Limber me up, Scotty!
December 20, 2008 7:55 AM   Subscribe

Yoga, martial arts, gymnastics, parkour, something else?! I'm looking to get more flexible, strong, healthy, and to have fun. What are the long term consequences of any of these activities (studies, anecdotes, etc)? Which should I do? (Bonus points if in Boston, but not necessary)

I'm especially interested in any peer-reviewed studies people have. Does, say, gymnastics make you more flexible and therefore less likely to get injured, or does it put stress on your joints and make you more likely to get injured? Sure, intuitively it may seem like being flexible is healthy, but is this born out in study?

Anecdotes work, too. Tell me about your preferred activity, what its benefits are, how it has improved your life, etc.

I live in Boston, so if anyone can point to a bus/T accessible place, that'd be super cool, too.
posted by losvedir to Health & Fitness (13 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
If you want to get more flexible, all you have to do is stretch for 10 minutes a day. You don't need to sign up for any activities.

I remember reading that dynamic stretching is supposed to be better than static stretching nowadays (i.e. moving rather than holding positions) and that extreme flexibility can actually predispose you towards injuries, but I can't find the studies now with quick googling.

I life weights, for me it is fun, and it is supposed to help reduce risk of injury in other sports -- i.e. runners are encouraged to do some weightlifting to prevent injury. Again I can't remember why and can't find the exact sources where I read that.
posted by creasy boy at 8:46 AM on December 20, 2008

I take Ving Tsun kung fu (or Wing Chun, depending). I know that there are schools/groups in Boston, though I don't know them and can't vouch for them.

When it comes to these practices you're talking about, as far as long term effects go there are two main variables:

1. The time, effort, and care you put into your training.

2. Your unique physiological makeup, as determined by your genetics, your age, and your health.

There's not a lot you can do about the latter, though that alone is enough to plant a "YMMV" in front of any recommendation. As for the former, a lot of that has to do with the amount of care that goes into your instruction, so finding a good school/program is very important. You want to be able to discuss the long-term effects of what you're doing and trust that the answers you're getting are true (I feel that yoga people tend to be the most blindly optimistic that the only long-term effects of a rigorous practice are radiant wisdom, a supple, flexible body, and a faint nimbus of light around your crown chakra, but as we've seen on mefi, good instructors will be up front about what the real life risks and results may be in your specific case).

But in any case, in response to questions like "Does, say, gymnastics make you more flexible and therefore less likely to get injured, or does it put stress on your joints and make you more likely to get injured?" there is no general "you" to consider, only the specific "you." If you find studies, they'll most likely include data based on actual gymnasts, most of whom started at a young age. What's your age/weight/body-type? I have a hunch that any stats you find aren't going to be useful to you at all, and may steer you away from something that could actually greatly benefit you.

One thing I find interesting about the type of kung fu I practice is that it really does defy my ability to supervise or second-guess what I'm doing. I know that my father has rotator-cuff issues, and for a while a certain drill I was training was giving me a lot of shoulder pain. I was told to work through it, that it was natural. Was this true? More importantly, was it true for ME?? I decided to trust the program and keep practicing forms and try to be mindful of the situation, and sure enough, within a few weeks my muscles strengthened up and took the strain off my joints; over a year later, I almost never feel that kind of pain.

It's perfectly possible for any individual to let themselves get in the way of thoroughly decent training, by training too obsessively, or rejecting certain principles that are there for a reason. At that point, it's really a psychological issue more than a physiological one.

I recommend that you go and talk face-to-face with teachers in all the programs you're even potentially interested in, and ask them your questions. Ultimately it's your faith in the instructor and their school that will determine your commitment to the practice, and you'll learn a lot along the way. They'll be able to assess your current skill level and your body's limitations and talk frankly about how you specifically can benefit from what they're teaching. Good luck!
posted by hermitosis at 8:49 AM on December 20, 2008

I've taken some yoga classes at Exhale (a block away from Arlington on the Green Line) and they were pretty good. They also offer a lot of Core Training classes and Pilates type stuff. It's pretty swanky, but the yoga classes are pretty comparable in price to what I paid at way less fancy places elsewhere ($20/class). I took a workshop designed for beginners and more advanced students and it was pretty rad.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 9:29 AM on December 20, 2008

I would consider the injury possibilities of your activity of choice. 3 out of the 4 you mentioned have a high chance of injury (gymnastics martial arts and parkour). Yoga seems like a good backbone if one of your goals is flexibility. It emphasizes holding positions which is necessary for making flexibility gains. People don't usually hold stretches for long enough when warming up etc for the stretch to actually be effective let alone increase flexibility.
posted by GleepGlop at 10:35 AM on December 20, 2008

As for studies, there is indeed a point where too much flexibility is a bad thing although I will leave that googling up to you. For example runners want some snap in their legs because if there is all kinds of movement every which way from being as loose as an elastic band then you are losing movement efficiency and I would think also creating potential for injury. I remember reading a study about that one. Also obviously in the spine you do not want to reach contortionist levels of flexibility.
posted by GleepGlop at 10:40 AM on December 20, 2008

I can't speak for the other disciplines, but my mother's Yoga teacher is an 80-year old woman who moves like she's in her 30s.
posted by longdaysjourney at 11:03 AM on December 20, 2008

My flexibility, balance, and of course my strength have been greatly improved by barbell training. Injuries sustained during weightlifting training and weightlifting competition are substantially lower than injuries incurred from other sports such as football, gymnastics, or basketball.

