Stretching is the deliberate lengthening of muscles in order to increase muscle flexibility and joint range of motion. Stretching is a natural and instinctive activity and something you can do every day regardless of your physical condition. People stretch instinctively after waking from sleep or after long periods of inactivity. But, by making it part of your daily routine you will find that all of your everyday activities are easier. Stretching often takes a back seat to your regular exercise routine but studies about the benefits of stretching show it improves your flexibility and may decrease your risk of injury.
It does not have to involve a huge time commitment, but stretching can give you huge results! Even better, there are simple stretches you can do while watching TV, on the computer, or getting ready for bed.
Benefits of stretching
Here are just a few of the benefits you can expect from a regular stretching program:
Reduced muscle tension and relief from pain. Stiff and tight muscles in the lower back, hamstrings, hips and buttocks is one of the most common causes of lower back pain. Stretching these muscles will alleviate the pain.
Relaxation and stress relief. Done properly, stretching helps relax tense muscles which result from stress. The relaxation of muscles can bring a sense of well-being and relief from tension.
Increased flexibility and range of movement in the joints. As we age, muscles tighten and we have less range of motion in our joints. Simple activities that we once took for granted such as sitting cross legged or bending over to tie your shoe can become difficult. A regular stretching program can help lengthen your muscles and make these daily activities easier and more enjoyable.
Enhanced balance and muscle coordination. Maintaining the full range-of-motion through your joints allows you to balance more easily. Coordination and balance are important mobility skills and will make you less prone to injury from falls.
Increased circulation of blood to of the body. Stretching improves circulation of blood to the muscles and joints. Increased blood circulation brings nutrients to our cells and removes waste byproducts. Increased energy levels are the result of from increased circulation.
Improved posture. Chronically tense muscles can contribute to poor posture, which in turn can affect the functioning of our internal organs, not to mention our appearance. Stretching the muscles of the lower back, shoulders and chest can help keep the back in better alignment and improve posture.
A recent study at Louisiana State University found that a regular stretching program may actually enhance performance, making people stronger and increasing their endurance.
“Stretching appears to do more than just increase range of motion,” says study author Arnold Nelson, professor of kinesiology. Stretching may particularly benefit people who need exercise the most, but are too weak to lift weights or get moving.
Nelson believes stretching affects muscles in a similar way as strength-training but on a smaller scale. “We suspect it’s activating some of the same things in the cell that exercise activates,” he says. Nelson says stretching won’t take the place of aerobic and strength-training programs, but it may enhance the results of those activities. And stretching is a smart idea for people who are traveling and don’t have a good place to work out, he says.
At the very least, Nelson and other experts say people should aim to stretch all major muscle groups at least once a few times a week, such as after exercising. Getting up from your desk and stretching out throughout the day also is recommended to release muscle tension.
When Should You Stretch?
When to stretch has become a controversial topic in recent years, with many fitness experts now saying that stretching before exercise doesn’t help prevent injury and may decrease athletic performance. As a result, trainers typically advocate stretching at the end of a workout, when the muscles are already warm.
Not everyone agrees that stretching before exercise is inadvisable, however. Dr. Nicholas DiNubile, orthopedic surgeon at University of Pennsylvania hospital in and author of “FrameWork,” says studies showing that pre-event stretching doesn’t prevent injury have involved mostly healthy people.
DiNubile recommends that baby boomers and people with pre-existing muscle or joint injuries should always stretch before exercise, “my feeling is you can never go wrong stretching before and after,” he says. Though Nelson does advise, warming up first with some aerobic exercise, and then stretching and then doing the more intense activity.
“Think of your muscles as taffy”, says DiNubile “hard taffy will break, but warm taffy will stretch and stretch.” Gauge your stretches accordingly.
Know when to exercise caution
In some cases, you may need to approach stretching with caution. If you have a chronic condition or an injury, you may need to adjust your stretching techniques. For example, if you already have a strained muscle, stretching it may cause further harm. Also, don’t think that because you stretch you can’t get injured. Stretching doesn’t prevent an overuse injury.
Although the benefits of stretching are many, is not for everyone. Consult your doctor if you have concerns about stretching. Conditions in which stretching should be avoided include:
- Acute Muscle Strains – People who have suffered an acute muscle strain should avoid further stress on the muscle by stretching. Stretching muscle fibers in the acute period can result in further injury. The injured muscle should be given time to rest.
