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QUESTION: You have discussed many different topics relating to health and fitness this year, but I haven't seen an article on flexibility for some time. Isn't flexibility a major part of physical fitness? I would be interested in some information regarding this topic when you have time.

ANSWER: I appreciate the reminder about this important aspect of physical fitness. The concept of physical fitness has changed the past few years to include the broader aspects of wellness along with the original factors of cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength, flexibility and ideal body weight. This broadening of the scope of fitness, along with the many new ideas related to preventive medicine, opens up so many topics to be discussed that the original fitness concepts sometimes get overlooked.Flexibility is simply the ability to move your joints through a full range of motion. How flexible you are depends on such factors as joint structure, age, how soft your tendons and ligaments are, how much fat you have, and how active you have been. The muscles can get shorter because of age or lack of use, and flexibility exercises will help them become more elastic so that they don't feel so tight. The joints, tendons and ligaments are not as elastic as muscle. When they are stretched properly for a period of time they make more permanent changes that allow for an increase in movement of that joint.

There are many tests of flexibility, but most are used for athletes and are not practical for someone who is not so athletic. We use a "sit-and-reach" test for flexibility with adults. This test is a good test, but only evaluates the flexibility of the lower back and hamstring muscles (on the back of the legs). Since flexibility is joint specific and good flexibility in one joint does not indicate good flexibility throughout the body, this one test will not tell you how flexible your body is. However, lower back flexibility is important and will give you some indication of how you stand.

(BU) TEST FOR TRUNK FLEXIBILITY (Note: Do NOT take this test if you have lower back problems or other physical problems of the back, without clearance from your physician):

Find a box about 1 foot high, a yardstick and a friend to help with the measurement. Warm up in a sitting position by reaching easily toward your toes several times. Remove your shoes and sit with your back and head against a wall with your feet against the box. The yardstick will be placed on top of the box so that you can measure how far you can reach forward toward your toes.

Place one hand on top of the other and reach forward as far as possible without letting the head and back come off the wall (the shoulders can be rounded as much as possible, but neither the head nor the back should come off the wall at this time). Have your friend place the yardstick on the box so that the "zero" end of the stick touches your fingers as you sit against the wall.

Now, reach forward, allowing the head and back to come off the wall, and measure how many inches you can reach down the yardstick. The average reach for women is from 11 to 15 inches and, for men, from 10 to 14. Record the score and I'll tell you more about it next week. (The test is from: Hoeger, "Lifetime Physical Fitness & Wellness, A Personalized Program," second edition, Morton Publishing Co., 1989).

-Garth Fisher is director of the Human Performance Research Center at Brigham Young University.