We've All Heard What They Say About Stretching
(February 27, 2018)
You hear a lot of different things about stretching. You know about stretching. You know someone who DOES stretching. You may even do stretching yourself. But I hear a lot of people saying that it’s just a phony exercise or that you can hurt yourself. And other people say that it doesn’t really work. Sad!
This particular newsletter, then, is about stretching. It will probably be kind of boring. But it will have good, important stuff in it, I promise, and it won’t take long at all.
If you have been with me for a while, you will remember that I am always pushing the federal guidelines for adults on diet and exercise. This is because despite what you may think of government, the people who put these things together are, as we say in the health and wellness biz, Very Smart. They periodically look at all the evidence available and try to sum it all up into rules that lay out the MINIMUM effort that you need to expend in order to obtain MAXIMUM health benefits.
Those rules, if you follow them, will reduce your chances of developing one of those chronic conditions that seem to be everywhere these days by 80%. For me, those are acceptable odds. And so I constantly boost said federal guidelines.
But something occurred to me recently while I was trying to climb up on the kitchen countertop to clean the tops of the cabinets. (That is a story in itself, but I will not digress). And that is that the federal guidelines on adult fitness are missing something. They have rules for aerobic fitness and for muscle strength. All well and good. But there’s nothing in them specifically about flexibility. And flexibility is crucial to fitness and, thus, health.
Why? Because if you’re flexible, you move more easily and with more agility. You can do more (known in the athletic business as “increased performance”). You have less pain AND you are less prone to injury.
To get an idea of this, think about your ankle being a little rubbery instead of stiff and hard. If it’s more flexible, it’s easier and more comfortable to walk and run on it, and generally to do anything that involves that ankle. And so you not only feel more like doing things but probably actually DO more. Meaning that you end up being more active and feeling better both physically and mentally.
Also, if you make a mistake and twist that slightly rubberized ankle a bit too much, it will heal faster and better than if it was a rough, tough, hard, dinosaur-like ankle. That’s because when you can move your joints more easily, they get better circulation and are healthier all around. In fact, in terms of pain issues, flexibility is probably as important as strength.
Stretching increases flexibility by relaxing excessive tension in muscles and facilitating joint movement. A properly stretched muscle is more elastic and has better tone. Muscles that are chronically tight are uncomfortable, even painful. Plus, when you properly stretch a muscle that’s too tight, you get a better range of motion and more flexibility in the associated joint(s) and better control over both the muscle and joint. What’s not to love?
Muscles operate by becoming shorter (they have to, to pull on bones to move them). So even if you are active, many of your muscles don’t stretch much unless you do so deliberatelyl. That is why you have to make a point of doing at least some stretching.
You have to stretch properly, though. If you stretch too vigorously or incorrectly, you can damage your ligaments. Ligaments are what actually hold the bones together, and if you damage ligaments those bones can rub on each other when you use the joint and THAT turns into arthritis pretty quick. So you have to stretch without overdoing it. (On the other hand, not using a joint enough can also produce arthritis. Life is just not fair. It’s like exercise and pretty much everything else under the sun; you have to do enough of it, but not too much.)
Stretching is a huge subject, so I’m going to stick to just the easiest kind to do, referred to by the aforementioned Smart People as “static stretching”.
You want to stretch the major joints and areas of your body (neck, middle and lower back; wrists, elbows and shoulders; ankles, knees and hips). Also stretch the major muscle groups, the same groups that you focus on in strengthening. And if you perform any kind of physical activity that could be termed at all demanding, pay special attention to the muscles and joints you use in that activity.
Basically, you choose a particular muscle or muscle group, and you bring it to its maximum length. You move slowly and smoothly until you feel some gentle tension. You stop there, and hold the stretch for 30 to 60 seconds or until you feel a kind of a release. And that is IT. (I shudder to think of that bounce stretching we used to do in gym class. That actually makes muscles tighter.)
You want to have your muscles already warm before you stretch, so that usually means to stretch AFTER you have exercised.
When you stretch, stretch both sides of your body. Notice if you are equally flexible on both sides. If not, work on that; hold the stretch on the less flexible side somewhat longer.
Basically you stretch to the point of tension and hold it there. Stretching should NOT hurt at ALL. Stretch at least as frequently as you do muscle strengthening (2-3x weekly).
Is that enough? Was it sufficient? There is a particularly nice book on stretching if you want one, by Bob Anderson, called “Stretching”. It won’t get you into any trouble if you follow its rules, and it has a bunch of different stretches for each body area (and also programs for some sports) so you can find one that particularly suits you.
The Smart People haven’t put stretching into the Rules yet, then, but it’s worth doing anyway. Plus, spring is a good time to stretch, after all the fetal positioning of the winter months. So feel free to do it. Happy spring!
--dr. diane holmes
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