Taking steps to become more flexible may not be your—or your doctor's—top health concern. But you'll benefit in several important ways by adding some quick stretches to your week.  

Maintaining flexibility—which simply means how much and how easily you can move your joints—can help improve your balance and stability, prevent aches and pains, and reduce your risk of injuries such as sprained ankles and pulled muscles, according to Carol Ewing Garber, Ph.D., professor of movement science and kine­si­ol­ogy at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York City.

Over the years many of us lose that feeling of suppleness. As we get older, we tend to move less, which shortens (and weakens) muscles. Shortened muscles make it more difficult to move your joints through their full range of motion.

Because loss of flexibility often happens gradually, you might not notice it until it’s significant. But one common sign is stiffness.

This may be especially noticeable in the morning, when changing position from sitting or prone to standing, or while performing movements such as reaching for a glass on a high shelf or turning your neck to look over your shoulder. You might also experience an increase in minor injuries, such as pulled muscles, or feel less steady overall.

The Stretching Solution

You can become more flexible by stretching—performing gentle exercises that help loosen and lengthen muscles. The lower-back, chest, and calf muscles, and hip flexors are among those that typically need the most stretching.

Paul Holbrook, M.A., founder of Age Performance, a fitness training center in Salt Lake City, says stretching regularly can help counteract the effects of sitting most of the day, as many Americans do.

Just 10 minutes two or three times per week will improve your flexibility in about three or four weeks. Stretching daily, however, will help you get the most benefit.

In addition to improving flexibility, stretching may reduce stress and make you feel more relaxed. “Stretch­ing is the easiest exercise, and pleasant for most people,” Garber says.

Stretching regularly may also help prevent painful middle-of-the-night leg cramps.

A 2012 study of 80 adults with these muscle spasms found that leg stretches before bed reduced the frequency and severity of cramps.

These stretches will help you become more flexible.
Illustration: Mckibillo

Stretches to Help You Become More Flexible

These three stretches are easy for most people to perform and a good way to get started on the road to increased flexibility:

1. Back stretch (above, left). Sit in a chair with your feet flat on the ground, shoulder width apart. Bend forward from your hips, trying to bend as far forward as possible. As you do, relax your neck and slide your hands down your legs toward your ankles. Hold for at least 30 seconds. Straighten up to a sitting position. Repeat three to five times.

2. Calf and hip stretch (above, center). Stand facing a wall, an arm’s length away. Place hands flat on the wall at shoulder height. Step forward with your right leg and bend your right knee to about a 45-degree angle. Bend your left knee slightly and push into the wall to stretch your left calf. To stretch your left hip flexor, push your hips slightly downward. Hold for at least 30 seconds, then switch legs. Repeat three to five times.

3. Chest stretch (above, right). Standing in a doorway, place each of your hands on opposite doorjambs. Holding on to the doorjambs, take a small step forward with one leg. Lean forward slightly till you feel a stretch in your chest. Hold for at least 30 seconds and step back. ­Repeat if so inclined.

Want more? Download additional stretches at the National Institutes of Health website.

Editor's note: This article also appeared in the May 2017 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.