- Fractured Bones – After breaking a bone, the fracture site needs time to heal. Stretching muscles that surround this injured area can place stress on the bone and prevent it from healing as well as further displace the break. Stretching a joint that surrounds a broken bone should never be done until cleared by your physician.
- Joint Sprains – When you sprain your joint, you overstretch the ligaments that help stabilize the bones that form the joint. Stretching too early after a joint sprain should be avoided. As with fractures, these structures need time to heal and stretching too early in the injury will delay this process.
It is essential to practice proper stretching techniques. Doing so will allow you to avoid any unnecessary injury. Tips to proper stretching technique include the following:
Even though you can stretch anytime, anywhere use proper technique because stretching incorrectly can do as much harm as good. Use these tips to keep stretching safe:
- Don’t consider stretching a warm-up. You may hurt yourself if you stretch cold muscles. So before stretching, warm up with light walking, at low intensity for at least five minutes. Stretch after you exercise when your muscles are warmed up. Some research suggests that pre-event stretching before intense aerobic or competitive activities such as sprinting, track and field or tennis may decrease performance.
- Focus on major muscle groups. When you’re stretching, focus on your calves, thighs, hips, lower back, neck and shoulders. Also stretch muscles and joints that you routinely use at work or play.
- Stretch both sides and do them at least twice. The first time extends the muscles, tendons and ligaments allowing blood and oxygen to reach the stretch areas. The second time allows for the maximum benefits of the stretch.
- Hold each stretch for at least 30 seconds. It takes time to lengthen tissues safely. Hold your stretches for at least 30 seconds — and up to 60 seconds for a really tight muscle or problem area. That can seem like a long time, so wear a watch or keep an eye on the clock to make sure you’re holding your stretches long enough.
- Never bounce. Bouncing as you stretch can cause small tears in the muscle. These tears leave scar tissue as the muscle heals, which tightens the muscle even further, making you less flexible and more prone to pain.
- No pain. The “no pain no gain” principal has no place in stretching. Only do stretches to the point just past “comfortable”. If it hurts, you’ve pushed too far. Back off to the point where you don’t feel any pain, then hold the stretch. In time the range of stretch will increase.
- If appropriate make stretches sport specific. Some evidence suggests that it’s helpful to do stretches tailored for your sport or activity. So opt for stretches that help the muscle groups you use most.
- Keep up with your stretching. You can achieve the best benefits by stretching regularly, at least two to three times a week. If you don’t stretch regularly, you risk losing any benefits that stretching offered.
- Relax and breathe freely. Breathing properly while stretching is important. Not only does it help you relax but you can “use” it to help prevent injury. Before beginning a stretch – inhale – while holding your breath ease into the maximum range of the stretch. When that position is reached exhale and allow the release of tension to extend the stretch. Hold that position as you inhale again. You will feel the stretch working in the natural way. Repeat for all stretches.
- Stretch before and after activity. Light stretching after your warm-up followed by a more thorough stretching regimen after your workout is your best bet.
With your new-found knowledge of the proper techniques and benefits of stretching, it will be easy to incorporate this activity into your exercise/rehabilitation regimen. Here are a few good stretches to try:
Neck Stretch. First, get yourself in a well-balanced position, either sitting or standing. Slowly move the head forward toward the chin as far as possible. Return to center position and repeat all movements twice. Move head backwards (looking to ceiling) and return to center position. After loosening up, move your head in a clockwise motion, slowly and smoothly. (Note: Take precaution if you have a neck problem)
Shoulder Stretch. In the same balanced position, slowly lift your shoulders up to your ears and lower. Repeat. Another form is to touch your shoulders with your hands bring your elbows forward and together and rotate your arms.
Hamstring Stretch. Laying down, lift your legs up as high as you can, while keeping them straight. While in this position, you can also work your hips by rotating your leg in a circular motion.
If you’re looking for a good resource that will help you incorporate stretching into your fitness program, check out The Stretching Handbook. It covers every possible stretching exercise for every major muscle group in the body.
Make sure that stretching is a regular part of your fitness program. You will notice increased vitality and endurance. After 10-15 minutes of stretching, your body will be loosened up and ready for the day!
American Journal of Sports Medicine, 1999, Vol. 27, No. 2, pp. 173-176
Mandell, Andrew P. The Mr. Diabetes® Home Fitness Program. (1991, 2001) APM Productions