Some days it can seem hard enough to find the time and motivation to exercise at all. Stretching too? We can all honestly admit that there are many times it just doesn’t happen. It’s like flossing…we all know we should, but are we diligent about making it a part of our daily plan? Well, I believe that we should think twice before omitting stretching (or flossing for that matter) from our regular routine.
Proper stretching can help to reduce injury and stiffness which increases your range of motion (fancy way of saying flexibility). Not to mention, stretching can give you the long, lean body that we are all dreaming of.
Stretching has come a long way from what you were likely taught in your grade-school gym class. There are two main kinds of stretching – dynamic and static.
When I ask people about stretching, static stretches are the moves that typically come to mind. These are the traditional reach-and-hold poses, like toe touches. These are still effective post-workout but should never be done on cold muscles, since that can lead to injury. Pre-workout static stretches have been shown to decrease athletic performance. Also, static stretches should never be done to the point of pain or be done in a bouncing (known as ballistic stretching) or forceful manner – as when someone pushes you into a stretch. Since the other person has no idea what you are feeling, this can also lead to injury. Only physical therapists and other trained professionals can perform this type of assistive stretching safely.
Dynamic stretching is the ticket to pre-workout success. This is more of what we think of in terms of warm-up exercise. Think of arm circles or marching in place with high knees. Sometimes just performing the exercise you intend on doing at a much lower intensity can help to warm the muscles – like walking before running.
It is recommended that dynamic stretching happen before your exercise and that you include static stretches after your workout to help encourage blood flow and lengthening of those muscles you just worked out. This really doesn’t need to be as complex as it sounds – simply spend a few minutes warming up, exercise, and then stretch slowly and carefully after your workout, holding stretches for about 30 seconds. In general, it is recommended that we stretch at least twice a week, but daily is best.
Stretching’s best benefit is that it just plain old feels good. It is like a poor man’s massage. You can carefully stretch in the morning, before you go to bed, or whenever you feel particularly tight in an area. I love stretching after working at my desk for a while, since computer work has a tendency to tighten your upper back, neck and shoulders. You can also use warm, moist heat or tools like a foam roller to relax tight muscles – I have a good friend that introduced me to this little gem (thanks, Stef)!
Here are some great resources on basic stretches, desk stretches (eagle arms are the best!) or videos to show you how to use a foam roller. Be careful about using a foam roller if you have bone density issues. Being fit is about listening to your body and stretching is no exception. Stretching should feel good. The more you incorporate stretching, the more you will experience the benefits and want to include it as a natural part of your regular routine.
photo credit: San Diego Shooter via photopin cc