Like a slower metabolism and sagging skin, tight hips are yet another pesky product of getting older. And stiff hips can be quite a hindrance: They can make certain movements more difficult and even cause pain. The problem is, we're losing more healthy hip function with each passing birthday.
Yep, our hip mobility shrinks by 0.32 degrees every year, according to a February 2012 study in Orthopaedics & Traumatology: Surgery & Research. That means you lose 3.2 degrees a decade, which can result in a noticeable reduction in your range of motion.
Luckily, there are ways to combat cranky hips and maintain their mobility (i.e., keep them healthy). Like adding hip mobility exercises and stretches to your daily arsenal. By far, one of the best hip stretches is the figure 4 twist.
You might've already heard about the figure 4 stretch (where you lie on your back and cross your foot over the opposite thigh, forming a figure 4 shape with your legs). It's a helluva hip drill on its own, but the figure 4 twist takes it to the next level.
The figure 4 twist involves starting in a figure 4, then dropping your legs to the side. The rotation allows you to get an even deeper hip stretch while also hitting your lower back, which is a notoriously troublesome area in older adults.
Not to mention the figure 4 twist also improves knee health, digestion, core strength and relaxation (more on this later).
Ready to reap the benefits? You don't need to be a senior to start doing the figure four twist. The sooner, the better.
How to Do the Figure Four Twist
While you should feel free to fit in the figure four twist whenever you have a moment, this hip drill is especially divine before bed, says Sarah Duvall, DPT, CPT, a certified personal trainer and founder of Core Exercise Solutions.
And remember, it's supposed to feel good. So, if you experience any pain, hit the brakes. "Never force a stretch," Duvall says. "If you push too hard, your body will guard and negate the benefits."
Figure 4 Twist
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat.
- Cross your right foot over your left thigh (forming a figure 4).
- Slowly rotate to the right, dropping your legs to the floor (maintaining the figure 4).
- Focus on controlling the motion with your abdominals.
- Take one to three deep breaths, using big inhales to stretch further as you rotate, then return to the center and switch legs, repeating the movement on the opposite side.
- Continue this pattern, repeating the stretch three to six times on each side.
Why the Figure 4 Twist Is the Best Stretch You Can Do for Healthy Aging
1. It Stretches the Hips and Glutes
"The figure 4 stretch lengthens your glutes and deep hip rotators as you cross your leg," Duvall says. Plus, you get an even deeper stretch as you rotate through the gentle twisting motion.
"These muscles often get tight from standing with the glutes clenched or sitting for periods of time in a chair," Duvall says. And often the rest of your body pays the price. That's because tight, weak hips and glutes can lead to knee and/or back pain.
2. It Improves Back Mobility
The figure 4 twist touts terrific benefits for your back. The twisting motion provides rotation through the thoracic (midback) spine, which often gets super stiff, Duvall says.
And since the stretch also loosens the hips, it helps reduce your risk for back pain even further.
That's good news for folks with a tight, aching back. Which is most of us. Yep, back problems are pervasive. In fact, back complaints were the third most common reason for people to see a doctor, according to a 2013 paper in Mayo Clinic Proceedings.
3. It’s Good for Your Knees
Noticing creakier knees as you age? You're not alone. Over time, the pressure and everyday wear-and-tear take a terrible toll on your knees. Not only do your muscles and ligaments grow weaker with age, but your shock-absorbing, protective knee cartilage can also wear away (known as osteoarthritis), according to Harvard Health Publishing.
And this can all produce painful knee problems. To prevent (or postpone) knee issues, it's important to give these joints some regular TLC, and the figure 4 twist can help you do just that.
"The figure 4 stretch is great for loosening up several joints in the body, including the knees," Duvall says.
Once again, your hips play a powerful role. The stretch lengthens the hips and improves hip mobility. "And adequate range of motion is needed at the hips to keep the knee joints safe and healthy," Duvall explains.
In other words, loose hips lead to limber (read: happy) knee joints.
4. It Helps With Digestion
If your bowels seem to be more backed up as you grow older, you're in good company. Constipation is more common with age.
While there are many factors that can bind you up in your golden years, being more sedentary is among the top offenders. That's because movement helps stimulate the gut and gets things flowing in your gastrointestinal tract.
The figure 4 stretch can be a terrific tool to combat constipation. That's because it involves midback twisting, which can gently move organs, helping to improve digestion and bowel motility, Duvall says.
5. It Works Your Core
The figure 4 twist is also amazing for ab activation.
"If you focus on keeping your shoulders on the ground, you get a great core workout by controlling the motion with your abdominal muscles," Duvall says.
And this also boasts a big bonus for your hips. Here's why: "Working your core helps relieve stress off your hip flexors, helping those tight hip muscles let go even further," Duvall explains.
6. It Calms You
As we already know, the figure 4 twist provides rotation through the thoracic spine. But this midback mobility is also necessary for deep breathing and diaphragm expansion, Duvall says. And this is essential for relaxation.
"Every time you breathe down, you stimulate the vagus nerve, which stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system (also known as your rest and digest system)," Duval says.
That means each time you do the figure 4 twist, you help calm down your fight-or-flight response and decrease your cortisol levels (i.e., lower your stress hormones), Duvall explains.
Since stress may trigger inflammation in the body, which contributes to many chronic diseases, it's especially important to properly manage stress as you age.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the range of motion lost in a decade.
- Mayo Clinic Proceedings: “Why Patients Visit Their Doctors: Assessing The Most Prevalent Conditions in a Defined American Population.”
- Harvard Health Publishing: “Age-Proof Your Knees”
- Orthopaedics & Traumatology: Surgery & Research: “Clinical Evaluation of Hip Joint Rotation Range of Motion in Adults”