Stretching: Doing it and doing it right
August 6, 1999
Web posted at: 3:10 PM EDT (1910 GMT)
By Miriam Nelson, Ph.D.
Scaling the heights of a climbing wall can be thrilling. And zooming down the boulevard on inline skates can be exhilarating. But before you embark on these or other physical activities, stretching is a must.
Stretching decreases the risk of injury. In fact, most sports injuries stem from not stretching and not warming up and cooling down properly. Done regularly, stretching can also increase flexibility to allow for easier movement and better balance. Other benefits of stretching include relieving low-back pain, reducing muscle soreness, promoting relaxation, and improving posture, agility and athletic performance.
Preparing to go all out
That's because stretching conditions the muscles for exertion and exercise, making every muscle movement more efficient. Stretching exercises elongate muscle fibers so that they can contract and tighten more vigorously in response to the demands of the Olympic-level marathon runner or the weekend volleyball player.
In addition, stretching improves flexibility, which allows for increased motion around joints -- a critical factor in assessing physical fitness.
For stretching exercises to be safe and effective, they must never be hastily done. And over-stretching can increase the risk of injury more than never stretching at all. This is because when you over-stretch, ligaments rather than muscles may be stretched.
Stretching exercises require patience and time. And, when done slowly and properly, they provide a terrific opportunity to breathe deeply and relax, particularly after a workout.
Stretching from start to finish
Ideally, people should stretch before and after exercising. To start, warm up by jogging, biking or doing jumping jacks for five to 15 minutes. The warm-up increases circulation and delivers more oxygen to the muscles. Follow the warm-up with stretching exercises that target all of the major muscle groups.
Then the muscles are set to complete the rest of the workout, which should include regular aerobic and strength-training components. Follow the workout with a cool-down and a final stretching routine similar to the first.
This amount and order of stretching is optimal for the muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints and will be most complementary to a fitness program.
Never attempt to stretch before first stimulating the muscles with a quick warm-up routine.
Stretching for time
The unfortunate reality is that people are usually under time constraints and stretching exercises typically do not take priority. Additionally, some people find stretching tedious, boring and painful.
If there's only time for one stretching session during the workout, the stretching exercises should be done at the end of the workout. Muscles have a tendency to tighten during aerobic exercise, so stretching after a workout leaves the body more limber and flexible.
Not a luxury but a necessity
Taking the time to stretch before and after each workout is a big commitment, but certainly a worthwhile one. Ideally, people should stretch every day -- regardless of whether they exercise or not. However, stretching three days a week is probably enough to maintain flexibility for people who don't do any other type of exercise.
One of the greatest things about stretching exercises is that they do not require special clothes, location or equipment. Any space large enough to lie down in works well, as does any type of clothing that allows free movement. And no equipment is needed!
Stretching exercises are important because they help to maintain flexibility, something that declines as people age and become less active. Always keep in mind that flexibility is an aspect of physical fitness that is hereditary and primarily due to gender, age and amount of regular physical activity. Increasing and maintaining flexibility can be easily achieved through consistent stretching. People who are religious about stretching will reap the benefits of increased athletic performance and are more likely to remain active in their later years.
Miriam E. Nelson, Ph.D. is the Director of the Center for Physical Fitness at Tufts University. She is author of the international best-sellers, "Strong Women Stay Young" and "Strong Women Stay Slim."
Copyright 1999 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.
RELATEDS AT :
Exercise: An overview
American Medical Association: Tips for safe exercise
National Institute on Aging: Don't take it easy exercise
American College of Emergency Physicians: Exercising proper care while working out
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