How Your Range of Motion Changes Over Time

With mobility versus stability being a hot topic in the fitness world lately, you may have debated which one you should work on or how to balance the two—but if so, you’re really worrying about the wrong thing, says Kelly Starrett, DPT, who, with his wife Juliet, runs the mobility coaching company, The Ready State.

“Mobility versus stability is an old trope. What you really should ask yourself is ‘Do I have access to my native, natural range of motion, and can I control my movement through those ranges?’” says Starrett, co-author (with Juliet) of Built To Move: The Ten Essential Habits to Help You Move Freely and Live Fully.

Starrett explains that range of motion, or ROM, is how your joints and limbs move through their available  space, while mobility is being able to express those ranges with control to accomplish tasks. Starrett likens native ROM (the ROM we’re born with) to a wide, spacious hallway that begins to shrink in size if we don’t maintain it.

“Most of us in our 20s have a big movement hallway,” he says. “As we age, our hallway gets narrower and narrower due to things like injury and disease, until it gets to the point where some people can barely move around. If you keep access to your native ROM, your movement hallway tends to stay open.”

We use ROM in our daily lives for everything from squatting and sitting to lifting items and walking up stairs. But ROM and mobility are “use it or lose it,” and most of our lifestyles don’t require us to continually move like our ancestors did.

“What we often see is that if we don’t expose our tissues and joints to their ranges of motion, our brain takes away the ability to access that ROM,” he says. “Our bodies constantly adapt and may adapt in ways that are limiting until you can’t get off the couch or out of the car.”

When ROM is restricted, it affects mobility, stability, and ease of movement, which, in turn, can lead to pain and injury. Starrett cites the example of a runner whose restrictions mean they can no longer maintain proper form in their stride.

“Imagine I’m missing the ability to move the leg behind the body [properly]. If I’m missing that shape, when the leg is behind, the foot externally rotates,” he says. “That position is me solving a movement restriction because I don’t have access to my native range of motion. Then the hip is not in a stable position. The body’s workaround strategy is to create a range of motion considered less effective and where the movement is not as stable.”

With age, our joints tend to become stiffer which can also lead to compensating with positions that have less stability and force. “That’s when you see people struggle to do simple tasks,” says Starrett. “The number-one reason people end up in nursing homes is because they can’t get up off the ground. That’s usually a knee or hip problem, not a strength problem.”

How to maintain your range of motion over time

Starrett’s book contains 10 tests to assess ROM, including the couch test and the sit-and-rise test: Stand up, cross one foot in front of the other, lower yourself to sit cross-legged on the ground, then stand up, without using your hands for assistance. A recent study found that participants who did best on the sit-and-rise test had a greater likelihood of survival six years later, while those who struggled most were more likely to have died.

To keep and restore ROM and mobility, you don’t need to go to a gym or class—although yoga and Pilates are beneficial—but instead to focus on targeted movements that train your joints, muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves, and brain to work together in harmony, so you move freely and effortlessly throughout life, says Starrett. His book contains 10 simple, at-home mobilization “physical practices”—there are also Mobility Workouts of the Day on his YouTube channel—and though you don’t need to go through the list daily, Starrett says it’s best to do some mobilization work every day.

For example, one of the most effective things you can do is sit on the ground for 30 minutes a day when watching TV. “You’re going to have to change position a lot to get comfortable. This creates an opportunity to spend time in ranges of motion you’re not used to,” says Starrett, who also recommends walking at least 8,000 steps a day.

While you may not be thinking about falling and not being able to get back up in your 20s or 30s, our bodies are our homes and working to maintain a spacious “movement hallway” throughout life is really about “playing the long game” to live well as we age, says Starrett.

“Your range of motion doesn’t need to change,” he says. “It’s one thing we can control at any age. If we think of body movement as a language, we are capable of Shakespeare, but most of us are using language like Dr. Seuss.”

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