Here's a fun fitness challenge for you... Become more flexible this year-literally!

For anyone who wants to have a fit, healthy body, building more endurance and strength are common goals, but you rarely hear someone say, "By the end of the year, I want to be able to touch my toes with the palms of my hands while standing-and do it smiling!"

But improving and/or maintaining flexibility is key to your health, because being loose and limber makes it easier to build strength and endurance .. .it makes everyday activities, such as tying your shoes or reaching behind the driver's seat in a car, less painful. .. and it makes you less prone to injury.

And it just feels great.

So, how flexible are you?

Take our quick quiz to find out... and then, if you discover that you're not exactly like Gumby, don't worry-I'll provide you with some easy tips from an expert that'll make you flexible in no time.

Your quick flexibility test

To get an idea of how limber you are (or aren't), take this simple test created by Diana Zotos, a physical therapist and yoga instructor at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.

Shoulder Stretch. Standing, place your right forearm behind your waist and then raise your hand as far up as you comfortably can. Repeat this move with your left forearm. Can you...

a. Reach your shoulder blades with your fingertips?

b. Reach your middle back?

c. Reach your lower back?

Trunk Rotation. Sit up straight in a chair with your arms crossed lightly across your chest, hands touching opposite shoulders. Stare straight ahead. When you gently twist your upper body and head from side to side, can you...

a. Tum your torso to about the 3:00 position on your right side and 9:00 on your left?

b. Tum not quite as far-only to 2:00 and 10:00?

c. Tum only to 1:00 and 11:00, or not much further than your starting position?

Leg Reach. Stand up straight with feet hip-distance apart. When you bend forward and simultaneously slide both of your hands as far as you can down your legs (with your right hand on your right leg and your left hand on your left leg), can you...

a. Reach below the knee?

b. Reach the knee?

c. Reach mid-thigh?

Toe Touch. Sit on the floor with your back straight and your legs extended straight in front of you. When you bend over, can you...

a. Touch your toes?

b. Reach your ankles but no further?

c. Get only as far as your shins?

If you answered mostly As, good job you're lithe and limber. Just keep stretching a couple of times a week. If you fall into the B range, you're getting a bit stiff and could benefit from stretching more often, three to five times a week. If you answered primarily Cs, watch out! You may not be moving around as much as you should, and as a result, you're losing a lot of flexibility-but it's never too late to reclaim it! Doing the following stretches can help you open up your muscles and start to see improvement in your flexibility in as little as one to two weeks.

Limber Up!

Marla Altberg, a certified personal trainer and Pilates mat instructor in New York City, assures that even if you have spent the holidays (or longer) on the couch, you can easily loosen up again by performing this 10- to 15- minute stretching routine...

On your back: To perform the following stretches, lie on your back with your knees bent, feet slightly apart and flat on the floor and arms by your sides with palms facing downward.

Triangle Stretch (For hamstrings, quads, inner thighs and hips)...

1. Make a triangle by crossing your left foot over your right knee.

2. Grasp your right leg behind your thigh, and inhale as you bring it in toward your chest.

3. Take your left elbow and press it gently against your left knee.

4. Breathe naturally as you hold the stretch for 20 seconds.

5. Return to your starting position and repeat on the other side.

Leg Raise (For hamstrings, quads and back)...

1. Leaving your left leg where it is, bring your right knee to your chest as you inhale, and then slowly raise your right foot straight up to the ceiling as you exhale.

2. Using both hands, grab hold of your right leg behind your thigh, and climb up your leg, hand over hand, as far as you can toward your foot.

3. Keeping your hands as close as possible to your right foot, pull your right leg toward you, keeping it as straight as possible while your knee moves toward your face, gently but carefully-never to the point of pain. At the same time, push the leg against your hands in the opposite direction. Hold this pose for a count of 10, if possible.

4. Walk your hands back down, and repeat on the other side.

"T" Stretch (For back and side abdominals)...

1. Join your knees together and tilt them both over to the left side until they touch the floor (or come as close to the floor as possible).

2. Spread your arms out to your sides, so your body forms the letter "T," and tum your head and torso to the right.

3. Hold for 20 seconds, breathing naturally and deeply into the stretch. Repeat on the opposite side.

On your tummy: To perform the next set of stretches, roll over onto your stomach.

Ab Contraction (For abs and back)...

1. Make a pillow with your hands, rest your forehead on it and position your feet hip-width apart.

2. Inhale deeply, and then exhale as you draw your abdominal muscles in and up. Hold for 5 to 10 seconds and release. Pause for just a few seconds and then repeat twice.

3. Next, make the same muscle contraction but, as you do so, slightly raise your head (keeping your forehead glued to your hands) and chest off the floor. Hold for five seconds and release. Pause for just a few seconds and then repeat twice.

Fly Like Superman (For back, abs, butt and shoulders)...

1. Still lying on your stomach, extend your arms above your head, shoulder-width apart, with the palms of your hands facing downward.

2. Inhale deeply. Exhaling, contract your abs and raise your right arm and left leg slightly off the floor simultaneously.

3. Hold for a count of 3 to 5 and then release. Repeat on the other side, and then do one more set.

Cat Stretch (For back and abs)...

1. Get on your hands and knees.

2. Inhaling, pull your stomach in, tip your pelvis forward and arch your back like a cat. Hold for 3 to 5 seconds.

3. Exhaling, gradually relax back into your original position. Pause for just a few seconds and then repeat twice.

Note: If you have a health issue such as a bad back, joint problems or heart disease, consult your primary care provider before beginning any new exercise program.

Want to Keep Reading?

Continue reading with a Health Confidential membership.

Sign up now Already have an account? Sign in