Have you ever watched your pet dog or cat when they wake up from a snooze? Likely, one of the very first things they do is yawn and stretch. Front legs extend out on the ground, hind end up in the air, followed by a good stiff-legged stretch of all four legs -- they sure seem to have the art of stretching perfected! Like our animal friends, we also know how good it feels to stretch upon waking; to reach our arms above our heads, point our toes and extend our legs fully. Sadly, for most of us, as soon as the alarm clock sounds we roll out of bed and hit the deck running. No time to linger, and certainly no time to stretch.
Up to this point, we have focused on cardiovascular fitness through walking, and strength fitness through resistance training. The third component we need to add for improved health is flexibility which is accomplished through stretching and other muscle-lengthening activities such as yoga, pilates, tai chi and swimming. Stretching upon waking is a good first step, but we want to incorporate a targeted program into our daily routines just like we did with walking, calisthenics, and resistance training.
Why stretch? Here are some of the many benefits:
- improved circulation
- improved posture
- stress relief
- improved coordination
- improved range of motion
- reduced risk of muscle and joint injury
- increased energy levels
While studies about stretching have yielded mixed results -- some show that stretching helps, while others show little benefit (1) -- most health experts agree that stretching, if done properly, is beneficial for overall fitness. As we age, our muscles tighten and range of motion in joints can become more limited. Tasks that were once simple, such as reaching something on a high shelf or twisting to pick something up, can become quite difficult and hinder day to day activities. Regular stretching can help lengthen the muscles, keep motion fluid and prevent injury. Regardless of age or flexibility, everyone can learn to stretch safely and effectively. Athletes, and anyone who participates in a sport or exercise, will find stretching to be very beneficial for their particular activity. For example, golfers have a series of stretches that are specifically designed to help prevent repetitive motion injuries during their swing. Runners have specific leg and hip stretches, rock climbers rely on a series of upper body stretches, and football players focus heavily on hamstring, glute and groin stretches to prevent injury during explosive moves.
Many of us remember the old-style stretches that were used as a warmup before our "real" exercise -- ice cold muscles were stretched using a bouncing motion which could actually be quite painful at times. This bouncing motion is known as ballistic stretching and research has shown that this type of stretching is not good for muscles and joints. Ballistic stretching can cause the muscles and ligaments to expand too far and too fast and result in a pulled muscle. Also, microscopic tears occur when muscles that have not been properly warmed up are stretched in this manner. These tears heal by forming new scar tissue and this scar tissue can lead to tighter, less flexible muscles! A gentler, more effective method is static stretching which involves a long, slow lengthening of the muscles. This is the type of stretching recommended by most health experts.
Static stretching should be done slowly, and only as deeply as you can comfortably go. A typical stretching exercise should last anywhere from 15-30 seconds and can be repeated one or two more times. You should feel some tension on the muscle, but NOT pain. If you feel pain, you are stretching too hard and too far. And it is important to feel the stretch all the way through the muscle rather than in the joint.
How much stretching should you do? There is no clear cut answer since every person's fitness level, genetics, and motivation are different. In general though, the more frequently you stretch, the more quickly you will gain flexibility. At a minimum, you should try to stretch 3-4 times per week for 10-15 minutes per session. Ideally, you will build up to daily stretching sessions which include all of the major muscle groups. Incorporating your stretching in with your other exercise is a great way to ensure that you get it done.
Your muscles should always be warmed up before you stretch as stretching cold muscles can increase the risk of pulls or tears. You can warmup your muscles by jogging in place for a few minutes, doing some light calisthenics, or even taking a warm shower or bath which raises muscle temperature. Do not lock your joints when you stretch -- try to keep them slightly bent to avoid unnecessary stress. Breathe normally during stretching. Do not hold your breath.
It is important to remember that stretching is no longer considered the warmup to an activity, but rather an integral part of your exercise that comes after an effective warmup. Stretching incorrectly can cause injury so it is important, as with any exercise, to have good instruction. For the Mayo Clinic's excellent slide show demonstration of basic stretches, click here. Or you can visit Sparkpeople's very thorough stretching guide here. You do not have to do the same stretches over and over; muscle tightness can vary from day to day so feel free to try different stretches depending on which muscles need the most attention.
And now, back to the morning stretch -- when the alarm goes off, resist the urge to hit the snooze button and roll over back to sleep. Your muscles are already toasty from being under the covers, so use those extra few minutes to get a good stretch in before you get out of bed. Stretch arms, legs, feet and toes; then slowly draw your knees up to your chest and wrap your arms around your calves. Feel the long slow pull in your back and through your shoulders and arms. Hold for 15-30 seconds, and then face your morning already feeling rejuvenated!
If you're still unsure how to perform a stretch, you can take your cue from this little guy...