Why is it important that we stretch? I have previously written about the benefits of yoga which, of course, includes stretching. Recent research mostly supports the concept that stretching is generally beneficial to all ages.
Throughout life we are told to stretch. Growing up, if you played sports or danced, you always had a few minutes of stretching prior to performance. One of the things that bothered me most, when my kids were growing up and playing on various soccer teams, was the shear lack of post warm-up, quality stretching, prior to game time! I was shocked to watch the team captains bounce through a few silly, often incorrectly executed, stretches.
So why do we stretch? What is the purpose? According to a 2016 article from healthfitnessrevolution.com:
“Stretching is very important for flexibility, range of motion and injury prevention. Incorporating stretching into your daily workouts is a given but including it in your day routine is just as important to health and body functioning as regular exercise. It relaxes your muscles and increases blood flow and nutrients to your cartilage and muscles.”
The Mayo clinic recently released a study on the matter. The studies suggests that stretching may help you:
- Improve your joint range of motion
- Improve your athletic performance
- Decrease your risk of injury
These are things we want to hold onto as we age. But the article also provides guidelines that will help explain the hows, whens, and whys of stretching. For example, in some cases, stretching prior to sprinting seemed to reduce athletic performance. Also, research has shown that stretching immediately before an event weakens hamstring strength, and additionally reveals that stretching doesn’t reduce muscle soreness after exercise. So mixed reviews here.
Then, on the other hand, other research indicates that stretching may:
- Improve your performance in physical activities
- Decrease your risk of injuries
- Help your joints move through their full range of motion
- Enable your muscles to work most effectively
It seems the bottom line is to learn how and when to stretch to get maximum benefits. For example, one should not stretch cold muscles. One needs to warm up prior to actively stretching muscles; otherwise, an injury could ensue. Another suggested method is “dynamic stretching” which is defined as:
“A dynamic warm-up involves performing movements similar to those in your sport or physical activity at a low level, then gradually increasing the speed and intensity as you warm up.”
Regarding seniors, here is a good nugget of information:
“Bring movement into your stretching. Gentle movements, such as those in tai chi or yoga, can help you be more flexible in specific movements. These types of exercises can also help reduce falls in seniors.”
If we can reduce falls, we can reduce broken bones and severe injuries that can be negatively life-altering for older persons.
This information supports the use of an active stretching regime, especially as we age. But we must also listen to our bodies, especially if you are taking a stretching or yoga class. Genetics play a huge part in one’s personal flexibility. Just because your buddy can tie his or herself into a pretzel doesn’t mean you can, or ever will. When beginning a stretching-type of class we all need to be aware of our bodies’ limitations. When I began teaching yoga, I was tight in most muscles of my body. After several years of regular practice I did get more flexible; however, I eventually maxed out. I realized that I needed to be happy with what I had achieved. Sure, I can and will continue to try to improve but I will never push myself into a stretch that causes pain or injury. I did that once. I was in a pyramid pose, which looks like this (courtesy of Sexy Yoga School) :
As you can see, the front leg is straight. In this pose, the hamstring on the front leg stretches up into where it inserts into the gluteal area. One day, I was feeling frisky and pushed myself, past pain, deeper into the pose. Poof! Suddenly I felt what must have been a tear up at the hamstring insertion point in the buttocks, near the bottom of the pelvic bone. That one painful mistake did not heal completely for at least 3 years. Lesson learned…. and don’t let this happen to you! Be realistic and happy just to be moving and stretching, have no preconceived flexibility goals other than to continue your practice. In other words, know when to exercise caution, as the Mayo Clinic suggests:
“You might need to approach stretching with caution. If you have a chronic condition or an injury, you might need to adjust your stretching techniques. For example, if you already have a strained muscle, stretching it may cause further harm.”
One more method of stretching is called “static.” This is defined, according to Human Kinetics, as:
“Static stretching means a stretch is held in a challenging but comfortable position for a period of time, usually somewhere between 10 to 30 seconds. Static stretching is the most common form of stretching found in general fitness and is considered safe and effective for improving overall flexibility.”
Note the phrase “comfortable position.” Human Kinetics also suggests that dynamic stretching may be preferable to static because:
“…many experts consider static stretching much less beneficial than dynamic stretching for improving range of motion for functional movement, including sports and activities for daily living.”
So, as always, chat with your doctor or physical therapist prior to beginning a new exercise or stretching regime. I believe both types of stretching are valuable for different reasons, as we have discussed. Find out what works for you, stick with it by finding a way to fit it into your daily and/or weekly routine. If you want a few more reasons to stretch, check out this Prevention article:
(Featured Image courtesy of Radiantskies)