Fitness: Mobility shouldn’t take a back seat to flexibility

The inability to get down to — and up from — the floor and the struggle to look over your shoulder when you back up the car are signs of poor mobility.

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Remember when bending over to pick something up off the floor was effortless? And when filling bags of leaves didn’t end with an ice pack and a couple of Advil? If you can relate, it’s time to work on your mobility.

Often forced to take a back seat to flexibility, mobility is underrated and often misunderstood. Admittedly, it’s easy to confuse the two, but the differences are important. Mobility is the capacity to perform a movement fluidly and pain free. Flexibility refers to the range of motion at a specific joint.

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A choppy, disjointed golf swing, the inability to get down to — and up from — the floor in a fluid uninterrupted motion and the struggle to look over your shoulder when you back the car out of the driveway are signs of poor mobility. The effortless coordination of movements is what typifies mobility versus the singular action of touching your toes or clasping both hands behind your back, which is an example of flexibility.

That doesn’t mean flexibility isn’t important to mobility. Combined with strength and balance, all three work in synergy to help you perform not just the activities of everyday life, but also the more complex athletic movements that are the foundation of sports and physical activity.

In your younger days, bending over, stepping up or grabbing something just out of reach was easy. But with age, mobility and flexibility decrease, largely due to the use-it-or-lose-it principle. Not only do we typically become more sedentary as we age, movement patterns also become smaller and more repetitive. We reach less, squat less, lunge less and twist less. And when we do squat, lunge and twist, we’re more likely to shorten or slow down the movements, which compromises our ability to move effortlessly through a full range of motion when needed.

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But it’s not just age that compromises mobility. Injury can do the same, reducing strength, balance and flexibility such that selective movements start feeling unstable and out of synch.

For the most part, these small but significant changes to our daily movement patterns go unnoticed until mobility decreases to the point that everyday activities not only become harder to perform but can also lead to a variety of aches and pains. Those aches and pains may not happen right away, but a lack of mobility can change healthy movement patterns into a series of dysfunctional manoeuvres that cause back, shoulder, knee and neck pain, not to mention injury.

The more mobility deteriorates, the more difficult it becomes to do even simple things, like going up and down stairs, moving from a sitting to a standing position and putting on socks and shoes. Often seen as a sign of aging, it’s actually a lack of mobility that contributes to the loss of independence experienced later in life.

So how do you maintain mobility through all phases of the life cycle? Staying active is important. The more you move your joints through all ranges and planes of motion, the easier the body responds to the myriad daily demands that are part of an active lifestyle. But once you start spending less time moving and more time sitting, not only do strength, flexibility and balance start deteriorating, so does the synchronicity between all three.

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How you move also has an impact on mobility. Don’t shy away from large dynamic movements that take you outside your comfort zone. Add squats and lunges to your daily routine, slowly increasing your depth and speed of movement. And be sure to move your spine through all its planes, bending, stretching and twisting. Go ahead and be conservative to start. It’s OK for a movement to be challenging, but pain and discomfort are signs you’ve gone too far.

Also important is to move to and from the floor, even if the process is slow and awkward. Practice makes perfect, with small wins leading to big gains, so don’t be frustrated if you need extra support to lower or rise back up to a standing position.

Tai chi and yoga are two great options if you want a more structured and supervised approach to mobility training. Both activities feature dynamic, coordinated movement patterns that mimic those used daily. They also build strength, balance and flexibility. And with the presence of a trained instructor, you can receive any necessary modifications to assist in movements that pose too much of a challenge.

Once you find a mobility routine that works for you, add it to your daily schedule. It takes as little as 10 minutes to go through a series of full-body movements that put your hips, shoulders, ankles and knees through their paces. The benefits are both immediate and long term.

Not only will you move better and feel better — you can say goodbye to all those grunts and groans every time you reach down to get something off the floor.

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