What is Stretching?
Stretching is a form of exercise which a specific muscle or tendon is deliberately flexed or stretched in order to improve the muscle’s elasticity and achieve comfortable muscle tone. The result is a feeling of increased muscle control, flexibility and range of motion.
Why is Stretching Important?
You may think of stretching as something performed only by runners, gym-goers or sports people. But we all need to stretch in order to protect our mobility and independence. Stretching has to happen on a regular basis. It should be done daily.
Stretching keeps the muscles flexible, strong, and healthy, and we need that flexibility to maintain a range of motion in the joints. Without it, the muscles shorten and become tight. Then, when you call on the muscles for activity, they are weak and unable to extend all the way. That puts you at risk for joint pain, strains, and muscle damage.
For example, sitting in a chair all day may result in tight hamstrings (the back of the thigh). That can make it harder to extend your leg or straighten your knee all the way, which inhibits walking. Likewise, when tight muscles are suddenly called on for a strenuous activity that stretches them, such as running or playing a sport like tennis or soccer etc, they may become damaged from suddenly being stretched. Injured muscles may not be strong enough to support the joints, which can lead to joint injury.
Regular stretching keeps muscles long, lean, and flexible, and this means that exertion won’t put too much force on the muscle itself. Healthy muscles also help a person with balance problems to avoid falls.
Stretching also promotes healthy blood flow and fluid exchange. While you’re improving your flexibility, you’re also preparing your joints to move in their full range of motion, decreasing the risk of injury.
What Stretching Does
Eases Tightness: There’s a reason your fitness instructor takes you through some stretches when you’ve finished your workout. Vigorous exercise and activities that repetitively work the same muscle groups (like golf, cycling and tennis) can make muscles shorter and tighter and lead to aches and pains. Stretching helps minimize post-workout stiffness.
Promotes Circulation: Tense muscles get short-changed when it comes to the circulation of oxygen and essential nutrients. Just a few minutes of stretching each day helps your muscles get what they need to move efficiently.
May Help Prevent Injury: Flexible joints require less energy to execute a wider range of motion, which may mean that stretching regularly can help you perform bigger movements (like bending down to retrieve something you’ve dropped) with greater ease. As a result, you’ll be less likely to pull, strain or sprain a muscle.
Feels Good: A more flexible body is a more comfortable body. When your muscles are limber and your joints bend freely, you’re likely to feel better emotionally too, especially since the calm, relaxing aspects of the practice of stretching can help reduce the stress hormone cortisol.
Types of Stretching
There are several forms of stretching that can help you improve your flexibility. Choose movements that suit your lifestyle and help your body feel its best.
Dynamic Stretching: While many of us jump right into a cardio routine when we’re ready to exercise, you may get more out of your aerobic workout if you spend a couple of minutes doing some dynamic stretching first. These moving stretches, like arm circles or jumping jacks, activate your nervous system and raise your heart rate and body temperature, prepping you for an effective and comfortable workout.
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF): This modality, which is a contraction of opposing muscles, usually involves stretching with another person—ideally a physical therapist or personal trainer—to provide resistance while you stretch. Some examples of PNF stretches include the Lying Hamstring (when your partner pushes your raised leg toward your chest as you lie flat on your back) and the Overhead Triceps (when your partner pulls your elbow, which is pointed toward the ceiling, slightly behind your head while your bicep is against your ear and your hand is against your upper back).
Static Stretching (Active-Isolated Stretching): This technique, which also involves contracting opposing muscles, requires you to hold each stretch from anywhere between five and 30 seconds, repeating each movement up to 10 times. This type of stretching can help minimize muscle soreness and improve range of motion after your workout.
Yoga: Hatha and restorative yoga involve holding static poses that promote stretching and extending various muscle groups. Practicing these movements can include supports, like a bolster, blanket or strap, helping your body relax as you breathe through each stretch.
How to Stretch Safely
It’s important to perform these movements gently. To avoid any pain or possible injury, follow these guidelines:
Prepare Your Body: Warm up your muscles before holding any static stretches by jogging in place or performing a few dynamic stretches. This helps circulate blood to your muscles, making them more limber and less prone to straining or pulling when you begin your stretches.
Know Your Limits: Whether you’re stretching at home, at work or in a fitness class, listen to your body and be mindful of how you feel as you move. You should never experience more than mild discomfort during a stretch. If you’re struggling or bouncing as you hold the stretch, you may be pushing yourself too far—ease back a bit. As your range of motion improves, slowly increase how far you bend or how far you reach.
Use Your Breath: Relax the muscle group you’re working on and breathe into the stretch, extending further with each exhalation, if possible. Keep this up throughout the stretch to help your body loosen up.
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