From infants to the elderly, stretching the body after waking happens by instinct. It’s also excellent therapy. Flexing the fingers and toes, extending the arms, legs and feet, even rolling the head, are actions that the body seems to crave after an extended period of motionless sleep.
Anyone who has ever participated in an exercise class or worked out to a tape is familiar with the time dedicated to stretching. When we look at dancers or runners, we see them pointing and flexing prior to competing or performing. Why? There are many reasons and benefits.
Over the course of life, many of us spend time sitting in chairs that are not designed to promote good posture. We also choose sleeping positions that do not offer our backs the best alignment. Long periods of time spent sitting at work, eating or watching television also stiffen and shorten muscles. By stretching, we counteract the effects of immobility.
In a fast-paced society like ours, many of us don’t take the time to just relax and breathe. The increasing popularity of mind/body fitness programs shows that people need time to settle their minds. Stretching reduces the tension in the muscles. This promotes lower blood pressure, lessens fatigue and improves movement and circulation. Mentally, the relaxing signals sent to the brain are carried throughout the day, long after the stretching routine is over.
With activity, synovial fluid is released into joints. This protects them from injury. With no movement there’s a lack of fresh synovial fluid and the joints become dry. This causes the stiffness often associated with old age. Stretching releases the fluid that allows joints to move freely without pain.
Helps the Lower Back
Lower back pain is something that no one wants. Long periods without movement or vigorous exercise without stretching can traumatize low-back muscles that are not first warmed or lengthened. There are stretches that both warm and lubricate lower back muscles. They offer the best benefit when performed prior to activity but can provide relief from soreness after exercise.
Knowing the benefits of stretching helps a person decide which stretches are appropriate for individual fitness levels and goals, whether the goal is to enhance an exercise routine, train for athletic competition or just feel better.
These are some basic moves that can help anyone:
Lie on the floor with your legs together, making sure you’re relaxed. Remember to breathe and pull your knees in as close as possible to your chest. For an additional stretch, place your hands under your knees on the back of the thighs and pull in closer. Be sure to keep your head on the floor. Lifting it will turn the movement into an abdominal exercise.
The butterfly stretch is excellent after a heavy lower-body workout. Sit up tall and place the bottoms of your feet together so that the knees are bent outward. Place your hands on the inner thighs and press down until you feel a stretching sensation on the inside of the thigh. The closer the knees get to the floor, the more intense the stretch will be. If alignment is maintained, this stretch can also help sitting posture.
While standing or sitting, lean your head over toward either shoulder. Hold for 10 seconds. Slowly tilt your head to the opposite shoulder. This is an excellent stretch but be sure to sit or stand up straight to avoid injury to the base of your neck or upper back.
Give yourself a hug. Stand up and wrap your arms around your back and place your hands below your shoulder blades. Squeeze. Lower your head over your arms and give your neck a nice stretch at the same time.
Basic stretches can work for anyone and most can be done at home or at work. The above stretches address areas that most people need to pay more attention to. Regardless of when or how you stretch, there are a few basic rules.
- Maintain alignment: The rules for alignment are simple but crucial to avoid injury. Sit straight, stand straight and if a stretch calls for the head to be bent or relaxed, maintain that position throughout the stretch. Each body system works together. Injury is usually brought on by one move aggravating another muscle group.
- Warm up prior to a full stretch: When sitting for long periods of time, get up to stretch for a few minutes. This is excellent for long-term health. Longer stretch routines should follow a workout, when muscles are very warm. Routines prior to a workout are good for warming but not loosening muscles that need some tension for resistance training.
- Don’t overdue it: If you feel pain, stop! Stretching should feel good. The phrase “gentle tension” cannot be emphasized enough in a stretch routine. If increased flexibility is the goal, then stretch into gentle tension first, then breathe and move slightly deeper into the stretch.
- Finally, breathe: In all activity, proper breathing is important. In either aerobic activity or weight training, it’s very important to breathe properly, inhale during rest and exhale while doing the work. Never hold your breath. This can cause dizziness and other cardiovascular problems.