Stretching for Health
Updated: May 15
To put it simply, ‘fit’ means you are able to carry out your tasks of daily living with a minimal amount of effort or exertion. It means you have enough energy to get you through the day, and you're not living with nagging aches and pains. This is the ideal minimum we want to be in as we age.
Your body is a complex machine. Altogether, there are more than 600 muscles in your body. Along with tendons and ligaments, they hold your skeleton together, allowing it to bend and move in whatever direction you choose.
The three pillars of a fit body include aerobic activity, strength training and flexibility. Any sustained rhythmic movement encompassing the major muscle groups is considered aerobic activity (running, swimming, dancing). Whereas strength training is anaerobic, and refers to exercises which incorporates heavier resistance, like lifting weights, in order to develop or tone muscles.
“Flexibility is the key to stability”
– John Wooden
Flexibility, the third pillar, refers to stretching. Although it can include components of aerobic and anaerobic, it's design is entirely different. The purpose of flexibility training is to lengthen your muscles and increase the range of motion in your joints. It literally means to stretch your muscles in order to maintain your body’s flexibility. If we don’t do this, our muscles will eventually shorten and tighten up.
No matter how healthy we are, our joint mobility deteriorates as we age. This is due to a variety of reasons - changes in our bones, cartilage, connective tissue and synovial fluid - just to mention a few. Consider bad habits like a poor diet or smoking, repetitive actions, past injury/trauma and the picture gets worse. We have not yet added medical conditions such as arthritis, autoimmune disease, diabetes or obesity. The writing is on the wall: the older we get, we become weaker and stiffer.
When it comes to healthy aging, stretching becomes pivotal. As mentioned, it primarily improves or maintains the range of motion in your joints. But it can also:
Reduce stress. Stretching can ease muscle tension especially in the neck, shoulders and along the upper back. If you do it in combination with meditation music, stretching can be peaceful and relaxing.
Help with posture. Usually, it’s the tightened muscles of the hips, chest, lower and upper back that cause poor posture. Stretching does its part to keep our backs in good alignment, but for best posture results, combine it with strength training. Read my last blog: March is for Movement, to read more about the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle. Many of us spend a good portion of our day sitting behind a computer screen or looking at our phones. This makes us prime candidates for poor posture and back issues. Assume the position!
Strengthen muscles. Strong, healthy muscles is key to maintaining your ability to stretch. It is the cornerstone to sustain and retain your range of motion.
Prevent future injuries. When muscles are weak and tight you are much more susceptible to joint pain, strains and muscle damage – your back is a prime candidate. And if you do get hurt, stretching could shorten your recovery time.
Improve balance and avoids future falls.
Improve your performance in physical activities like sports.
Improve circulation to increase blood flow to muscles.
When & How to Stretch:
Not too long ago, we were told stretching was an important part of the warmup to get your muscles ready to go through a workout routine or sport activity. Now we know better. Stretching your muscles before they are warmed up, can actually damage the muscle fibres. The best time to do any flexibility exercise is when your muscles are already warm so they can stretch farther without tightness and pain. So, if you are stretching before a more physical activity, take five to ten minutes to do some light cardio or take a brisk walk to get the blood flowing to the tissues. In addition, It’s alway good practice to stretch after you exercise, especially after endurance or strength training.
As someone with Polymyalgia Rheumatica (PMR), exercise remains a challenge for me. I don’t have the healthy muscles for cardio or strength training (yet). For the first couple of years after diagnosis, my activity was limited to walking (a life safer) and swimming (something I could only do in bath-water temperatures). It was under close supervision of my physiotherapist that I was able to introduce stretching to my therapy. So if, like me, you have a chronic condition, or have an existing or acute injury, check with your doctor or physiotherapist for their recommendation moving forward.
“If you stretch correctly and regularly,
you will find that every movement you make becomes easier."
– Bob Anderson
If you are in good physical condition but new to stretching, or would like to introduce stretching into your routine, here are a couple of tips to get you started:
Always stretch slowly and smoothly into the desired position. Don't push to the point of pain - go only as far as is comfortable. A mild tension or pull during the stretch is normal.
Relax and breathe normally while you stretch. When moving into the stretch, breathe out through your mouth until you are in position. This will help keep your muscles relaxed.
Once in your desired position, return to normal breathing pattern as you hold the stretch for 10 – 30 seconds. Repeat each stretch 3 – 5 times.
Don't jerk or bounce when in the stretch. This can cause muscles to tighten and may result in injuries.
As you become more flexible, try reaching farther into each stretch. Back off if you feel a sharp or stabbing pain - or stop altogether; you may have stretched too far and injured the tissue.
It is best to start by focusing on the muscles of your body that help with mobility e.g., calves, hamstrings, hips and major muscles like the quadriceps and gluts. For upper body it would be the neck, shoulders and lower back.
Keep your joints slightly bent, never in a ‘locked’ position as this can cause injury.
Get familiar with proper form and technique. Being able to stretch and bend a certain way without discomfort does not mean you are doing it correctly.
The more you stretch the easier it becomes.
Aim for 5 – 10 minutes a day – everyday.
Stretching should be incorporated into your daily routine. This is one of the best investments you can make to your future self. Regular stretching keeps muscles long, lean and flexible. It keeps you mobile and limber, but more than that, it keeps you independent.
“Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked,
while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind."
— Bruce Lee
If you’re new to a regular stretching routine, remember to take it slow. Your body needs time to become familiar with the stretches. This is no different from any other physical activity. Eventually your muscles will become more pliable, and the exercises become easier. Challenge yourself to move to the next level, or the next pillar. Maybe you’re even ready to step it up a notch and reach out to a personal trainer or fitness coach.