I thought I would blog a little about the value of stretching. I used to stretch a lot in my younger years and always enjoyed it. Back in my teens and early 20’s, before I did my weights workout I would always do a whole body stretch ‘workout’ for 15-20 minutes. I carried on with this stretching routine for years and became quite flexible as a result, but when I suffered a serious lower-back injury in my mid-20’s I stopped stretching as I found it was aggravating my back. Lately, however, in my mid-40’s I’ve been getting back into stretching and am enjoying it and seeing the benefits once again.
There are some great benefits to stretching and staying flexible, especially as you get older. As we age, our muscles become less limber and the range of motion in our joints can decrease. We start to find that ordinary everyday activities and movements – like bending down to put on our shoes, or reaching up to change a light bulb or get a can of beans off the top shelf – seem a lot harder than they were when we were younger. Also, in modern Western society our lifestyles have become much more sedentary over the past 50 years. We now spend a great deal more time sitting down hunched over computer screens or watching TV, and as a result we lose more and more flexibility with each passing year.
The great news about stretching is that anyone can stretch regardless of their age or current flexibility level. Many stretches are very simple to perform – and some stretches you can do even while sitting watching TV, working on the computer, or even in bed! Also stretching does not have to involve a huge time commitment, but it will provide you with great results! Some of the benefits you can expect from a regular stretching program are:
- Increased circulation in the blood to various parts of your body
- Increased energy levels (resulting from increased circulation)
- Increased range of movement in your joints
- Reduced muscle tension
- Faster recovery after injury
- You will feel better!!
Here are a few pointers to be aware of as you begin a dedicated stretching program:
1. Be consistent with your stretching routine
Like most things in life, you won’t experience the benefits of stretching unless you consistently stretch! One great thing about stretching compared to aerobic (cardio) or anaerobic (weight-training) exercise is that stretching workouts are usually much shorter – in some cases only a few minutes. Put some stretching times into your weekly calendar and watch yourself improve!
2. Be careful when stretching cold muscles
Stretching cold muscles can cause injury, so if you are not warmed up and you want to stretch then you do need to be careful. Some studies have shown that stretching cold muscles actually decreases muscle strength and power for up to an hour after stretching, so usually it is best to do your cardio or weights workout first and then stretch afterwards. There are some fitness practitioners who say you should never stretch before working out – only stretch afterwards – but I think this is a little extreme. As I mentioned in my introduction I stretched before doing my workouts for years and it worked for me. (The reason I stretched before my workouts was that I found that I was too tired after my workouts to stretch, and I never did it unless I did it first!) Ultimately you have to create a fitness routine that works for you, but if you are stretching cold muscles you do need to be careful!
3. Never force a stretch beyond the point of mild tension painful
Stretching should be pleasurable, relaxing and beneficial. Many people believe that to get the most from their stretching they need to stretch to the point of pain, but this is a great mistake. You don’t always have to stretch to the full range of motion of the joint – and beyond! Just take the stretch out to where it feels comfortable and then gently try to stretch just a little beyond that. If you sense pain then back off the stretch to where the stretch is still ‘stretched’ but pain-free.
4. Your flexibility changes
A person’s flexibility levels change from day to day. Your energy levels, your overall health, the weather, and even what you had for dinner last night can affect your body on a daily basis, so you may find you can’t perform your stretching routine in the same manner with the same results at each session. Don’t worry about it; just keep going and look for improved flexibility over the months and years, not necessarily over days and weeks.
5. Never throw your body into a stretch or bounce when stretching
Stretching should be fluid and gentile. Stretching slowly and gently helps to relax your muscles, which in turn makes stretching more pleasurable and beneficial. This also helps avoid muscle tears and strains which may be caused by rapid, jerky movements.
6. Try to increase your time in each stretch
Time yourself and try to increase your time in each stretch by a few seconds each week. Start with 10-15 seconds and try to extend this by 2-3 seconds each week until you can hold a stretch for 30 to 45 seconds.
7. Never stretch an injury
When a bodypart is injured you need to be careful. Stretching an injured bodypart can cause further soft tissue damage, so it is best to rest the injured area until it is fully healed. After you feel your injury has healed sufficiently, then begin stretching the area again but proceed very slowly and carefully. Stop if there is any pain and continue with recovery treatment (rest, heat, ice etc) until the area is fully healed.
8. Stretch your whole body
While stretching is ‘flexible’ (excuse the pun) in that you can spot-stretch different bodypart’s which you may have specific trouble with, it’s best to stretch your whole body and keep it limber. Your body works as a unit and keeping your whole body flexible is something that will benefit you for life. Some muscles and body-parts like your neck and wrists can be stretched for just a few minutes a day, but it is preferable to have 2 or 3 periods each week where you stretch your whole body for a longer period of time, say 20 -30 minutes. I currently do a whole body ‘stretch-workout’ twice a week for 30 minutes after I have finished my cardio workout and it really helps me feel (and be) more limber. The weblink at ACC NZ provides you with a whole body basic stretching routine.
By following the above stretching tips, you’ll be performing your stretches properly and maximizing the benefits which stretching can provide.
Bryce Staveley – Fit 4 Life Staff