As I’ve shared before, long, hot, soothing baths and exercise get me through my day. The first loosens my tired, aching, knotted muscles. The last stretches, warms and releases pent up inflammation and spasms. They both improve function and help me to decompress.
Stretching can also prevent that annoying slump in our shoulders and back that progresses with time. In the morning the ability to stand and sit straight is easier. But by late afternoon muscles fatigue, hurt and tighten making it harder to overcome gravity. The more we give in, the worse the slump and resulting pain.
Stretching matters. Even if it’s just for a few moments. It reminds the muscles to move, improves flexibility, takes away inflammation and gets us to think about our posture. It also helps to shed pounds, improve sleep and calm the mind. For those of us suffering from chronic pain, investing just a few minutes a day can result in impressive dividends. And it can be done anywhere, anytime- at work, in the car, standing in line at the grocery store, or while reading in bed. There’s a stretch for any circumstance.
Benefits of stretching
- Increases blood flow. It surges blood with its important nutrients and life giving oxygen to starving muscles, sweeping away inflammation, metabolic waste such as carbon dioxide, ammonia and lactic acid. It also helps to prevent delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) after exercising.
- Increases range of motion. We all have seen how much better we can move when we’re warmed up. Stretching allows us to keep stiff joints, tendons and ligaments from limiting what we can accomplish. Diminished range of motion impacts everything we do, from getting that dropped coin off the floor to reaching for the pencil sharpener. The better we move the more freedom we have.
- Increases flexibility. Granted I no longer have the rubber bones I had as a child, but every ounce of flexibility I encourage will keep me stronger and reduce the risk of injury. I may not be able to do a cartwheel anymore but keeping flexible makes simple tasks easier to achieve.
- Improves physical activity. We have all been told not to jump into anything without warming up first. A mantra well worth following. Warm muscles are better prepared to be pushed and worked. Tight, cold tendons and ligaments are more likely to rupture or tear. Stretching before and after also improves performance and decreases the post exercise ache that can ensue.
- Decreases stress. Muscles respond to stress and anxiety, tightening up in preparation for fight or flight responses. Stretching allows these areas to release their pent up energy safely and relax. It also sends endorphins- our own feel good hormones- surging through the body. Breathing in and out while focusing on individual muscle stretches calms the mind and gives us a break from daily worries. You may also be surprised how well this keeps those tension headaches at bay.
- Improves posture. Throughout the day muscles are stressed causing imbalances. Our bodies rely on symmetry to function optimally. When one side is pulled out of balance by spasm or inflammation we tend to allow it to guide our responses by slumping and giving in to the pain. That just exacerbates the situation causing more accommodation and resulting pain. Stretching is the best way to stop this vicious cycle and restore balance.
- Increases pain tolerance. One study suggested that people who exercise have a higher tolerance for pain. It didn’t appear to change how the body senses pain. Instead physical activity increased circulation and delivered more oxygen to the brain altering how the brain interprets those pain signals. Along with the resultant endorphins exercise produces it’s a great tool to add to your arsenal.
Types of stretches
- Dynamic. In the past we were told to thoroughly warm before exercising. But research shows holding a stretch for 30 seconds or more can actually diminish muscle power, hindering your workout performance. Instead, do dynamic stretches to warm up muscles without impacting strength. This form of stretching improves agility, speed and acceleration. It involves actively tightening the muscles and joints while moving them through simple ranges of motion movements like rolling the shoulders, circling arms up and down or lunging side to side. This helps increase muscle temperature and decrease muscle stiffness.
- Static. This usually works best after an exercise. Holding various stretches in a comfortable position, as far as you can go without pain, for 10-30 seconds lengthens muscles that have already been stressed and keeps them from returning to a shorter version. It’s an effective way to increase flexibility.
- Passive or relaxed stretching. Here you assume a position and hold it there with another body part- like bringing your leg up and holding it with your hand, or using a partner to maintain the stretch. This helps release spasms and increase range of motion.
- Active. Stretching in a way that uses a body position to stretch different muscles simultaneously. Here our own muscles provide the resistant pull that creates the stretch. It improves flexibility by actively contracting one muscle (the agonist) as a way to stretch an opposing muscle (the antagonist) with no external force. For example, lift your leg up parallel to the floor and hold it there. This forces multiple muscles in the leg to fire and work together to maintain the desired position. Often found in yoga, these stretches are hard to sustain and rarely need to be held longer than 10-15 seconds.
- PNF. Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation. This combines active and passive stretching.
- Ballistic. This is a newer, popular stretch, that inhibits the body’s stretch reflex and increases range of motion by using quick, jerky, bouncing movements. But this external force can overload muscles and cause injury. I DO NOT RECOMMEND THIS TYPE OF STRETCH.
Next week I’ll talk about ways to safely start a stretching routine.