Stretching is a bit like flossing your teeth – we all know we should do it but most of us rarely get around to it. I have distinct memories of PE classes at school and being forced to spend what seemed like an unnecessarily large amount of time stretching before we were actually allowed to do any exercise. As an adult, I rebelled against this stretching regime, concluding that my limited time was far better spent pursuing the more apparent results of aerobic exercise.
It was only after experiencing repeated muscle strains, niggling injuries and multiple physio appointments that I began to realise the importance of looking after my muscles and joints. While the jury is out on whether or not stretching actually helps to prevent injury, I discovered that there were many other benefits of good stretching habits, even for people who don’t exercise. So, in the interests of sharing this hard earned wisdom, here are a few of them for your benefit:
It improves flexibility
Most of us know this one. But unless you have aspirations to do the splits or become a yoga instructor, flexibility doesn’t really matter right? Wrong. Without adequate flexibility, most of our daily activities become more difficult to perform, not just the splits. Our connective and muscular tissues change in response to stretching, increasing the range of motion of our joints and allowing them to function optimally.
It increases the speed of recovery
Stretching increases the blood flow to our muscles, meaning any damage needing repair can be dealt with more quickly, which for us means less soreness and less time out of action!
It helps to improve posture
Lets face it, in these times of screens, desks and more screens, most of us spend a good chunk of our day hunched over, often with shoulders up around our ears. This can result in tense and tight muscles which pull areas of the body away from their intended position, resulting in poor posture. Stretching helps to lengthen these tight muscles, and in doing helps to ease everything back into place.
It can help to relieve pain
Stretching is often included in physiotherapy interventions for management of shoulder, back and knee pain. This is because it increases blood flow and loosens the tight muscles which cause our aches and pains.
It’s good for stress relief
Anyone who has ever done yoga knows the calming powers of a good stretch. Not only does it feel good to stretch out our compressed muscles, it also distracts us from our busy minds, providing a much needed mental break
OK, so now we know the benefits of stretching, but there is still the minor issue of actually finding time to do it. Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered.
STRETCHING TIPS FOR BUSY PEOPLE
Skip the pre-exercise stretch
The purpose of a ‘warm up’ is to get blood (and oxygen) flowing to the muscles at an increased rate so that they are prepared for what we are about to demand of them. Warming up with a jog or some time on a stationary bike will do this just fine. In fact, it is likely to be a better use of your time as studies have demonstrated that a gentle aerobic warm-up alone can significantly increase flexibility. The best time to stretch is when the muscles are warm and pliable which could be during a yoga or pilates class, or just after exercising.
Focus on the muscles that need it the most
If you’ve only got a limited amount of time, spend it where it’s really going to count. Always get sore hamstrings? Stretch these out every time you exercise. Sit at a desk all day? Make shoulder and neck stretches your priority.
Incorporate some yoga into your routine
Yoga is the perfect solution for multitaskers. It provides the ultimate mind-body workout, helping to de-stress you while giving you a resistance workout and a thorough stretch.
Schedule a weekly stretching session
While ideally stretching should be included in every workout, if you tend to neglect your post exercise stretches, try to reserve at least one 15-20 minute block of time each week to just stretch. Saturday or Sunday morning when you have a bit of extra time on your hands is perfect.
If memories of school PE classes are hazy and you need some stretching 101, most gyms will have a chart displayed somewhere which you can follow. Alternatively, a qualified personal trainer or exercise physiologist can help. Experts say that each stretch should be held for 15-30 seconds and repeated 2 to 4 times on each side of the body. And remember that a stretch should not cause pain or take the joint past it’s normal range.
Take home message…
While stretching may seem like one more thing you don’t have time for, by looking after your joints and muscles you’ll be able to exercise more effectively, have better mobility, reduce stress and improve your posture…more than enough reasons to justify making it a regular part of your exercise routine. Looks like my PE teacher had it right after all.