Stretching is The Missing Link To Good
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Cats and dogs do it instinctively, but it
is something we humans often forget to do: streeeeetch!
Whats the big deal? According to the American
Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, your workout should balance cardiovascular
exercise, strength training and stretching or flexibility exercises. But even
though stretching is one of the simplest and painless physical activities, it
remains the most undervalued.
Theres a good chance stretching is an
afterthought in your workout routine. You may pull your leg up behind you to
stretch your quads, touch your toes to loosen your back or grab your elbow and
pull your arm behind your head before you head out the door for a run... and
that's on a good day.
But thats not enough to realize the
full benefits of stretching. In fact, most people only appreciate stretching
after an injury, when it becomes obvious that a simple stretching regimen may
have prevented any harm done.
Need more convincing? Here's how stretching
can benefit anyone, how to stretch safely and how to fit some into your
Benefits of Stretching
Increases range of motion and muscle
flexibility: When muscles are tight, everyday tasks that involve reaching,
bending and turning are more difficult. Stretching improves the ease of muscles
crossing the joints, maintaining and increasing your range of motion. It also
lengthens the muscle to increase flexibility.
Prevents injury: Most acute muscle
injuries, such as pulls or tears, occur if the muscle fibers or surrounding
tissues are so taut and inflexible that a sudden stretch or movement, such as a
twist or bend, will cause damage. Stretching before an activity (and after the
warm-up) improves dynamic flexibility and reduces your chance of injury.
Exercise shortens muscles, so stretching afterwards ensures relaxation,
facilitating normal resting length.
Keeps muscles healthy: Think of your
muscles as a sponge. If the sponge is dry and you pull on it, it will easily
tear and crumble. If the sponge has been dampened, you have a more pliable and
flexible material with which to work. Stretching encourages the release of
muscle lubricants so that the muscles stay well hydrated and functional.
Improves blood circulation:
Stretching boosts muscle temperature, making it more pliable. It also increases
blood circulation providing a better supply of oxygen and nutrients to the
working and injured muscles. Stretching after exercise (as opposed to resting)
will speed up the removal of unwanted waste products, thus reducing soreness
Improves balance and posture: Tight
muscles, which tend to be weaker and shorter, contribute significantly to a
slumped posture. Stretching helps lengthen and strengthen muscle and realign
soft tissue structures to improve stance and balance. Relieves stress: Muscles
contract when they are stressed and can become stiff and painful. Stretching
decreases neuromuscular tension to promote relaxation and reduce the
Reduces lower back pain: Lack of
flexibility is the leading cause of back problems, which afflict 80 percent of
the population. Tight back muscles can lead to tension or spasms. Poor muscle
tone in the abdominal and leg muscles, especially the hamstrings which limit
the movement in the pelvis, seem to be the culprits in lower back pain.
Maintains normal muscle function with
aging: Muscle loses elasticity with time, while activity tends to decrease
with age. This cause-and-effect relationship results in muscle-joint stiffness,
making muscles and tendons more susceptible to tears, aches and pains,
hindering normal day-to-day activity.
Increases athletic performance:
Stretching is an integral part of speed and power development. A muscle can
only contract as forcefully as the opposite muscle can relax (the quadriceps,
for example, will contract more quickly if the hamstring muscle group relaxes
easily). Relaxed muscles create speed and stretching will reduce tension and
resistance in muscle tissue.
What Is Safe Stretching?
- Warming up before stretching: Stretching
itself does not constitute your warm up. Five minutes of walking, riding a
bike, jumping jacks, jump rope or other cardiovascular activity gets blood
circulating throughout the body and into the muscles. A warm muscle is more
easily stretched than a cold muscle.
- Making it feel good: A mild pulling
sensation is normal. If the tension increases or becomes painful, you are
overstretching or have created problems in the way you are aligned. Back off
and start again. You should not feel sore the day after stretching. If you are,
this is an indication that you have overstretched.
- Not bouncing: Static stretching is
recommended. This involves a slow, gradual and controlled lengthening of a
muscle through its full range of motion. Hold the stretch for a count of 10.
Relax for 30 seconds and then repeat. Do not bounce or jerk into position. This
can cause the muscles to tighten and cause injury.
- Remembering to breathe: Proper breathing
helps relax the body and increase the blood flow. Inhale as the body part
returns to the starting posture and exhale during the work phase of the stretch
to increase the stretch.
How Can You Fit In
Stretching requires no special
equipment or clothing. Plus, its a peaceful, relaxing and non-competitive
activity, so there are no good reasons to strike stretching from your daily
to-do list. Here are some simple stretches and how to fit them into your
1. Stretch in the morning. The
first thing a dog or cat does upon awaking is stretch. Take their lead. Try
full-body stretches by pointing your toes and reaching arms above your head.
This can clear your mind and help jump-start your morning.
2. Take a stretching class, such
as yoga, Pilates or tai chi. Scheduling a class can help you stick with a
regular stretching program. Although these classes may not burn many calories,
you still need to make an effort. If you make one a part of a routine, you will
not only gain a longer and leaner body, but youll improve your focus.
3. There are several exercises
you can perform at your desk to stretch out your neck, arms, shoulders and
- Neck stretch: Sitting tall with
your neck relaxed, gently tilt your head to each side, then front and back,
holding each position for a count of 10.
- Shoulder rolls: With your
shoulders relaxed and your arms hanging loose at your sides, roll your
shoulders up and forward, then back to center. Next, roll your shoulders up and
back, then again to your side. Repeat five times.
- Chest stretch: Stand about a foot
away from the wall, facing the corner. Raise your elbows until they are level
with your shoulders, then place both forearms directly on the walls. Keeping
the body in alignment, lean into the corner and hold for 10 seconds. You should
feel a good stretch across the chest muscles.
- Leg stretches: Make sure you get
out of your static sitting posture. Try regularly walking to make copies,
getting a drink from the water cooler or talking rather than e-mailing