If you're a dog or cat owner, you've probably noticed how often your pet likes to stretch. Stretching feels good, especially after lying around all day. Or, as is more often the case with humans, sitting around all day.
But unlike our furry friends, we're not as likely to get up and stretch our bodies after long bouts of inactivity, even though our bodies would like nothing more. From sitting all day at a desk or computer, we usually move on to a seat in a car, bus, or train, and then home to more seated activity — eating, reading, watching television, paying bills, answering email.
With 60 percent of people over the age of 50 leading an inactive life, is there any wonder that we see more health problems related to joints and muscles that rebel by becoming stiff, sore and even painful? Aging, too, contributes to tight muscles and poor flexibility because, as we age, muscles tend to become less elastic and tissues around the joints thicken. That hampers movement. In fact, you can lose 10 percent of your flexibility every 10 years if you do nothing! This is really the case of "if you don't use it, you'll lose it."
The best physical activity routine is one that includes all four building blocks of fitness: flexibility and stability, endurance activities (aerobics, walking), strength training, and balance.
Taking a Back Seat
Stretching helps keep your muscles loose, which improves your flexibility. Regular stretching can make you more mobile, making it easier to bend down, as well as reach for things in cupboards, says Jay Blahnik, a fitness expert and author of the book, "Full-Body Flexibility." "It's like a reward that you can feel every day."
There are other rewards too. Staying flexible can help you:
- Improve and maintain your range of motion, which improves balance
- Prevent falls
- Relieve chronic pain
- Reduce tension and stress
- Improve circulation and concentration
- Boost your energy
- Improve your posture
Recommendations to stretch or not to stretch are full of misconceptions and conflicting research. There is limited evidence to sort out these issues. Stretching has been promoted for years as an essential part of fitness programs to decrease the risk of injury, prevent soreness and improve performance. But what does the evidence say? Current research suggests that stretching can decrease pain and soreness after exercise. However, no evidence supports the theory that stretching immediately before exercise can prevent overuse or acute injuries.
According to experts, what's key in the injury-prevention debate is how often you stretch. Habitual stretching that you do over a period of time, such as a yoga or stretch class, can reduce your risk of injury. But acute bouts of stretching, or stretching that you do only before and after your workouts, won't.
Playing it Safe
Keep these safety tips in mind when you stretch:
- Start slowly. It will become easier to stretch with practice.
- Don't force it. Overstretching can cause pain and injury. You might feel slight tension as you ease into a stretch, but it shouldn't hurt. If it does, stop.
- Breathe deeply. Don't hold your breath. Breathing slowly and deeply will help you relax and make stretching easier.
- Warm up. If you stretch before exercising, warm up your body for at least five minutes first, with light movement such as walking or marching in place. You should avoid stretching a cold muscle, as you can increase your risk of pulling it.
- Stretch all major muscle groups, holding each stretch for at least 30 seconds. Fitness professionals recommend focusing on calf muscles, front and back thigh muscles (quadriceps and hamstrings), hip flexors, chest (pectoral) muscles, and upper back muscles. You also can stretch your neck, shoulders, wrists, and ankles.
- Stretch three times a week, if possible, and on most days that you exercise.
- Be careful about stretching after an injury; if you have a chronic illness, consult a doctor.
- Listen to your body and do what you can. Everyone has a different level of flexibility, which is partly determined by your genes.
Stretching and More Stretching
Here are some activities you can try to improve your flexibility. They also can build strength, balance, or both:
- Ballet, modern dance
- Tai Chi, martial arts
- Balance or stability ball
If you're taking a class, give your body a chance to rest and repair itself by taking a day off from stretching. If you stretch as part of an exercise routine like walking or jogging, vary your stretches. For instance, hold a few (static stretching) and move on a few (dynamic stretching) – bend, reach side to side, rotate your body around, but don't bounce. "Stretches with controlled movement are very good for helping us function throughout the day," says Blahnik.
Stretching throughout the day, rather than in one, longer time period, is perfectly okay, too. A couple of stretches in the morning after you get out of bed, in the evening when you get home from work, or at your desk at lunch or break time can re-energize mind and body.
"Stretching is about learning how to relax in a comfortable, individual way. It allows you to get back in touch with your body and with the way you feel," says Bob Anderson, author of "Stretching In The Office." And the more in tune you are with your body, the more active you want to be, says Anderson.
Whether you're trying to get active or have been active a long time, stretching will make you feel great all over. According to Anderson, "It's the element that allows people to like their bodies again and feel they're doing it right."