Radical Queer Health: Flexibility

Some people are just born  bendy, literally and metaphorically. or so it seems. Biologically speaking some people have longer ligaments, the tough rope-like attachments that connect bones as well as more extensible tendons, the muscular attachments to the skeleton. However, regular flexibility practice, especially when started from an early age, can also increase the capacity to stretch and twist our bodies: witness the capacity of martial artists, dancers, yogins, and contortionists. While science suggests that taking our joints through their full range of motion can improve our musculoskeletal function, watch your pup or kitteh waking up from a nap to discover the simple truth: stretching just feels good.

Flexibility is defined as the range of motion about a joint and the ease or comfort one has while moving. Think about bending over to tie your shoes or reaching behind your back to hook a bra clasp (seriously, who decided that placement, anyway?). Both actions require flexibility, specifically of the lower back and hamstrings in the former example and the muscles around the shoulder, elbow and wrist. Interestingly, at least two types of flexibility exist and can be improved: static and dynamic. Static flexibility involves holding a stretch for relatively long periods of time whereas dynamic stretching involves fast, continuous extension or rotation of limbs. Why is this important? The old school mantra of practicing static stretches prior to an activity may actually decrease performance in many instances. Additionally, for many years exercise scientists advised fitness professionals to avoid prescribing ‘ballistic’ (also called explosive or dynamic) stretching in order to theoretically reduce the risk of muscle tears (you really shouldn’t attempt to drop into and bounce a split if you have never done so before). These days a well-balanced activity regimen incorporates a warm up prior to stretching to improve muscular blood flow and a literal heating of muscles and tendons which increases their capacity to lengthen. Warming up also helps to decrease the viscosity of synovial fluid, by heating and stirring the natural lubricant found in our joints that keeps us from turning into Tin People. This in turn enhances our range of comfortable motion which improves performance and may reduce our risk of injury. Dynamic stretching involving the muscles we intend to work, such as legs for cycling or arms for softball, then physically and mentally prepares our bodies for action.

Stretch whenever, wherever, and however you can, especially if you are engaged in long tasks held in one position such as driving, sitting at a desk, or standing behind a counter. Think about emphasizing lifting your spine up and back as so much of modern living has us slumped with our heads down and chests collapsed on our stomachs. Check out this excellent resource from Berkely for more ideas on bringing the benefits of this practice into to your daily life.

Bending, of course, has more than one meaning. I grew up with David Bowie, Annie Lennox and Prince (dropping into and bouncing into splits IN HEELS, no less) as prime examples of 1980s “gender bending”, and in future articles on flexibility I will delve more deeply into that aspect of the word. For today I’d like focus instead on an often-neglected topic: mental flexibility. Change sucks. We hate it. Regular rhythms have comforted us since we experienced the sensation of our mother’s heart beating while in her womb. We cling to our habits fiercely to defend against a modern world of information overload and unpredictable events. Mental stiffness may trap us, holding us in negative cycles of poor but comfortable health habits or rigid ways of perceiving the world.  Too much of a good thing, of course, causes problems: people with hypermobile joints are at increased risk of injury…they are “too” flexible. If an individual rapidly shifts from one intellectual position to another or is incapable of following any schedules, they may be said to have detrimental hypermobility of the mind. One of the best ways that I personally have put both the physical and mental aspects of flexibility training into practice is with a daily yoga commitment. The cultivation of awareness this discipline provides has enabled me to move outside of my comfort zone; again, both literally and metaphorically I STRETCH every day. You may find other programs that work for you, and make the time to explore this article detailing important considerations about mental health and mental flexibility.

Your body and your life are going to continue to change, and you have an active say in how that change occurs. Resist, and you may create physical tension, muscular rigidity, and aches and pains that limit the ease with which you move in the world. Turn in to a worn out gumband, and you risk inhabiting a pale echo of your potential self, allowing gravity to drag your body downward and the winds of fortune to blow your thoughts around like leaves in a hurricane. Add flexibility training to both elements of your life and continue to bend proudly for many years to come.


Amy S. Kreger

This article originally appeared on QueerPgh.com. This article is preserved as a part of the Q Archives project. Please consider donating to help preserve Pittsburgh’s Queer history.