The hidden benefits of stretching

By Olivia Rossi, RN, MSN, ACSM
Your Personal Trainer

Flexibility is one of the three components of a well-balanced exercise program.  The other two are aerobic, or cardiovascular endurance, and resistance or strength training.  Simply put, being flexible means being able to use muscles and joints through their full range of motion.  The range of motion of any joint is specific to the type of joint it is.  For instance, ball-and-socket joints, such as in your shoulders and your hips, have a greater range of motion than hinge joints such as your elbows and knees. 

If the muscles around a joint are “tight,” the range of motion of that joint is restricted.  That’s where stretching comes in.  Stretching is the method used most commonly to increase joint flexibility.  In its current Position Stand on exercises to develop and maintain fitness and flexibility, the Amercian College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends the inclusion of general stretching exercises that emphasize the major muscle groups at least two-to-three times per week, but everyday is fine, too.

Within that framework, let’s look at the elements and benefits of stretching and the why’s, when’s, what’s and how-to’s.

Why stretch?
• Stretching increases flexibility, activities of daily living can be improved and maintained . . . something as simple as putting on your socks or reaching back to zip up your dress.
• Stretching maintains the normal length of your muscles and can improve your posture.
• Stretching can help to prevent injury by increasing the range of motion in everything you do, from your daily activities to your tennis or golf game.
• Stretching helps to relieve stress.
• Stretching feels good!

When should you stretch?
• It is best to warm up your muscles before stretching.  One of the best times to stretch is after your aerobic and strength workout.  If you’ve walked briskly or ridden on a stationary bike, stretch out those muscles you’ve been contracting–your calves, your quadriceps and your hamstrings.  Stretching muscles when they are cold increases the risk of injury, so warm up first.
• When you feel like it!  If you’ve been sitting in a car, in a plane, at a conference, at the computer, in a movie, in the morning–get up, walk around a little, take a shower, roll your shoulders, reach up and have a good stretch!

What should you stretch?
• Stretch your major muscle groups–your calves, thighs, hips, lower back, neck and shoulders.  Tight calf muscles, for instance, can cause stress on your feet and can lead to Achilles tendinitis.
• Stretch the muscles and joints that you use regularly at work or in your particular sport or recreational activity.

How should you stretch?
• Either after you’ve warmed up or when you’ve finished your workout (or both), stretches should be held for fifteen to thirty seconds, gently and not to the point of pain.  It takes time to lengthen muscles safely.
• Hold your stretches steady, don’t bounce.  Bouncing while stretching can cause minute tears in the muscle tissue.
• Stretching shouldn’t hurt.  It it does you’re probably stetching too far, so back off and hold the stretch a little more gently.
• Relax and breathe as you stretch–don’t hold your breath.

Stretching is an important part of your exercise program.  In fact, it should be a natural part of your daily lives.  It not only feels good, but its benefits are many.  Stretching is safe and convenient and can be done just about anytime and anywhere you feel like doing it.  You can use a wall, a floor, a curb or a chair.  Be good to yourself and your muscles.  At this busy, sometimes stressful time of year, it is especially important to take time out for you.  Take a hike, take a walk, take a bike ride, swim some laps . . . and stretch!

Yours in fitness,

Olivia Rossi, RN, MSN
Certified Clinical Specialist, ACSM
Certified Personal Traineer, ACSM

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