Can you spare 10 to 20 minutes a day to improve cardiovascular function, reduce back pain, help ease osteoarthritis, and prevent tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome and increase flexibility? All those benefits can come with a regular daily session of gentle stretching.
Few people seem to know how to stretch properly. People in gyms or out running in the park generally don’t stretch at all, because the way they’ve been taught to do it doesn’t feel good. Others stretch with pain, strain, bouncing and puffing, which does not increase their flexibility.
Youthful elasticity tends to fade as we get older. A decline in flexibility also means a decline in stability and balance, making a fall more likely. This may be deadly for an elderly person. Stiff muscles and tendons can also mean an increased risk of carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, chronic low back pain and osteoarthritis, all conditions which correct stretching can help alleviate. Lack of flexibility in the lower spine can even impair cardiovascular function and contribute to heart problems. Getting out of a chair with creaks and groans and shuffling stiffly as we age is not inevitable. Stretching is effective at any age, and can be a good way of gently moving the body when other physical problems prevent normal movement.
A good stretching program brings easy movement and protection from injury even to those who rarely exercise. Sedentary jobs can cause great stress on all muscles, especially in the lower back and pelvis, and even a job as simple as carrying groceries up a flight of stairs can be made easier with the stability and balance gained with consistent stretching.
Bouncing stretches are not only ineffective but can be downright dangerous. Any sudden stretch causes the muscle to tighten reflexively in a protective mechanism against overstretching. There is a danger of causing muscle and tendon damage.
Daily, even twice daily, stretching can be an important part of a fitness program, or a good way just to make daily tasks easier. Only one muscle or muscle group should be stretched at one time, using a smooth gentle motion, along with smooth, gentle breathing through the nose. There are two schools of thought for the length of stretches. Phil and Jim Wharton, the authors of The Wharton’s Stretch Book recommend two-second stretches repeated five to 10 times. The American Council on Sports Medicine recommends at least 10 seconds per stretch for improved flexibility. Find what’s best for you.
Muscles work in pairs; it is natural to flex one muscle and relax its opposite. For example, when lifting something with your arm, the biceps muscle, running from the inside of the elbow to the shoulder contracts to raise your hand, its opposite, the triceps muscle on the back of your arm, relaxes and lengthens. Flexing the opposite muscle in a stretch helps the muscle you are stretching to relax and results in a better stretch. So when you are stretching your lower back, flex the abdominal muscles in your stomach.
Stretching may be uncomfortable, especially if you are working on a particularly stiff joint, but it should never be painful. Learn to listen to your body and judge what sensations are a signal that something is wrong. A good program should also give you steady measurable progress in increasing flexibility. If it does not increase, or if you are in pain during or after stretching, check positioning and alignment in your stretches with a trainer, or a good book like those listed at the end of this article. If positioning is correct and pain persists, see your doctor, since that might be a signal of a more serious condition.
Short-term flexibility and long-term better health–isn’t that worth 10 minutes of your day?
Certain stretching exercises play a role in off-setting common muscular imbalances and poor posture. A typical postural imbalance in the upper body involves weak, over-stretched muscles around the shoulder blades and joints. These muscles cause the opposing muscles to become shortened, tight and inflexible. Such an imbalance results in rounded shoulders and upper back.
Hamstrings and hip flexors are particularly susceptible to tightness in office work. The following are some stretches for those who spend a long time sitting at their job.
- Pectorals Stretch: Stand near a wall with one arm bent at the elbow. Place the palm of the bent arm on the wall, slightly behind your body. Check that your shoulders are not elevated. Hold 10-30 seconds, repeat and change arms.
- Wrist Extension Stretch: In a sitting or standing position, place the palms together and hold your hands around chest level with your forearms parallel to the floor. Make sure you are not lifting your shoulders to your ears. Press one hand against the other to allow for a stretch on the non-pressing side. Hold 10-30 seconds each side.
- Hip Flexors: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Step one foot behind you and lift your back heel. Slowly drop the back knee and gently press your hips forward without excessively arching your back.. Make sure the knee on the front leg does not exceed your toes. Hold 10-30 seconds, repeat movement, then switch legs.
- Hamstrings Stretch: Lie face up on a mat and extend one leg in the air while the other leg remains in a bent position with the foot on the floor. Keep the knee on the extended leg slightly bent. Stretch 10-30 seconds, repeat the stretch, then change legs.