My ten-year-old daughter has, all of sudden, developed a singular, all- consuming obsession: she wants to be able to do the splits. ‘Look at me, I’m almost right down!’ she’ll cry, hovering over the kitchen floor. ‘Now your turn. Go on Mummy.’
Thirty years ago, as a young ballet student, I’d drop into box splits like others drop into a chair. But if I were to attempt the splits now, I’d likely pop a hip.
My daughter’s fascination stems from, you guessed it, social media, where it’s apparently trendy to be incredibly bendy. And I’ve discovered a fair few celebs my own age are now getting in on the act.
Nicole Scherzinger, pictured, posted a photograph of her doing the splits while inverted during an exercise workout
Scherzinger, pictured, is one of a growing number of celebrities who post photographs of them doing the splits on the internet for their legion of fans
A few weeks back, popstar and former X Factor judge Nicole Scherzinger, 42, was showing off her enviable flexibility online, doing a jaw-dropping, upside down splits-in-the-air. Meanwhile, actress Kate Beckinsale, 47, can do the splits while standing, and A-lister Halle Berry, 54, can do it in just about any position you care to imagine.
Meanwhile, I, also in my 40s, can just about touch my toes.
So is it possible to get back to my flexible best? And more to the point, is there any health benefit in doing so?
Flexibility essentially describes the body’s range of movement. And it’s dependent on the health of our joints, muscles, and the elasticity of our tendons – the tough tissue that anchors muscle to bone – which is largely down to genetics.
Some people’s tendons can naturally be short and tight, others long and elastic.
This is due to variance in a protein inside tendons called collagen, which gives them structure and strength.
There are around 16 types of collagen and one type, called type I, funnily enough, is known to be particularly pliable. The more type I collagen we’re born with in our tendons, the more flexible we are naturally.
This is mainly luck of genetics. For example, around seven per cent of the population have naturally short tendons in the hamstrings, and so may never be able to touch their toes. Women are generally more flexible than men as they naturally have more type I collagen in their tissues.
Unsurprisingly, we are most flexible as children, but it’s a myth that a total loss of flexibility is just part of the ageing process.
It’s true that wear and tear can increase joint stiffness, but the biggest factor in limiting flexibility is lifestyle.
As adults we simply move less, and as a result the muscles and tendons shorten and become less pliable. Without tackling the problem, it becomes a cycle that often results in painful joints and backs – problems that affect millions of us, both male and female.
So what can you do about it? Moira McCormack, head of physiotherapy at the prestigious Royal Ballet Company, says although you can’t change your genetics there are ways to improve flexibility: namely, static stretching.
This involves slowly stretching a muscle to its most (comfortably) extended position, and holding it for a short period of time, usually ten to 30 seconds.
Many people do this to warm up before jogging, or other exercise, but experts say this is a mistake – as stressing tendons when they aren’t already warm can cause an injury. It’s far better to do a simple set of stretches after a brisk walk, or other form of exercise.
Your first warm-up exercises should be dynamic, involving jogging on the spot or star jumps.
Studies show regular small bouts of stretching are more important to improving flexibility than long intense sessions.
Italian researchers found that carefully stretching for five minutes, five days a week, improves the range of movement when stretching hamstrings.
McCormack adds: ‘Yoga is great for this by both stretching and strengthening while muscles are in a lengthened position. Whatever you do, it needs to be done consistently, or your tendons will begin to shorten again.’
Studies link good range of motion in the limbs to good posture. ‘If we move well, there’s less wear and tear,’ says McCormack. ‘Good posture keeps the spine strong, keeps the pelvis in line and works the hip muscles well, with a good gait.’
Is there a minimum level of flexibility we should have in middle age?
Physiotherapists use two indicators of flexibility in older adults.
The Chair Sit And Reach test involves sitting on the edge of a chair and stretching one leg out in front of you, with the heel touching the floor and toes pointing to the ceiling. Then, bend forward and try to touch the toes on the outstretched leg. Use a ruler to measure the distance between the tip of the fingertips and the toes – anything below four inches is considered above-average lower-body flexibility for adults over 60.
The Back Scratch exercise is a test of upper-body flexibility. Try to touch the middle of your back with one hand from overhead, and the other the opposite way. Measure (or get someone else to) how far away your hands are – anything closer than seven inches is a good result. Practising these stretches can improve the scores.
However, no one should lose sleep over the fact they cannot do the splits – because extreme flexibility, on its own, is not necessarily an indicator of overall good health.
McCormack says: ‘Doing the splits might be an achievement of sorts, but it’s not a sign you’re healthier or fitter than anyone else.’
I ask her if I would ever get near the splits again. ‘Probably, because you could do this as a teenager,’ she says. ‘But you’ll have to stick to a regular stretching routine, as well as strength and cardiovascular work.’
I suppose I could give it a go. But it does sound like a lot of work to prove to my daughter I can still get down with the kids.