Stretching exercises can help prevent injuries, promote flexibility and relieve tension and stress. Information about performing stretching exercises safely is provided.
- Question One: If you knew there was something you could do every day for as little as 10 minutes that would help prevent exercise injuries, relieve tension and stress, promote flexibility, and make you feel good, would you do it?
- Question Two: Do you include stretching as part of your exercise and fitness routine?
If you answered yes to the first question and no to the second, you’re not alone. Most people tend to underestimate the value of stretching. Consider the benefits: * Flexibility: When you hear “flexibility” you probably think of Olympic gymnasts and professional dancers. True, they epitomize flexibility, but its definition is much simpler: Flexibility is a joint’s ability to move through its full range of motion. Some flexibility is determined by, heredity: the placement of your bones in the joint sockets, the tightness of your ligaments, which attach bone to bone, and the makeup of the connective tissue, which encases your muscles. Connective tissue is made up of collagen fibers, which don’t stretch much, and elastic fibers, which stretch quite a bit. If you have more of the latter, your resemblance to Gumby will be greater. The best benefit of flexibility is the ability to do more: reach higher, throw a ball more competently, ski with better form, exercise with less muscle stiffness.
If you’re one of those people born with board-stiff arms and legs, don’t despair. A recent study at the Human Performance Laboratory at Boise State University showed that stretching for just 20 minutes three times a week can result in a 30 percent increase in range of motion. * Injury prevention: It’s almost universally agreed that stretching is a key in keeping exercise injuries at bay. Muscles that are stretched and limber tend not to tear or pull upon sudden sharp movement. Building a stretching routine into a workout can help exercisers (especially beginners) avoid stiffness and muscle soreness. * Stress reduction: This, say some advocates, is perhaps the best benefit of all. Stretching can relieve muscle tension. When muscles stay tense over a period of time, they can cut off their own circulation. This decreases the amount of oxygen and can cause a buildup of carbon dioxide and other metabolic wastes – called lactic acid – in the tissues. The result? Achiness, fatigue, and a tightening or knotting of the muscles, especially in the neck, shoulders, and back. Stretching helps break up these muscle knots and release the lactic acid into the blood-stream where it can be transported out of the body. * Well-being: Many of the Eastern exercise disciplines, most notably yoga, are based on the idea that proper muscle movement can energize the body and mind. In fact, yoga teachers often instruct their students: “If you stretch your body, you stretch your mind.” The bottom line: Stretching makes you feel good!
There’s More Than One Way to Stretch a Muscle
Exercise physiologists report that there are three basic kinds of stretching. The first is ballistic, or bouncing stretching. Experts have just a few words to say about this method: Don’t do it! The jerky bouncing motions can tear muscle fibers and overstretch ligaments – possibly leading to dislocated joints. These motions may even cause your muscles to tighten up.
The second type, PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) has its roots in physical therapy. The idea is to contract a muscle against an isometric, or nonmoving, resistance, such as a wall or a stationary partner. After contraction, the muscle becomes extra-relaxed, which allows you to then stretch it more deeply. There are drawbacks, however. Because the muscles must be contracted and stretched with force, they can tear or pull if you aren’t careful. Also, because you often need a partner, you have less flexibility with your schedule.
The third type of stretching is the one you’re probably most familiar with: The static method. This technique requires you to slowly stretch a muscle until you feel mild discomfort – but not pain; this is a no-pain, all-gain technique – and then hold the position from 10 to 60 seconds. You may feel that muscle relax slightly. This is a sign that you are doing it right. You then might want to stretch just a little farther and hold it for another 10 to 60 seconds, again only to the point that you feel tension. The static method lets you develop your flexibility gradually – and painlessly.
To protect yourself from injuries when you stretch, it is important to follow the proper technique. But the only way to know if you’re stretching correctly is by how it feels. Pay attention to your body – it sends you very clear signals. Remember, if you start to feel pain, stop. An increase in tension means you are overstretching and you should move back to a more comfortable position. Go slowly. Also remember to stay relaxed. Don’t clench your teeth or hunch your shoulders. And don’t forget to breathe. As you go into a stretch, exhale, then breathe slowly and rhythmically as you hold the stretch. Yoga practitioners believe that breathing is the most important part of their practices. They breathe through the nose, not the mouth, taking deep breaths from the diaphragm; these especially help to energize the body. You might want to try this the next time you stretch.
Which brings up a final point. Just when should you stretch? Experts say that after exercising is the most effective time. This is when your muscles are warm and pliable and you are less likely to injure yourself. People often confuse warming up before exercising with stretching. Warming up refers to starting your workout slowly – for example, riding an exercise bike for five minutes before your aerobics class or walking the first quarter mile of your run. This allows the muscles to gradually elongate to the point necessary for your activity. If you substitute stretching for warming up, you are more likely to tear your muscles because they are “cold.” Nothing precludes a little stretching after a brief warmup, however.
Stretching shouldn’t just be confined to the exercise routine. Make it a part of your life. How about doing a few mild stretches after getting out of bed, in between classes, or while you’re watching your favorite TV show or sitting in the car? It’s a great break, and it feels good.