Mobility Exercises: What They Are and How They Help

A person clutches their knee joint in pain.

Mobility exercises can help keep your joints healthy, giving you a stable range of motion as you work, play, and age. Image credit: anut21ng Stock on Adobe Stock.

Mobility Exercises: What They Are and How They Help

So, throughout my social media feed, I have noticed a strange yet refreshing trend: fitness influencers are trading out their “snatched waist” and “thigh gap” headliner workouts for training more focused on joint mobility. I believe this indicates a fascinating shift in the world of social media fitness. Generally, people are becoming less interested in exercising based on aesthetics alone. More and more content consumers seek practical, effective motions designed to prevent pain, stiffness, and weakness as time goes on.

In support of this trend, I will break down what mobility exercises are, why you should consider adding them to your routine, and offer examples of movements you could start doing right now that may help keep you moving more easily and feeling younger for longer. It’s never too late or too early to dedicate yourself to being a forever mover.

What Are Mobility Exercises?

We all know what a traditional strength exercise looks like. You might imagine deadlifts, push-ups, lunges with resistance bands, etc. The goal is just as well-known: to strain your muscles enough so that their fibers break and reform anew, reinforcing with each recovery. It’s the same with cardio or flexibility workouts. Running, dancing, swimming, stretching, and yoga all come with familiar imagery and purpose. But now that you know that mobility exercises are also a thing, you may ask yourself, “Wait, what does that even look like?”

It’s simple. Mobility exercises are all about achieving and maintaining healthy jointsJoints consist of synovial membranes (providing lubricant), elastic ligaments and tendons (providing structural support), cartilage, and liquid-filled pillows known as bursas (providing cushion). Joints love low-impact exercises, so you may find that going for a brisk run— while amazing for your heart and lungs— can wear down the pulley and padding system of your joints.

Effectively conducting mobility exercises involves gently working each joint through its full range of motion. That’s it. You do not need a gym, equipment, good weather, or expensive leggings, just the ability to reach!

Join your Joints: Why You Should Care

According to Denise Cervantes, an ASCM-certified fitness specialist, if we are not intentional about maintaining our mobility, doing “simple things like getting in and out of the car” or “reaching up to get something out of the cupboard” will become “more difficult” over time. Cervantes claims, “because of so much sitting,” for instance, “the hip flexors become so tight that they are unable to open, so when you walk, you’re only able to use a shortened stride,” thus creating that hunched shuffle we have all seen in our elderly.

I believe that aging well is all about working to preserve your power. Numberless Americans aged sixty-five and up are already facing the challenges of age-related depression, loneliness, and boredom. An enormous part of staving off those close-quarter killers ties to personal capability. Some mobility loss over time is normal and expected, but not being able to do tasks that were once quite easy, like reaching into the pantry or climbing into the shower, can be frustrating at best and completely dehumanizing at worst. There is a close relationship between what we can do physically and how we feel mentally. So, plainly stated, if you want to keep it, you have to move it.

My Top 5 Mobility Exercises for Healthy Joints

So many examples of easy-to-do mobility exercises exist, but here are my ultimate favorites. I’m currently twenty-six, and these already have helped me keep my neck, hip, and lower back aches in check. In fact, if I start to feel stiff and sore (perhaps after sitting for too long at my computer… I know, guilty), just doing two or three of these usually brings my pain back to a zero. But as always, I am not a medical professional, so ensure you consult with your care team before you commit yourself to any new exercises.

  • Toe Touch and Pulse
    • With feet apart, slowly reach down until you either touch or as close to touching your toes as possible. While still reaching, softly pulse up and down to knock out some stiffness in your arms, shoulders, back, and the backs of your legs. Stand up straight and repeat as it feels good.
  • Arm Windmills (But SLOW)
    • Brace your right shoulder with your left hand. Hold your right arm out straight and move up, like you would raise your hand in a classroom. Then, keep moving your arm back until you make a complete circle and your arm is once again straight out in front of you. Try it on the other side. Repeat as it feels good.
  • Downward Dog
    • The best way I can describe this basic stretch is to get down on your hands and knees like you are about to do a push-up, but instead, lift your butt in the air. Your body should make a triangle with the floor (your hips as the top point of the triangle, wrists as one point, and ankles as another). Hold as long as you can (extra points if you can pedal your heels while you are holding; it is an awesome stretch of the back of the legs).
  • Froggy Squat
    • Flatten your hands together so your palms are touching, and raise them to your sternum (your elbows should be out). Then, turn out your feet and widen your stance so your heels are about two feet apart. While focusing on keeping your back straight, lower yourself into a squat so your locked elbows are pushing out into the sides of your knees. Using a support if you need it, slowly stand after holding for a few seconds. Repeat for maximum hip opening power.
  • Joint Scan
    • This routine is a full-body joint check where you start with your feet and continue upward all the way to your face. I like to think of this as the grown-up version of ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes.’
      • First, stand up straight with your feet apart. Flex and curl your toes five times, right foot first, and then left.
      • Move up to the ankles. Rotate each ankle a few times, paying attention to how it feels.
      • Then, bring each knee up and into your chest, wrap your hands around your leg, hold for a few seconds, and release.
      • After that, turn your feet out and widen your stance. Place your hands on your hips and hinge forward, then back, then side to side. Repeat a few times. With the hips now looser, stand up straight once more.
      • With your feet firmly planted in place, rotate your torso right, then left. (I like to pretend I’m punching baddies to my sides when I rotate, as the motion has the torque of an action-movie boxer.) Hold and repeat as necessary.
      • Then, flex and curl your right fingers, then your left.
      • Rotate both of your wrists.
      • Bend your elbows, and then rotate them. If you are having trouble imagining the movement, close both of your outstretched hands so they are balled into fists, and pretend you are holding a pencil that you need to snap in half. After you have broken a few imaginary #2s, move on.
      • Once you are up to your shoulders, roll them forward and back. If you want to intensify the roll, move your arms in a windmill as you work through the full motion.
      • Next, gently and slowly roll your neck clockwise, taking care not to strain. Then, roll your neck counterclockwise. (I like doing this a lot because my neck is where I carry my stress.)
      • After that, open and close your jaw a few times. Be careful not to hyperextend it, or it may be difficult to chew. A soft open and close is enough.
    • Finally, reach up and take one big stretch to the sky. Pay attention to each vertebra in your spine as you reach (I like to imagine they are stacked like beads on a string), which will help you engage your core and keep your back from tweaking.

And that’s it! If you have any mobility exercises that you love, I am eager to hear about them! And if you enjoyed this article, read more about general joint health here. 🙂

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About Cristin Dickey

Born in Maryland, raised in Texas, and educated in Utah, Cristin is a purveyor of stories from all widths and walks of life.  With a background in filmmaking and a staunch passion for literature, she aspires to give digital spaces a uniquely human touch.

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