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Strength, endurance, and flexibility are the three pillars of fitness. Unfortunately, most of us tend to focus on the strength and endurance, primarily using strength training and cardiovascular exercises to stay fit. But flexibility is essential for optimum fitness. Flexibility prevents injury, and it can help decrease your risk of arthritis, diabetes, and kidney disease, and research shows it can even help prevent cardiovascular disease and reduce your chances of having a stroke or heart attack.

Flexible muscles make everyday activities like stooping, bending, twisting, turning, and reaching easier and less likely to cause a pulled muscle or other injury. Flexibility improves your circulation, and it helps to reduce general aches and pains.

Yoga for Flexibility

Getting and staying flexible is largely a matter of taking the time to stretch every day. Yoga is one of the best exercises for improving flexibility, since it incorporates stretches and body postures with deep breathing exercises, which keeps oxygenated blood pumping through your muscles and promotes the removal of lactic acid and other waste products that build up in the muscles. Breathing also promotes muscle relaxation to help increase your stretch without injury.

A daily yoga routine can go a long way toward improving your overall flexibility and muscle strength. You can do yoga at home with the help of a YouTube video, or you can take a yoga class at the Y or a private studio.

If you don't have the time, money, or patience for yoga, you can do some daily stretches to improve your flexibility. Before you stretch, warm up your muscles with a five-minute walk.

Upper Body Stretches

To stretch your upper body, start by placing your hands on the back of your head, and gently pull it forward, keeping your chin tucked. Hold this stretch for ten seconds. Next, place the palms of your hands on your chin, pointing your fingers at your ears. Push your head back slowly, and hold for ten seconds. Then, with your right hand on your head, pull your head gently toward your right shoulder, hold for ten seconds, then repeat on the left side. Finally, raise your arms above your head, clasp your hands, and reach toward the sky to lengthen your spine. Bend to the right, release your hands, and grab your left elbow with your right hand and pull it to the right, hold for ten seconds, then repeat on the left.

Lower Body Stretches

To stretch your lower body, sit on the floor with your legs out in front of you. Hold your left leg with both hands, and lift it off the floor. Flex your foot toward you, and hold for ten seconds. Switch legs, and repeat. Then bend your right knee and pull it toward your chest. Flex your foot again, and hold for ten seconds. Repeat on the other side.

Back Stretches

Especially helpful for lower back pain, back stretches help improve your overall core flexibility. To stretch your back, lie on your stomach with your legs straight and your feet shoulder-width apart. Place your hands under your shoulders, and lift your chest up, keeping your pelvis attached to the floor. Hold for ten seconds. Stand up with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointing to the left. Lift up the toes of your left foot, and fold your body over at the hip. Hold for ten seconds, then repeat on the other side.

Daily stretching will go a long way toward improving your flexibility. Ideally, you should do these first thing in the morning to get your blood moving and warm up your muscles to prepare them for the daily activities ahead.

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