GAINING FLEXIBILITY—IT’S A STRETCH
I used to do a full set of stretches before I went out for a run. But lately I’ve read that stretching muscles before they’re warmed up can actually hurt them. So now I just take a 10-minute quick walk before I get into my jog. However, I’ve actually begun to perform more stretches—just not before I run or I jump into other aerobic activities. Two to three times a week I go through a routine where I stretch muscles critical for mobility—my hamstrings, hip flexors and quadriceps. This includes squats, clamshells, step-ups, standing quad stretches and simple hamstring stretches. (You can go to YouTube online if you want to learn more about these stretches and how to properly perform them.)
If you aren’t already doing it, you may want to add on regular stretch sessions to gain more flexibility. Especially important to us seniors, this added flexibility will help our balance and should help prevent life-changing falls.
To give you more information on the advantages of stretching, here are excerpts from an online article by the Mayo Clinic Staff, Stretching: Focus on flexibility:
Benefits of stretching
Stretching will help improve flexibility, and, consequently, range of motion about your joints. Better flexibility may:
- Improve your performance in physical activities
- Decrease your risk of injuries
- Help your joints move through their full range of motion
- Enable your muscles to work most effectively
Stretching also increases blood flow to the muscles.
Before you plunge into stretching, make sure you do it safely and effectively. While you can stretch anytime, anywhere, be sure to use proper technique. Stretching incorrectly can actually do more harm than good.
Use these tips to keep stretching safe:
- Don’t consider stretching a warmup. You may hurt yourself if you stretch cold muscles. Before stretching, warm up with light walking, jogging or biking at low intensity for five to 10 minutes. Even better, stretch after your workout when your muscles are warm.
Consider skipping stretching before an intense activity, such as sprinting or track and field activities. Some research suggests that pre-event stretching may actually decrease performance. Research has also shown that stretching immediately before an event weakens hamstring strength.
Instead of static stretching, try performing a “dynamic warmup.” A dynamic warm-up involves performing movements similar to those in your sport or physical activity at a low level, then gradually increasing the speed and intensity as you warm up.
- Strive for symmetry. Everyone’s genetics for flexibility are a bit different. Rather than striving for the flexibility of a dancer or gymnast, focus on having equal flexibility side to side (especially if you have a history of a previous injury). Flexibility that is not equal on both sides may be a risk factor for injury.
- Focus on major muscle groups. Concentrate your stretches on major muscle groups such as your calves, thighs, hips, lower back, neck and shoulders. Make sure that you stretch both sides. Also stretch muscles and joints that you routinely use.
- Don’t bounce. Stretch in a smooth movement, without bouncing. Bouncing as you stretch can injure your muscle and actually contribute to muscle tightness.
- Hold your stretch. Breathe normally and hold each stretch for about 30 seconds; in problem areas, you may need to hold for around 60 seconds.
- Don’t aim for pain. Expect to feel tension while you’re stretching, not pain. If it hurts, you’ve pushed too far. Back off to the point where you don’t feel any pain, then hold the stretch.
- Make stretches sport specific. Some evidence suggests that it’s helpful to do stretches involving the muscles used most in your sport or activity. If you play soccer, for instance, stretch your hamstrings as you’re more vulnerable to hamstring strains. So opt for stretches that help your hamstrings.
- Keep up with your stretching. Stretching can be time-consuming. But you can achieve the most benefits by stretching regularly, at least two to three times a week. Skipping regular stretching means you risk losing the potential benefits. For instance, if stretching helped you increase your range of motion, your range of motion may decrease again if you stop stretching.
- Bring movement into your stretching. Gentle movements, such as those in tai chi or yoga, can help you be more flexible in specific movements. These types of exercises can also help reduce falls in seniors.
Know when to exercise caution
You might need to approach stretching with caution. If you have a chronic condition or an injury, you might need to adjust your stretching techniques. For example, if you already have a strained muscle, stretching it may cause further harm. Talk to your doctor or physical therapist about the most appropriate way to stretch if you have any health concerns.
Now you know the benefits of stretching. Next comes actually performing them regularly. (I don’t have too difficult a time doing the stretches I enjoy like bridge or bird dog or cat & camel and add these to those I do for increased mobility.) Everybody and their cousin have stretching exercise programs online that you can check out. But if these routine stretches don’t interest you, you may want to indulge in something more enjoyable and more social—perhaps going to yoga or tai chi classes twice a week. They also count as stretching!