Is being super bendy really a health ideal we should strive for?

Whether you’re an avid yogi or self-proclaimed gym hopper, you’re likely to hear your instructor toss around the terms “flexibility” and “mobility.”

While many people assume that the two terms are interchangeable, there’s actually a big difference between them.

Lots of us aspire to the standards of flexibility we see when we’re scrolling our Instagram feed. We’ve all seen that beyond-bendy yoga influencer who can effortlessly contort their body, all while simultaneously managing to smile for the camera.

But is this level of flexibility really a health ideal we should strive for?

To get to the bottom of this question, it’s important to understand the difference between flexibility and mobility:

Flexibility is a muscle’s ability to lengthen passively, or without engagement. When you perform static (holding still) stretches using body weight, limb support, or props, you’re working on muscular flexibility.

Mobility, on the other hand, is related to the joints and their ability to move actively through their full range of motion. Think of lifting your leg in the air to a 90-degree angle and bringing it back down again. That’s active mobility.

To have good mobility, you do need good flexibility.

You also need muscular strength and stability to actively manipulate the joints. Dynamic, moving stretches work on joint mobility by tackling flexibility, strength, and stability all at once.

An easy way to test the difference between flexibility and mobility in your own body is to raise your knee toward your chest. Your hip mobility is defined by how far your knee travels without assistance.

Then place your hands on your knee, and actively pull it closer to your chest. This stretch shows your overall flexibility in the hip.

It’s a common misconception that flexibility is necessary for overall health. In reality, there’s no proof that flexibility has any real health benefits when it’s not combined with strong, mobile joints.

In some cases, flexibility can actually do more harm than good.

Unfortunately, fitness trends often focus on how “pretty” or “impressive” flexibility looks, meaning they don’t put much emphasis on mobility training.

If you tend to stretch your muscles by holding static positions, you may be neglecting your mobility.

If you’re in your 20s or 30s, you may think that joint mobility isn’t something you need to worry about. However, lack of physical activity, daily stress, and even sleep patterns can impinge on our mobility at any age.

Mobility has plenty of benefits that make it worthwhile to invest a little time and effort into this often-ignored area of physical health.

May prevent injury

Studies have shown that range of motion in the joints and injury risk are directly related.

By incorporating dynamic stretches instead of static, you’ll activate and strengthen all the muscles needed to move a joint through its range of motion. This creates muscle balance and reduces the risk of injury.

According to Kelsey Drew, a physiotherapist from Tower Physio, “The static versus dynamic question is always controversial, and depends on one’s intended outcome — but, based on the most recent research available, I’m in the camp of dynamic stretching.”

Drew goes on to explain that the research is still out on whether dynamic stretching can actually prevent injury. However, she always recommends dynamic stretches.

“Static stretching as a warmup before activity has actually shown to impair explosive muscle activity, so it could be really detrimental if you’re doing any sprinting or competitive sports,” she says.

Improve posture

If you experience immobility in the joints, your posture can suffer. Several studies have linked postural imbalance with a lack of joint mobility. Essentially, without strong muscles around the joints, it’s difficult to maintain good posture.

One study found that pelvis mobility may be linked to healthy spinal posture. Another study found that hip immobility can affect the natural curvature of the lumbar spine.

This leads to common postural problems like slouched shoulders, an arched spine, and a compressed neck. Poor posture can lead to chronic aches and pains in the lower back, neck, and shoulders.

By incorporating dynamic stretches for joint mobility in your routine, you’ll encourage better natural posture, and reduce the number of aches and pains you feel on a daily basis.

Increase ease of movement

Joint mobility is responsible for the control and coordination of some of our basic, everyday movements.

If you experience poor mobility, you may find it difficult to complete daily movements. This is because a lack of joint mobility makes active movements difficult to complete without discomfort.

By working on mobility, you can train your muscles to be flexible enough to grab that plate that’s just out of reach, or extend your arm above your head to get to the top shelf in the kitchen.

May reduce stress

You might think that static stretches like a forward fold or half-split stretch would have a meditative effect on the mind. Surprisingly, it turns out that the effects of dynamic movements are more powerful.

A recent practice called sophrology claims that a mixture of techniques, including dynamic movements, meditation, mindfulness, and breathing, can help reduce stress.

Physical independence

As the body ages, it’s natural for joint mobility to weaken. Eventually, the joints can become so restricted that everyday movements like walking, standing, and holding objects becomes difficult without assistance.

The sooner you start working on your mobility, the better. The natural mobility of the joints begins to deteriorate at around 30 years old. By incorporating mobility training in your routine now, you might be able to prolong your physical independence.

Greater flexibility

If you’re still keen on improving your flexibility, mobility exercises can help you reach your goals.

Working on the splits? Try some active dynamic stretches to mobilize and open the hip joints. You’ll find it much easier next time you slide down into a straddle when your hips have a greater range of natural motion.

Leg swing

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart with a soft bend in your knees.
  2. Lift one leg off the ground, keeping a gentle bend in your knee.
  3. Gently sweep the lifted leg in front of you, then swing it directly behind you like a pendulum.
  4. Repeat this motion 5 to 10 times, then switch sides.

Hip circles

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Press your hips out to the left, leaning your body slightly to the right.
  3. Move your hips in a large circle, passing through front, right, back, and left.
  4. Repeat 5 to 10 times, then reverse the direction of your circle.

Arm circles

  1. Standing with your feet shoulder-width apart, raise your arms to either side of your body, creating a “T” shape.
  2. Keeping your arms straight, start to rotate your arms in large circles, moving from your shoulder joint, keeping your palms facing down.
  3. Repeat 5 to 10 times, then switch directions.

Swinging spine rotation

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, and raise your arms to either side of your body, creating a “T” shape.
  2. Begin to twist through your spine, moving your arms parallel to the floor.
  3. Twist left and right through your spine, keeping your hips and legs facing forward.
  4. Repeat 5 to 10 times.

While it may be tempting to focus on improving your flexibility, it’s far more beneficial to emphasize improving your mobility.

By strengthening the muscles around your joints through dynamic movements, you’ll notice fewer injuries, improved posture, and even a sense of improved well-being.

While there’s nothing wrong with being flexible, dynamic mobility exercises provide the strength and stability that leads to improved range of motion and great posture, even into late adulthood.

Meg Walters is a writer and actor from London. She is interested in exploring topics such as fitness, meditation, and healthy lifestyles in her writing. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, yoga, and the occasional glass of wine.