Cats do it, dancers too. We all stretch out our bodies, and by doing so, we tune up our muscles and relax our brain. Even as babies, we instinctively know what muscle groups are asking for a gentle tug. But we might not know how important stretching is for our body.
According to wellness expert, Scott Cole
, stretching is a key element of body maintenance.
“As we age, we lose elasticity in the joints,” says Cole. “The cartilage tends to diminish rather than replenish and our muscle mass tends to decrease and will definitely become tighter if we don't stretch. “
Whether we are elite athletes, ditch diggers, office dwellers or housewives, we all need to keep our flexibility and range of motion to avoid future problems.
Posture is maintained, injuries are prevented, one can participate in movement activities well into the golden years by keeping a fluid body.
“I have witnessed many healthy people over sixty exhibit a quite youthful appearance through the gentle practices of yoga and TaiChi,” says Cole. Indeed, many fitness programs, and certainly yoga, incorporate stretching into the plan, but even on our own, we should stretch. Often.
Upon rising in the morning, we should ease open our backs and hips, loosening any areas of tension before we fly through the day.
If we sit at a computer, we should take a once-an-hour break, relaxing shoulders, neck, hands (and eyes.) Every sport uses specific muscle groups, gently ease those guys into action. It is best to stretch when the body is warm, pliant.
Stretching Should Feel Good
Always. The “no pain, no gain” school of fitness went out with pink spandex. If done correctly, stretching feels yummy. Slow, fluid, conscious.
The muscles protect themselves, when the fibers overstretch or bounce into discomfort, the nerve says, “contract to protect.” This is involuntary, like when you touch something hot, but a contracted muscle is tighter than in its relaxed state, and will not stretch with ease.
Breathe Into Your Stretch
Deep, relaxed, rhythmic breathing oxygenates the body. Never hold your breath during a stretch. According to Cole, “blocked breath=blocked energy” so relax and let it flow.
Focus on the Muscles
Feel the muscle or muscles being stretched. Go to the point where you feel mild tension, relax and gently hold the position for 10-15 seconds. According to stretching-guru, Bob Anderson, author of the fitness bible, Stretching
, “be in control.” With time, you will simply stretch because it feels good, not to achieve flexibility. “Learn to find and control the right amount of tension in each stretch,” says Anderson.
Mind Your Position
Relax all the muscles when stretching, not just the areas of focus.
“Make sure you're not creating blockages in other areas,” says Cole. “For example, many people lift their shoulders and hunch their necks when they try to stretch their hamstrings.”
Check in with your face, are you grimacing? Relax everything, jaws, hands, mind.
Don’t Compare Yourself With Others
Pay no mind to Gumby girl over there. Even if you are tight or inflexible, you still should stretch, be patient. With time, your range improves if you stretch regularly. Even so, some people will never touch their toes, everyone is different.
Every Day Is Different
Some days we are tighter, some days we are looser, based on a range of variables. Regardless, try to stretch every day, just adjust accordingly. Anderson reminds us to find a stretch tension that feels good.
Stretch Your Tight Side First
Anderson writes that people tend to spend more time on their first arm, or leg or area that they stretch. And guess which side people stretch first? The easier side, of course. To remedy that, he suggests starting with the less flexible side. “This will help out even your overall flexibility,” he says.
Another Reason to Drink Water
Your muscles stretch more easily when they are well hydrated. Keep that in mind on those tighter days.
Find Your Place
Ideally, you want to stretch on a firm, but not hard surface, like a rug or mat. Don’t stretch jammed against furniture, trash bins, piles of books, twisting to accommodate. If the body is not comfortable, you won’t fully relax. Avoid drafty spots, cats like shafts of sunlight for warmth.
Good Stretches For Everyone, Any Time
“The best lower back move I know is from Chinese QiGong,” says Cole. “It is called Bending Bear, and it involves rounding forward, letting go of all tension, then slowly rolling up to vertical one vertebrae at a time.” This is also done with one’s back against a wall for stability. Always bend your knees to lessen strain.
Muscles often compensate for others. “Usually when someone has a tight lower back, it also means that their hamstrings are tight, “says Cole.
When sitting in the car at a red light, lift both shoulders with a nice, slow inhale, lower before the light turns green.
Push your chair back from the computer, interlace fingers, turn palms away from body, straighten elbows and push palms forward for 10-20 seconds. Do this with hands overhead too. Delightful.
As Anderson says,
“Don’t stretch to be flexible, stretch to feel good.”
Wellness expert, Scott Cole
, is the creator of the Discover Tai Chi, Get Fit America for Kids and Millennium Stretch DVD series'. He has presented stretching lectures and workshops in over thirty countries and has appeared on The View, Live with Regis and Kelly, CNN, The Early Show, and has been in over 500 publications worldwide. For more on Scott, visit www.scottcole.com.
Stretching, available at http://www.shelterpub.com/