As usual, I recommend reading Starting Strength.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:46 AM on December 20, 2008

As a long time martial artist that was physically old before he was 25, I can tell you that (a) yoga has helped me manage chronic residual injuries from years of full contact fighting and (b) patience, mindfulness, and routine in any of the above physical activities is better than the lack of in any of them. As for peer reviewed materials, Google will turn up a ton of stuff in the exercise science field about flexibility and injury. It's not as important as how you and your teacher approach the discipline of practice yourself.
posted by mrmojoflying at 11:54 AM on December 20, 2008

I take kung fu in Davis Square (the aptly named Davis Square Martial Arts), very close to the Davis T stop, and it has really helped my flexibility. It's really fun, and good for cardio/strength as well. What you get out of it depends on what you're willing to put into it, but it's a very beginner-friendly and relaxed atmosphere.
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 12:05 PM on December 20, 2008

I was just about to tell you about the elderly practitioners of capoeira angola who can still play a mean game, but then I realised that the ones who wore out their joints and are immobilised by pain don't get out any more, and we never see them. I'm afraid that probably goes for anecdata about 80 year old yogis too.

My personal activity is capoeira angola. I took it up at 32. I'll be 39 soon. I would have said that there seem to be a lot of healthy old coots playing angola, but bear in mind the caveat above.

Angola is the traditional, older form of capoeira. It is usually played at a slower pace and more on the ground than the upright, acrobatic style you may have seen in performances. See this video. Cobra Mansa is the bigger guy with the dreads. I believe when this was shot he was 45 or so. Notice that the young fellow in white is faster but keeps getting outsmarted. Being smart and seeing what's coming is essential in every martial art, but angola stresses it over everything, and it helps even the odds between the athletic young and the cunning old.

I would say you need a different kind of strength to move with the deliberate smoothness and full control you see in a good angola player. You need good aerobic fitness to play a 10 minute game without bonking. You also need a reasonable degree of strength to hold yourself on one or two limbs for extended periods. Train three times a week and you'll develop these things for sure.

I have never hurt myself doing it. I believe this is because I have an existing regime of weight training which has helped toughen up my joints. And I never try to do anything fast/tricky/unpractised unless I'm warm. As a counterpoint, a young friend of mine bent his elbow backwards recently...

A couple of times in the last few years I've had unexpected slides walking on slippery/unstable surfaces, but instead of landing badly in a pratfall I found myself neatly dropping down. My balance and proprioception has improved for sure. I look forward to not falling down the stairs when I'm old.

I am more flexible than I used to be (and certainly a lot bendier than your average 38 year old man) and I don't do any stretching outside class, so that has to be it.

Capoeira is also a lot of fun and a very companionable/social activity. Its musical and ritual aspects are integral to the game so it's an activity that rewards in a lot of ways.

Brief googling suggests there's at least one but maybe more angola groups in Boston, and more groups that do other kinds of capoeira.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:07 PM on December 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

PS: a lot of the capoeiristas I know also do yoga. Both the flexibility and the strength needed to hold static poses are very useful.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:52 PM on December 20, 2008

I have been a serious weightlifter for about the last 5 years now. I got into it for several reasons, among them being that I got stress fractures in my feet from running too much and hurt my knee doing the elliptical trainer (yes, you actually can do that). Weight lifting has been great for me, I have suffered far fewer injuries since starting it than I ever did when running and I love doing something that I can practice totally on my own, with my own schedule. Plus it does amazing things for your body and I feel like a superhero when I hit new personal records.

That being said, I do not think weightlifting, even with good deep form, is quite enough to give you good overall flexibility. I have recently started taking Karate on a whim, and the master of my school is always lecturing about the importance of the flexibility and strength you get from both karate and yoga as important to keep your body strong into old age. He has a lot of good advice on the types of movements that can and will cause injury if practiced for long enough. In particular, he's got a lot of stories of people crippled from doing kicks that wear out the hips (side and roundhouse kicks I believe being the key culprits). So I would be very cautious about anything that uses a lot of movements like that. I mean, look around at the practitioners and teachers, are any of them over the age of 40? If they are, how do they look?

I think you can get really fit and protect yourself into old age doing yoga and martial arts, but only if you really have the time and discipline to practice them to an advanced level. You need to get to the level that you are really working your muscles fairly hard to make sure that you are maintaining lean muscle mass and bone density, and that is probably not going to happen with your average globo gym yoga class. I would bet that it is somewhat easier to use weightlifting to keep up muscle and bone density, and supplement it with yoga or martial arts to improve your flexibility and coordination.

Oh, and one more thing: gymnastics moves can be fun as hell and I incorporate some of them in my training, but advanced gymnastics is hard as shit on the body and not generally something people can keep doing well into old age.

Since you asked for articles, this isn't a peer-reviewed article by any means but Krista of Stumptuous talks about what you need for bone building in one of the articles on her site. A key quote is:
While other forms of exercise like swimming, yoga, and tai chi are also good for you in general, fun to do, and can help train balance (see below), they don't provide the same kind of loading that weight training and impact activities do. So, feel free to do them, but just make sure to do the bone-loading stuff at least twice a week.
posted by ch1x0r at 2:46 PM on December 20, 2008

I know this thread is oldish but I just had to chime in and make a plug for Back Bay Yoga by the Hynes stop on the Green Line. I just started there and in the course of 1.5 weeks, I've already buffed up my upper arms (vinyasas, don't ya know) and gotten a TON more flexible. They have a beginner's/gentle class on Tuesday afternoon and some community classes that are just $5 if you want to check it out (but get there early). If you're serious, they have a new member special, which is 2 weeks unlimited for $25 and you can try anything you like. Seriously, I don't work with them or know any of the teachers - I just came home from a class and am incredibly euphoric. Just trying to spread the knowledge! Good luck on your search for flexibility!
posted by Eudaimonia at 7:06 PM on February 3, 2009

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