Brian Parr

Brian Parr

Achieving and maintaining a high level of physical fitness is essential for good health and an active lifestyle. Regular exercise can promote weight loss, enhance wellbeing and improve endurance, strength and flexibility. Of these three components of fitness, flexibility is the one that often gets the least attention. Unfortunately, this can lead to limitations in movement that can interfere with activity and may cause injury.

But improving flexibility alone is not the answer – you should also focus on improving mobility, which is the ability to move without limitations. If flexibility allows your muscles and joints to move through their full range of motion, mobility promotes proper movement and posture.

Mobility training aims to enhance movement through a combination of strength, flexibility and motor control. Good mobility goes beyond being flexible and is as much about knowing how to move as it is about being able to move. For athletes, this means building strength, endurance and flexibility as well as training to apply that power in a sport-specific way. For example, jumping and landing safely is something most athletes need to do well to optimize performance and prevent injury. For the rest of us, mobility matters because it allows us to complete our daily activities, including exercise and occupational requirements, without restrictions.

As important as mobility is, most people lack the strength and flexibility to properly and comfortably do many common activities. Much of this is attributed to poor mobility in the hips and spine, largely due to something that we all do for much of the day – sitting! Prolonged sitting at work, home or in the car requires that you assume an unnatural body position which, over time, causes muscles and joints to adapt in a way that limits other movements. You may notice this as a feeling of tightness or stiffness when you stand after sitting for a long time.

The first step in fixing this problem is to sit less whenever possible and to take activity breaks at least every hour. Even a short walk or a few minutes of standing and stretching will help limit the damage of sitting. Exercise to improve mobility can restore strength, flexibility and proper movement. These exercises frequently target the hips, legs, core and shoulders which are often weak from poor posture. Just like stretching, working on mobility should be a part of your regular routine.

Mobility is important for everyone but especially so as we age. Movement limitations with aging are due to natural declines in strength and endurance. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Focusing on mobility can preserve the capacity to do basic activities of daily living. Sitting in a chair and rising from a seated position becomes challenging for many older adults. This movement is essentially a squat, a basic functional exercise. Climbing stairs, another challenge, involves strength, coordination and balance, all of which are improved with exercise to promote better mobility.

You may already be familiar with mobility training since it is a component of many popular functional fitness classes and programs. If not, spending time on improving your mobility should be a regular part of your exercise routine. Many fitness centers have resources to help you get started and you can find examples of exercises you can do at home on the web. Either way, you should think about improving your mobility along with your strength, endurance and flexibility when you exercise.

Brian Parr, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at USC Aiken where he teaches courses in exercise physiology, nutrition and health behavior. You can learn more about this and other health and fitness topics at http://drparrsays.com or on Twitter @drparrsays.