It’s not enough to do resistance exercises and “cardio” workouts. You need to think about flexibility, too. Stretching can be of significant benefit.
We all need to stretch in order to protect our mobility and independence. Stretching has to happen on a regular basis. It should be daily, especially as we get older and “tighter”.
Why Stretching is Important
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, possibly even significant injury.
For example, sitting in a chair all day results in tight hamstrings (back of the thigh). That can make it harder to extend your leg or straighten your knee all the way, which inhibits walking. This also occurs at the hip flexors (groin area). Then, when tight muscles are suddenly called on for a strenuous activity that stretches them, such as playing tennis, they may become damaged from the sudden forces exerted on them. Injured muscles may not be strong enough to support the joints, which can then lead to joint injury.
Regular stretching of your muscles maintains them long, lean, flexible and resilient to exertion that puts increased load on the muscles themselves. In turn, healthy, resilient muscles may also help improve balance, so as to avoid falls.
Where do I start?
With a body full of muscles, the idea of stretching daily may seem overwhelming to most. But you only need to focus on key muscles needed for mobility and balance, namely, the lower extremities: your calves, your hamstrings, your hip flexors in the pelvis and quadriceps in the front of the thigh. Stretching your shoulders, neck, and lower back is also beneficial for maintain posture as well as flexibility in these muscles. Aim for a program of daily stretches or at least three or four times per week.
There’s an excellent book by Bob Anderson called Stretching (of all things) with excellent, easy-to-follow drawings and sport-specific routines. Or, you can find a physical therapist who can assess your muscle strength and range of motion and tailor a stretching program to fit your needs. If you have chronic conditions such as Parkinson’s disease or arthritis, you’ll want to clear a new stretching regimen with your doctor before you start.
The cumulative effect of stretching
Stretching once today won’t magically give you perfect flexibility. You’ll need to do it over time and remain committed to the process. It takes weeks to months to get flexible, and you’ll have to continue working on it to maintain it.
A hamstring stretch will keep the muscles in the back of your thigh flexible. Sit on the floor with your legs in front of you. Slide your hands down your legs until you feel a tolerable pulling sensation. Don’t worry about touching your toes but do bend comfortably from the waist. Hold for 20-30 seconds, then slowly return to a sitting position.
We used to believe that stretching was necessary to warm up the muscles and prepare them for activity. However, mounting research has shown that stretching the muscles before they’re warmed up can actually be detrimental. When muscles are cold, the fibers aren’t prepared for activity and may be damaged. If you lightly exercise first, you’ll get increased blood flow to the area, and that makes the soft tissue making up the muscles “gooier” and more pliable. All it takes to warm up the muscles before stretching is five to 10 minutes of light activity, such as a quick walk or stationary bike exercise. You should also stretch after an aerobic or weight-training workout.
The Bottom Line
Hold your stretches for 20-30 seconds, 2-3 times per side. Don’t bounce, which can cause injury. You’ll feel tension during a stretch, but you should not feel pain. If you do, there may be an injury or damage in the tissue. Stop stretching that muscle and talk to your doctor.