Have stiff joints? Achy back muscles? The natural inclination when it comes to stretching is to roll the neck back and forth a few times or bend over quickly to touch your toes and bounce up and down a couple seconds. That stretch will help, right? Wrong. Turns out, stretching has much more to it, and when done properly and at the right times, can transform your health and wellness for the better.
What are the benefits of stretching?
Stretching boasts its fair share of both short-term and long term benefits on your health and physical well being. Engineered to not only stretch and extend, but to chemically restructure and adapt over time to environmental and pathological changes, the skeletal muscles of the body can provide pain relief, prevent injury, and even help you run and train better.
To achieve the maximum range of motion of your body parts is functionally what flexibility is. Without the elasticity and limberness of your muscles that stretching provides this wouldn’t be possible. Flexibility isn’t all back flips and splits either. In a much more basic respect, flexibility is your body’s way of naturally protecting itself and also powering strong and fluid movements, from walking to running and beyond.
Without stretching and regular movement, muscles can actually shorten, and become stiff and tight. With sudden impact or over-exertion, say in suddenly sprinting up a hill, for example, a tight muscle can more easily experience a tear, strain, or sprain, than a nimble, flexible one.
Athletes, including runners and swimmers, stretch their muscles when they are the most pliable, either after warming up or training. By doing this, they can pull, draw out, and prolongate muscles to beneficial extents, overriding their muscle’s natural inclinations to contract and instead training them to stretch, relax, and lengthen.
Muscle groups work together in a remarkable collaboration, especially when it comes to high-impact sports and training. Flexibility allows for better form when running or playing sports, and stretched, malleable muscles foster faster repair and even growth of new muscles.
Routine dynamic stretching which involves continued movements that stretch muscles, like jump squats, arm circles, and eg kicks has been shown to improve strength, and help people run faster and perform with greater agility.
Stretching muscles can aid in pain relief by boosting blood circulation that reduces swelling. The American College of Physicians even suggests mindfulness practices like yoga and tai chi for combatting chronic lower back pain because of the gentle stretching and deep breathing techniques involved.
Stiff joints and tense muscles, like in the knee, wrist or neck, are loosened and realigned with a good stretch, and increased blood flow carrying vital nutrients from your blood to your muscles helps relieve soreness as well.
It’s so easy for your respiratory muscles to fall under the radar, but stretching and strengthening them can do wonders for your breathing and physical activity. The diaphragm completes a fair share of the work when it comes to the inspiration and expiration processes of taking in oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide.
With deep breathing techniques, like those in yoga or Pilates, you can actually strengthen the diaphragm, overtime boosting your body’s ability to take in more oxygen at a time and therefore reduce your time to exhaustion or fatigue when working out. Researchers even found a correlation between increased breathing effort and leg fatigue when studying marathon runners.
The plague of the digital age is certainly one of bad posture. From spending hours a day sitting – either on the computer, on your phone, or watching TV – spinal tissues, back muscles, and hip tendons all start to scrunch, contract, and tighten as shoulders slump and backs hunch. Stretching aids in lengthening and realigning the spine, fortifying the back and shoulder muscles, and even alleviating annoying back pain that was leading to bad posture in the first place.
Revitalizing tired, tight muscles with active stretching not only increases blood flow, but triggers an alertness and energy boost. Limbering up your muscles helps release tension and encourages waste removal of toxins and built up lactic acid from the muscles. When incorporated with mindfulness activities like yoga and tai chi, gentle, flowing stretching can help clear the mind to improve focus and concentration too.
What Type of Stretching Should I Do?
While stretching seems rather basic, there are a handful of key pointers to keep in mind:
Firstly, there are two types of stretching – dynamic (active) and static. Static stretching is simply completed while standing still or sitting and holding stretches for upwards of 30 seconds at a time. Dynamic stretching involves constant extension and motion with controlled movements like trunk twists, leg squats, and lunges. Both are important, but dynamic stretching has more scientific backing for upping sports performance, endurance, and flexibility.
Secondly, quick, jolting stretches for a few seconds at a time do little to nothing for your muscles. Static and dynamic stretching should be done for at least 30 seconds per stretch to cue the engaged muscles in relaxing and lengthening after their initial reflex to simply contract.
Thirdly, bad stretching form can cause injury, Stretching through pain or overdoing a particular stretch can actually pull or strain a muscle, rather than make it more limber, causing inflammation and pain.
And finally, stretching is best done when muscles are warmed up and more easily manipulated. Dynamic stretching incorporates stretching with the warm-up itself, while some athletes prefer to stretch statically after a workout or game.
Some of the best ways to start a regular stretching routine is to find an instructional video online which you can stream in the comfort of your own home. Or talk to your doctor or physical therapist about a dynamic stretching routine that could address pain or performance issues you are having.
Some stretching aids like a foam roller, calf stretch device, or resistance band can assist you in achieving beneficial stretches on your own. And taking part in fitness classes at a gym, like yoga or Pilates, will also equip you with helpful stretching basics and guides from instructors who are experts.
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