfortunately, as we get older, those toes just get further and further away! 

Decreasing flexibility is partially the result of normal aging: Your connective tissue and collagen lose water content and get stiffer and weaker, which limits what your joints can do, says sports medicine physician Susan Joy, MD, director of women’s sports health at Cleveland Clinic Sports Health. But the way we live is also a huge factor: We sit hunched at desks, in cars and on couches — our shoulders creep more forward with each passing year, our hips become misaligned and muscle fibers become shorter. “We stop taking our joints through the range of motion,” says yoga teacher and fitness coach Sage Rountree, author of The Athlete’s Guide to Yoga. Eventually, your body just adapts and figures out ways of moving that require less range of motion. “The muscles we use get strong, and everything else gets tight,” Rountree says.

However, with some lifestyle changes and specific attention paid to stretching, you can really improve flexibility — even in middle age (and older). Increasing your flexibility can make you feel younger and more energized, improve your posture, help reduce the risk for injury and — when combined with a cardiovascular and strength-training regimen — help you get in shape.

Wow Fact
Your muscles have a built-in mechanism to protect you from injury called the stretch reflex. It acts sort of like a seat belt — restraining your joint from moving too far when it’s not supposed to (like if you’re falling). It takes at least eight seconds of holding a stretch for your joint to drop the stretch reflex and relax.

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