If you’re a dog or cat owner, you’ve probably noticed how often your pet likes to stretch. Stretching feels good, especially after lying around all day. Or, as is more often the case with humans, sitting around all day. But unlike our furry friends, we’re not as likely to get up and stretch our bodies after long bouts of inactivity, even though our bodies would like nothing more. From sitting all day at a desk or computer, we usually move on to a seat in a car, bus, or train, and then home to more seated activity — eating, reading, watching television, paying bills, answering email.
With 60 percent of people over the age of 50 leading an inactive life, is there any wonder that we see more health problems related to joints and muscles that rebel by becoming stiff, sore and even painful? Aging, too, contributes to tight muscles and poor flexibility because, as we age, muscles tend to become less elastic and tissues around the joints thicken. That hampers movement. In fact, you can lose 10 percent of your flexibility every 10 years if you do nothing! This is really the case of if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. The best physical activity routine is one that includes all four building blocks of fitness: flexibility and stability, endurance activities (aerobics, walking), strength training, and balance.
Stretching helps keep your muscles loose, which improves your flexibility. Current research suggests that stretching can decrease pain and soreness after exercise. However, no evidence supports the theory that stretching immediately before exercise can prevent overuse or acute injuries. According to experts, what’s key in the injury-prevention debate is how often you stretch. Habitual stretching that you do over a period of time, such as a yoga or stretch class, can reduce your risk of injury. But acute bouts of stretching, or stretching that you do only before and after your workouts, won’t.
Keep these safety tips in mind when you stretch:
Start slowly. It will become easier to stretch with practice.
Don’t force it. Overstretching can cause pain and injury. You might feel slight tension as you ease into a stretch, but it shouldn’t hurt. If it does, stop.
Breathe deeply. Don’t hold your breath. Breathing slowly and deeply will help you relax and make stretching easier.
Warm up. If you stretch before exercising, warm up your body for at least five minutes first, with light movement such as walking or marching in place. You should avoid stretching a cold muscle, as you can increase your risk of pulling it.
Stretch all major muscle groups, holding each stretch for at least 30 seconds. Fitness professionals recommend focusing on calf muscles, front and back thigh muscles (quadriceps and hamstrings), hip flexors, chest (pectoral) muscles, and upper back muscles. You also can stretch your neck, shoulders, wrists, and ankles.
Stretch three times a week, if possible, and on most days that you exercise.
Be careful about stretching after an injury; if you have a chronic illness, consult a doctor.
Listen to your body and do what you can. Everyone has a different level of flexibility, which is partly determined by your genes.
Whether you’re trying to get active or have been active a long time, stretching will make you feel great all over.