We go to the gym to build muscle, lose fat, or increase our cardiovascular health. But what about stretching? Here are some of the health benefits to stretching regularly.
If you’ve ever struggled to stand up from a chair, notice that your shoulders stoop forward, or have to turn your body to look behind you then you could probably benefit from stretching. Stretching is a low impact activity that has been shown to improve flexibility, mobility and balance. When these three concepts work together, you develop a stronger body.
Flexibility and range of motion
Stretching helps with flexibility by increasing your joint’s range of motion. Range of motion (ROM) refers to how far a specific joint allows a specific bone to move freely. For example, bending forward to tie your shoes is a result of the muscles in your low back, abdominals and hips engaging, thus, moving the joints of the low back and hips. By reaching forward to grab your shoelaces, your shoulder and back muscles engage. This allows the ball and socket joint of the shoulder to move your arm in a forward direction.
It happens all over the body. How you move depends on how your muscles allow the joints to move your bones. When your muscles are tight, the amount of movement that comes from your joints decreases, thus, decreasing your ability to move. By stretching your muscles, you give your joints the opportunity to move in a less painful way.
Posture and mobility
How well you move about is directly related to your posture. When you slouch forward, your abdominal, back and shoulder muscles are not engaged. When your body is bent forward, you’re unable to move with ease. Stretching allows the deep muscles of the back and abs to contract, bringing your spine into a more upright position. With your shoulders engaged, your head sits squarely on your neck and you can step forward, backward or side to side without the need to grab onto something for assistance.
Strength and balance
Strength equals stability. When you stretch regularly, you engage both deep and surface muscle fibers. Deep muscle fibers at your body’s core help to hold you in place while the surface muscle fibers give you the motion to do anything and everything. Muscles that haven’t been stretched can be weaker. You benefit from stretching by “waking up” those muscle fibers. Stretching is a way to tell them, “it’s time to get moving”. The more muscles you can engage in your body, the stronger you will be. Stronger bodies have better balance.
Static or dynamic?
There are 2 types of stretches that people typically do- static and dynamic. Static stretching is the process of elongating the muscle and holding it for a short period of time. This is what you may think of as a traditional style of stretching. If you’re just starting out, you can benefit more from doing static stretches. Dynamic stretching is a movement based style of stretching that mimics the activity about to be done. It is mostly done by athletes or people who are engaging in physical fitness like weight training or cardio. Strength and balance are just 2 of the benefits you will gain from a regular stretching routine. Once you feel comfortable in those, you can add some dynamic stretches to increase your cardio function.
For older adults, stretching can be a life saver
Studies have shown that falls are the #1 cause of emergency room visits in older adults. Having a regular stretching routine can prevent the instance of falls by increasing stability, helping you to remain steady on your feet. Several Falls Prevention programs implement basic stretching to strengthen and engage your muscles.
Guidelines for stretching
Before you begin any type of physical activity, it is important to consult your doctor or health care provider. Even though it is low impact, you can still hurt yourself by not knowing the ins and out of stretching. Follow these simple guidelines to get started.
- It’s important to remember that the “no pain no gain” concept does not refer to stretching. Never stretch beyond your body’s current level of flexibility. If you’re struggling to get into a position or posture, use a towel or a fitness band to help you. As you gain flexibility, you can eventually use your own body.
- Don’t do more than you’re ready for. As you progress into a routine and become more flexible, you might be tempted to try more. Take it slow. Doing too much too soon can hinder your progress.
- Never stretch “cold” muscles. You might think that stretching should be part of your warm up routine. If you choose to stretch before any activity, make sure to do at least 5 minutes of movement (walking is fine) to warm up. Get some blood flow to your muscles first. Stretching your muscles while they are cold can lead to injury. Your goal is to use a stretching routine to prevent injury.
- You can stretch before and/or after any physical activity. Both before and after is ideal so try to add an additional 10-30 minutes onto your designated workout time.
- Don’t bounce or thrust. Stretching is a low impact activity and your aim is to stretch the tissue- slowly! Sudden jolts of movement can cause muscle strains or tears. It’s not worth it.
- If you choose to only do a stretching routine, give yourself at least 30 minutes to target all the major muscle groups.
- Stretching doesn’t necessarily have to be yoga, although some yoga postures will stretch your body. You don’t have to carry a mat to a studio to achieve your goal. Stretching can be done anywhere.
- Be sure to stretch both sides of the body equally. It’s common that one side of your body may be more flexible, or have a better range of motion than the other. You should still stretch both sides equally to get the total benefit.
- If your mobility is already limited then many stretches can be adopted to do in the seated position.
- You wont see a major change in only 1 session. Stretching is an activity that builds on itself. Overtime, you will become more flexible and have better balance.
- Keep it simple, keep it safe.