Everyone who has taken an exercise class or who remembers high school gym class, knows that stretching is part of all routines. Not everyone understands why -- nor carries this practice into daily life.
Stretching increases flexibility, reduces muscular and joint tension and stiffness, improves circulation, helps with balance, improves posture, and just makes you feel good.
It's good for overall health, even for non athletes and those who lead sedentary lives. For instance, studies show that regular lower back stretches reduce the risk of back pain and discomfort.
Upper body stretching helps get rid of tension in the back of the neck and shoulders. Relief may be temporary but it's very real.
All stretching lengthens muscle tissue so that there is less chance of trauma to it.
As with any exercise program - and stretching is good if mild exercise - check with your doctor before you begin.
When to Stretch
Everyone should stretch every day. The image of a big, spread-arm stretch first thing in the morning is not just for cartoons. Gentle body stretching reduces overnight stiffness and because it helps circulation, you quickly feel more alert.
During the day, take time to stretch. Shoulder rolls, lower body stretches, and leg stretches all can be done just about anywhere, anytime.
When you exercise, be sure to stretch. Most experts now feel you should warm up a little (walk or jog for five or 10 minutes) before stretching to get your muscles warm.
After you exercise, stretch those loose and primed muscles. It helps them relax and reduces likelihood of pain. Sports professionals agree that post-exercise stretching is the most important.
How Long to Stretch
A 30-second stretch is all you need for every muscle group. Studies show that there is no increased benefit from holding a longer stretch - although many people still believe they should hold it for up to 60 seconds.
Work up slowly. Start with 10- or 15-second stretches and build to 30-seconds. Don't hurry through stretches. Never bounce!
Never hold a stretch if it gives you pain. Stop stretching right before it begins to hurt. Strain a little but forget the old (and erroneous) saying: no pain, no gain.
Because you should stretch every muscle group, from you neck to your calves, a good stretch workout can take five minutes or longer, particularly if accompanied by walking or slow jogging.
Learn to Stretch Properly
Before you begin stretching regularly, learn how to do it right.
If you take an exercise class, your instructor will teach you how to stretch. Personal trainers can show you the best stretches for your body and your needs.
Disciplines such as Yoga, T'ai Chi, and Pilates all rely on stretching. Sign up for a class - you'll tone your muscles and feel great!
You can buy video and audio tapes that will take you through a stretching routine. Books with illustrations or photographs are very good teachers, too.