What’s the Difference Between Flexibility and Mobility?

By Elizabeth Millard |

These essential aspects of fitness work together for healthy aging. Here’s how they are alike, how they are different, and simple strategies to boost both.

What's the difference between flexibility and mobility?

When people talk about healthy aging, the terms flexibility and mobility come up a lot. This is especially true when the discussion is about staying active, avoiding injuries and maintaining your independence.

These two terms don’t describe the same thing. They have a lot in common, but there are important differences. Here’s how your flexibility and mobility affect your health in important ways, along with ideas on how to make both of them better.

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What is the difference between flexibility and mobility?

Both mobility and flexibility are key for healthy movement. These words are closely related. Here’s what they mean, according to the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA):

Flexibility is when you stretch muscles, ligaments and tendons. When you gradually stretch and hold a position, it’s called a static stretch. You can also stretch when you move around. That’s called dynamic stretching.

For example, if you sit with your legs straight in front of you, it’s a static stretch if you lean forward from your hips and hold it for at least a few seconds. A dynamic stretch is if you move your torso toward your legs and then back upright, maybe several times.

Recommended reading: Dynamic vs. Static Stretching: Why, When and How to Use Both

Mobility is a joint’s ability to move through its full range of motion. This term can also mean how well you move in general. If you can walk without pain and do exercises like squats and lunges, you are more mobile than someone who can’t.

Here’s the important thing to remember: Good mobility requires flexibility.

Why do flexibility and mobility matter as you age?

As the years pass, we need to work harder to maintain our flexibility and mobility. A study of people aged 60 to 79 found that aging harms muscle strength, flexibility, balance and heart and lung health. All of that can also harm your quality of life.

When your joints lack mobility and can’t easily move through the full range of motion, they’re more likely to be damaged by everyday activities, according to ISSA. The same is true if your muscles need more flexibility. That can set you up for strains, sprains or pulled muscles.

Less flexibility and mobility can affect how you sit, stand, walk, reach and turn. When you swing your legs out of bed in the morning, grab a gallon of milk from the fridge or lunge for a shot in pickleball, you’re using flexibility and mobility throughout your day.

According to the National Institute on Aging, mobility is critical for functioning well and living independently, since being less mobile can increase how often people fall and how serious the falls are. It can also lead to disability and hospitalization, as well as a lower quality of life.

But older people don’t always experience these problems. Even if your mobility declines, you can preserve and boost the flexibility and mobility you have.

What factors influence mobility and flexibility?

Aging is a major factor, but it’s not the only one. How much you move around every day is very important. Living a sedentary lifestyle can harm your health overall. According to ISSA, other factors include:

  • Genetics: Your family history plays a role in how flexible you are.
  • Previous injury or surgery: Scar tissue or pain can limit your range of motion.
  • Gender: Women tend to be more flexible than men.
  • Joint structure: The way you’re naturally built can impact your range of motion.
  • Body composition: Excess weight can make moving around harder.
  • Arthritis: Inflammation and joint pain can limit mobility.

What are signs you’re having difficulty with mobility and flexibility?

If you have trouble moving around, that’s an obvious way to know that your mobility or flexibility aren’t so great. Here are some other signals you may be having challenges with mobility and flexibility:

  • Stumbles or falls
  • Balance issues, like feeling unsteady on your feet
  • Pushing up harder on armrests when getting out of a chair
  • Moving more slowly when you go up and down stairs
  • Showering less often
  • An untidy house, since keeping it clean is harder
  • Muscle tightness
  • Daytime fatigue
  • Feelings of loneliness or isolation

The adage of “use it or lose it” applies to both flexibility and mobility. If you see any of these early signs, try to find workouts and exercises that focus on the areas of your body that are stiff.

SilverSneakers classes can help! If you’ve been exercising for a while, consider taking a SilverSneakers LIVE Flexibility and Mobility class. You’ll do functional exercises and learn self-massage release techniques to help overall movement efficiency.

Just getting started with an exercise program? You can’t beat our SilverSneakers LIVE Gentle Stretch (Express) 15-minute classes. You’ll move your body through a series of seated stretches.

If your signs are more pronounced — like you have trouble walking or significant joint pain — talk to your doctor about what’s going on before it gets worse. Physical and occupational therapy can help.

Not sure how good flexibility and mobility are? Take this quick self-assessment to get more clues, especially about your lower-body flexibility.

What exercises can help build flexibility and mobility?

Any movement that takes your joints through a full range of motion and builds muscle can improve flexibility and mobility. Since muscles work together, full-body workouts are very helpful. Even exercising for a few minutes a day can improve your joint and muscle health.

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SilverSneakers Yoga is another great class option. Specially trained instructors guide you through seated and standing poses to increase flexibility, balance and range of motion. It’s offered both in-person at participating fitness locations and online through SilverSneakers LIVE.

Staying active is one of the most important things you can do to age well, says the National Institute on Aging (NIA). You’ll find 10 head-to-toe flexibility and mobility exercises that are good to do every day here.

Or press play to try this 5-minute flexibility and mobility routine:

How can I increase mobility if I’m a beginner?

It’s never too late to start! But the NIA suggests beginning slowly. Doing too much too soon can cause injuries and crush your motivation. Keep the following in mind:

As always, check with your doctor before starting any kind of exercise program. This is very important if you have a chronic condition like cardiovascular disease, diabetes or osteoporosis. Once you get approval, easing into a regular exercise routine will help improve both your flexibility and mobility. Then you can reap all the live-happier benefits that come with that.

See Our Sources:
Mobility and flexibility basic facts: International Sports Sciences Association
Flexibility and mobility during aging: Iranian Journal of Aging
General flexibility: University of California Davis Health/Sports Medicine
Mobility concerns and tips: National Institute on Aging
Social engagement study: Journal of Aging and Health
Staying active to maintain mobility: Baylor University and National Institute on Aging

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