Stretching: The Ultimate Flex
“Is this what getting old feels like?” Kathy thought.
She wasn’t old, though! She was under 50, kept pretty fit, and was hardly a couch potato. She had fewer gray hairs than most of her mom friends, too.
“I need to stop sitting for so long - maybe I should rig up a standing desk for my computer.” She rubbed her lower back - it had given just a twinge as she got up from her chair, but small as it was, it was very unwelcome. “I’m not supposed to feel this way!”
She cast her mind back - there had been several of these little pains recently. Times when she had swung herself out of bed too quickly, or twisted her neck when one of the kids had screamed from the backyard. Then that one time when she had actually pulled a leg muscle just slipping on a bit of ice in the grocery store parking lot.
“Should this be happening?” she wondered.
The Importance of Flexibility
When we think of muscles, we usually think of strength. But we should not forget that muscles also provide movement and support. Muscles surround and support almost all of our joints, and the effectiveness of those moving parts depends greatly on the health and flexibility of those muscles.
Imagine that, instead of muscles along your right arm, you had rubber bands. Bend your elbow and bring your wrist close to your shoulder. Then, slowly extend your arm until it is straight, and visualize those rubber bands - could you see them stretch as you straighten your elbow? Now bend the elbow back, and visualize those rubber bands relaxing.
Now, instead of fresh and flexible rubber bands, imagine that your muscles were those cracked, dry broccoli rubber bands that hide in the back of your junk drawer. Can you see those bands stretching a little, trying to extend, and then… SNAP!
While that may be a bit dramatic, that snapping is a real risk when we start losing flexibility in our muscles. Used to having more flexibility, we can overextend our muscles and strain them.
A Matter of Balance
Flexible muscles play a big role in balance and coordination, too. Most of our movements throughout the day are mostly unconscious - reaching for the salt when you’re stirring something on the stove, bending for a book on the floor near your desk, twisting to reach that one tricky spot on your ankles when you’re shaving. We just trust that our muscles will work in sync and take us as far as we need to go.
But when certain muscles get tight - whether from inactivity, overuse, or injury - we realize just how important the balance of flexibility is. Most of our daily movements, even the simplest ones, depend on a large number of muscles working together. When even one of those muscles can’t extend as it should, it throws all of the other muscles off - we miss the thing we’re grabbing for, stumble, or just fall over! If we want to move well, we must make sure that all of our muscles are equally flexible.
A Stretch of the Muscles… and the Mind
When we talk about stretching here, we’re not just talking about a quick raise of the arms when we yawn. We’re talking about a careful set of proven stretches that target the muscles you use the most. And we’re also not talking about an extra 30 minute routine that you should cram into your already packed schedule. A good stretching routine only takes about 5 to 10 minutes, and provides a world of benefits!
When you stretch regularly for flexibility, you can:
Decrease the risk of injury to your muscles
Increase the blood flow to your muscles and joints
Reduce joint stiffness and pain
Improve your balance and coordination
There’s even a mental benefit to stretching! As most of us have experienced first hand, stress and tension can cause our muscles to tense up and lose flexibility over time (check out my blog post on stress management for more information on the damage stress can do to your body). Well, just as the mind can affect the body, the body can also affect the mind - correctly stretching those tense muscles can break the tension cycle caused by stress, and trigger relaxation in the mind, too. Stretching also increases serotonin levels in our brain; serotonin is one of the “feel-good” hormones, and a boost of it can help us feel calm, soothed and happy!
The Rules of the Game
Convinced that flexibility is important? Great! We’re right there with you.
But before you start reaching for your toes, there are a few crucial rules that you’ll need to keep in mind.
Don’t skip the warm-up! This is crucial - trying to stretch cold muscles can lead to strain and injury. It doesn’t take much to warm them up, though. Just 5 minutes of walking or gentle full-body movement will get them ready for a good stretch.
Stay symmetrical. If you stretch your hamstring on one side, make sure you stretch the other side, too. And make sure that you’re stretching the same amount - if one is tighter than the other, then don’t stretch farther on the looser side. Remember that we’re aiming for balance.
Smooth moves. When you stretch, let your movements be slow and smooth - stretch until you feel tension (not pain!) and then hold for 15-30 seconds. And no bouncing to get a slightly longer stretch! That’s an easy way to strain your muscle, and even increase muscle tightness.
Stick with it! If you continue to stretch daily, and do it right, your muscles and joints will gain flexibility and strength over time. But if you only stretch occasionally, or stop for a while, you’ll lose the benefits you had gained. So keep it up, and your body will thank you!
Ready to try some stretches? Here are some great places to get started:
Berkeley Mindful Stretching Guide (there are some great guides with pictures about halfway through!)