The author’s daughter demonstrating the child’s pose, which helps with shoulder mobility, and open-the-gate for hip mobility.
By Lee Sandford
Fitness instructors like myself know that the term “mobility” isn’t up there with client-grabbing words like shred, burn, and high-intensity intervals, and that it’s often overlooked by clients in their quest to get fit. It is however an essential element not just of fitness, but also of everyday quality of life and even longevity.
A common topic at my classes is the stresses we face having elderly parents, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that mobility is one of the main markers of whether independent living remains possible.
Mobility and flexibility are often confused, so let’s clarify that to start. Flexibility is concerned with the lengthening of a muscle in a particular direction, perhaps with assistance, such as using your hand to pull your heel to your rear in a quad stretch. Mobility is the ability to move a joint and accompanying muscles in different directions and angles, in the full range of motion it was designed for, without mechanical assistance.
One would think that any kind of movement would, by definition, keep one mobile. But there’s more to it than that. For example, most of our go-to movement and exercises, like walking, running, and cycling are in one plane. That’s doesn’t improve hip mobility and can lead to the risk of injury. If you’ve walked past my Thyrve classes on the beach, you’ve probably seen us side-stepping across the sand or doing side squats and star-jumps, all exercises that encourage three-dimensional capabilities in joints, for improved function and reduced risk of injury in our three-dimensional lives.
A protocol present in every one of my classes, that you should add to your workout routine with immediate effect, is a dynamic stretch as part of your warm-up. Dynamic stretching involves movements like walking lunges, or traveling side squats, as opposed to a static stretch like the aforementioned quad stretch. Save static stretches for the end of your workout and prepare your joints properly with a dynamic stretch before hitting the weights. Switching up your workouts is also great for overall mobility and bonus points if that involves adding in yoga.
Looking at a few of the main joints will explain why mobility is so crucial and how you can improve it. With hips, for one, the most compelling reason for me to work on this a lot with my clients is that the stats relating to broken hips and quality of life and mortality make grim reading. My clients are mostly only in middle age, but by the time we are the age those frightening stats come into play, it’ll be too late.
Any sideways drills in your workout will be good for your hips; or try the open-the-gate/close-the-gate drill that you see soccer players doing as they warm up to play. Stand on one leg and bring your knee up in front of you to where your thigh is parallel with the floor. Take the knee out to the side, opening up the hip. Make this a dynamic stretch by doing it as you walk (yes, it’s a bit Monty Python), and reverse the move to close-the-gate.
There are plenty of reasons why shoulder mobility is important, but the easy answer is that your shoulders are involved in just about every upper body movement. My daughter, who kindly agreed to be a model for this article, has to have a minor procedure on her shoulder and asked the surgeon about recovery for the dance competition season. He replied, “If I couldn’t let you dance, I’d also have to tell all my patients not to brush their teeth or wash their hair.” Again, thinking of it that way, I can’t help but see a link between mobility and independent living as we age. Being a ball and socket joint, the shoulder functions through many planes, so there are different stretches for each one. Child’s pose is a relaxing stretch overall and great for increasing the range of motion in shoulder flexion.
Neck mobility is essential for everyday life — think driving or crossing the street safely — but also compromised by everyday life, with terms like “text neck” and “working-from-home posture” now in our vernacular. You can counter this with simple movements throughout the day, like dropping your ear towards your shoulder on each side then your chin towards your chest, or head rotations through the full range of motion. Of course, researching and writing this article hunched over a laptop has prompted me to do this a few times! Work on your mobility, no matter your age, and you’ll feel better instantly, and your future self with thank you, too.