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April 30, 2014

By Louise Carr, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist

“I’m just not flexible anymore – I can’t even touch my toes!”
Did you ever say this when complaining about your poor
performance in step class or pilates? There are many measures
of flexibility but most of us rely on the touch-your-toes test to
see if our bodies are yoga-ready or showing their age. Does
being able to touch your toes matter? If you can’t touch your
toes anymore, is it a problem? You should care, but probably
not for the reason you think.

Why Touching Your Toes Matters

Many people equate being able to touch their toes with being
fit.  After all, if you look around the gym you won't see plenty
of out-of-shape people touching their toes and stretching their
legs with ease.  Not being able to touch your toes is a sign of
poor flexibility, which can be a problem for many reasons.

For athletes, runners and even people who simply spend a little
time at the gym --- flexibility helps prevent injury. Being able to
touch your toes also means you have good hip and spine
mobility which, when combined with good core control, means
you are better able to run, jump, stretch, bounce and move
effectively. Even when you don’t work out, flexibility is
essential for avoiding back strain and being able to move
without pain.     

How Can I Measure My Flexibility?

Try the simple toe-touch to measure your flexibility. Stand up
and bend forward from the hips so you reach down towards
your toes. Can you touch them? The sit-and-reach test is also a
useful indicator of flexibility – sit on the floor with your legs
extended in front of you. Bend forward and try to touch your

Or try the Active Straight Leg Raise. Lie on your back and raise
one straight leg upwards while keeping your other leg on the
floor. You are bringing your toe to your hand, and not the
other way around, but this exercise is essentially the same as
the toe-touch.

Why Can’t I Touch My Toes Anymore?

Remember how, as a child, you could stretch your feet over
your head.  And all babies can even --don't look Mom -- put
their toes in  their mouths.

If you used to be able to bend and stretch and touch your toes
with ease, it will come as a shock when you can no longer
complete this simple action.

As you get older, you lose flexibility so you may find that you
can no longer touch your toes like before. You are more likely
not to be able to touch your toes if you have been inactive over
a long period of time, or if you have carried out repetitive
actions that create over-tightness in certain muscles while
leaving other muscles to weaken.

Not being able to touch your toes can be a sign that your
hamstring muscles are too tight, your hip or spine is less
flexible than it used to be, or your hamstrings are short.

But did you also know that not being able to touch your toes
could be a sign or arterial stiffness?

If You Can’t Touch Your Toes Anymore, Your Arteries May
Be Stiff

Sit on the floor right now, with your legs out in front of you.
Bend forward from the hips and reach to touch your toes. Can
you reach? If you can’t, you may have a problem with your
cardiac arteries.

A 2009 study from the National Institute of Health and
Nutrition, Tokyo, Japan suggests that the toe-touch test can
indicate arterial stiffening.

Researchers looked at 526 individuals who completed the sit-
and-reach test and were measured using digital machines.
Researchers then used blood pressure measurements to
estimate how stiff their arteries were.

Artery flexibility is a lesser-known indicator of heart health.
Why?  Stiff arteries make it much more difficult for the heart to
pump blood around the body, which leads to a greater risk of
heart attack in the future.

Adults over 40 who couldn’t easily reach their toes tended to
have higher levels of arterial stiffness meaning “a less flexible
body indicates arterial stiffening, especially in middle-aged and
older adults.” There was no such link in people aged under 40.

If you want to increase the flexibility of your arteries  ---
stretch. A 2008 study from the University of Texas concluded
that people who stretched on a regular basis increased the
pliability of their arteries
by over 20 percent. (Read about other
natural remedies for stiff arteries.)

While it is important to remain flexible, it is also important to
consider that not everyone who cannot touch their toes is at
imminent risk of a heart attack. Arterial stiffening in itself does
not automatically mean heart disease, although if you are over
40 it may be beneficial to speak to your cardiologist.

Touching Your Toes Demonstrates Spinal Flexibility

Researchers concluded that the sit-and-reach test and the toe-
touch test are accurate measures of spine flexibility and pelvic
tilt range, according to a 2014 study from the University of
Almeria, the Catholic University of San Antonio of Murcia, and
the University of Murcia, Spain.

The study looked at tennis players, cyclists, kayakers and canoe
paddlers to see how their hamstrings and spines affected
flexibility and the ability to touch the toes. A greater range of
spinal movement can help guard against lower back pain and
back problems in later life.

Hamstring Flexibility and Touching Your Toes

The toe-touch test is a good measure of hamstring flexibility,
according to a 2011 study from the Catholic University of San
Antonio, Murcia, Spain. The test could effectively record who
suffered from inflexible hamstrings even when the test was
replicated. If you can’t touch your toes, the flexibility of your
hamstrings could be the reason.

Try a hamstring stretch to increase flexibility and range of
movement. Lie down on your back with one leg straight out in
front of you, toes pointing up. Raise the other leg straight so
you are trying to create a 90-degree angle between the two –
hold for 10 to 30 seconds, then repeat. Change legs and
perform the stretch one to four times per leg.

On the other hand, massage doesn’t seem to have an effect.
You have to work to increase hamstring flexibility. A 2004
study from the University of Glamorgan, Wales, UK showed that
a “single massage of the hamstring muscle group was not
associated with any significant increase in sit and reach
performance immediately after treatment in physically active
young men.”

Do Short Hamstring Muscles Mean You Can’t Touch Your

However, the flexibility of your hamstrings may not make a
difference if you have shorter muscles in your legs.

The results of a 1992 study from the University of Montana
show that the ability to reach the toes on the toe-touch test
was compromised for men with short hamstrings.

Those without short hamstrings had a better range of motion
in the pelvis. There is a not a lot you can do if you have short
hamstrings but you should work on increasing your flexibility  
and always warm up and cool down properly in order to
prevent hamstring injuries.

Not Being Able to Touch Your Toes May Make You a Better

On the plus side, a 2002 study by Manchester Metropolitan
University, UK demonstrated that runners who performed less
well on the sit-and-reach test had a better running economy
than those that could touch their toes with ease. The results of
the study into 34 international-standard male distance runners
suggest that the least flexible runners are the most economical,
because the stiffer structures in the leg reduce the aerobic
demand on the legs.

Hip Flexibility and Touching Your Toes: It Matters What Time
of Day You Try

Hip flexibility is the main predictor of success in the sit-and-
reach test, according to a 2010 study from the University of
Granada, Spain, which looked at hip flexibility in adolescents.

However, you are more or less flexible depending on the time
of day - a 2011 study from Universidade Estadual de Londrina,
Brazil demonstrated that hip flexibility performance and the
ability to touch your toes is better in the evening than in the
morning. If you want to feel better about your ability to touch
your toes, try it at 6pm rather than 8am.

Try Weight Training to Be Able to Touch Your Toes

Maintaining muscle mass is important at any age but, as you get
older, it may help you touch your toes again.

A 2002 study from the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil showed
that weight training increased flexibility in elderly women – a
10-week program of resistance training increased flexibility for  
62 to 78-year-olds.

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Can't touch your toes? It Could be your arteries.