Stretching reduces aches and pains of daily living.
Strength training and cardiovascular (aerobic) exercise are essential to maintain the required strength and stamina for daily living. However, you need stretching and flexibility exercises to reduce the stress and strain that your body endures with the loss of flexibility that can occur with aging.
You need good flexibility for optimal movement of your body parts. Good flexibility means muscles are less tense, more supple and have better blood flow. More blood flow to the muscles means they receive more oxygen and nutrition. Better circulation of blood also means better waste removal. This means there is quicker removal of lactic acid and other metabolic byproducts. Your muscles will better absorb the shock and stress of every day movements, when they are more supple.
Slowing down the aging process
The American College of Sports Medicine states that reductions in flexibility are evident in the third decade of life and progress with aging. We’ve all experienced times when excess muscle tension has produced discomfort or pain with normal, everyday movement. These times may have followed illness, injury, fatigue or extended periods of inactivity (like sitting or driving for prolonged time, or when rising in the morning). You are increasingly susceptible to this with advancing age. Stretching properly will help you relax, reduce tension in your muscles, improve circulation to the muscles and enhance your freedom of movement (i.e. flexibility). Yes, you can slow down part of the aging process. You can reduce some of those aches and pains.
Supported by research.
Research shows that a regular regimen of stretching and flexibility exercises can improve your quality of life. In one study, this was measured in adults 65 years and older who were tested for the effects of two types of activities on physical performance and well-being *. One group performed strength and endurance exercises and another performed stretching and flexibility exercises. At the end of one year, both groups improved in the respective activities they were engaged in. However, only the stretching and flexibility group reported fewer aches and pains in daily living. Stretching is a viable means to improving your quality of life.
What are stretching exercises?
Stretching exercises are any movements performed, or positions held, in order to increase flexibility or decrease muscle tension. Your flexibility is the available range of motion around your joints. Muscle tension is the resistance to lengthening of a muscle due to activation from the nervous system.
The three main types of stretching exercises are:
- Dynamic stretches include coordinated movements, sometimes including bouncing or rapid type movements. These are more often helpful as part of a warm up routine for athletic participation.
- Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) is a method using various contractions of the targeted muscles and their antagonists. PNF is often used as a therapeutic aid to increase range of motion, muscle coordination and correcting specific neuromuscular dysfunction. It is also used for preparation to athletic participation. Dynamic and PNF methods of stretching require skilled coaching in order to be performed adequately and safely.
- Static stretching involves holding positions that impart gentle stretch to the muscles and their connective tissues.
Static stretching exercises are easier and safer to perform, thus more readily available for the general population, as home exercises. This type of stretching can be more easily learned.This is why my blog covers mostly static stretching. (click here to see stretching instructions on my blog)
When should you stretch?
Stretch your muscles frequently and regularly. Everyone should stretch a little every day.
Remaining pliable: Moving Freely
Your body is a constantly adapting organism. If you move and stretch regularly, your body will more readily remain pliable (supple). Muscles will adapt to the position in which they are most often placed. The longer you sit still, the more likely some muscles and other body tissues will stiffen. When you sit, the muscles in front of your hips (the hip flexors) and in the back of thigh and knee (hamstrings) are in a shortened position. When you stand to walk, the hip flexors and hamstrings need to lengthen to allow your hips, knees and backs to function properly in an upright posture. Sitting for hours on end, day after day, these muscles naturally tend to shorten. Without regular intervention, as in physical activity and stretching, it becomes harder and harder for these muscles to achieve the optimal length for allowing normal function of your joints. This is why it becomes increasingly difficult to stand upright and move freely as you age.
How to Stretch
Stretch your muscles when they are warm and pliable to improve flexibility. Warm your muscles with a brief bout of light physical activity before stretching. It only takes a few minutes of movement (about five to ten minutes) to warm your muscles. This makes the muscles more pliable, which makes your muscles more receptive to stretching.
Always start slow, and progress slowly. Hold your stretches for longer periods (up to 30 seconds, or more). This will allow the muscle fibers and fascia (other connective tissue) to relax. In order to increase the length and extensibility of muscles, they need to be relaxed. So, don’t do rapid stretches and strong pulls, which will cause muscles to reflexively contract. This natural reflex (known as the stretch reflex) protects our bodies from injury. It is imperative to bypass this stretch reflex. Act slow and be gentle, when doing static stretching exercises, and your nervous system will allow the therapeutic letting go.
What should stretching feel like?
Do not endure pain when stretching. Stretching should never cause pain. You should always feel relaxed and refreshed from a stretching routine. You should always know the reason for a particular stretch and which area that stretch is targeting. If you feel any strain on other body parts, while trying to focus on a particular region, you should reposition yourself for comfort. Seek coaching from a fitness professional to help you tailor exercises to your specific needs. This is particularly important to learn alternative stretches if you are encountering any discomfort.
In conclusion, it is well worth your while to invest time in yourself with stretching exercises. You will; 1) reduce some of the aches and pains blamed on getting old. 2) Improve your quality of life by making everyday movement easier. 3) Provide a healthier environment for your muscles and other body tissues.
Suggestions made in this publication are no substitute for medical advice. If you have any pain or difficulty performing stretches, consult with a health and fitness professional or your doctor.
About the Author
Domenic Lopez B.Sc., Certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist and Licensed Massage Therapist, is owner and operator of Healthy Moves, a private practice where massage therapy and movement education help you achieve better living.
Science of Flexibility, 2nd Edition: Alter, M.J., Human Kinetics, 1996
“The Recommended Quantity and Quality of Exercise for Developing and Maintaining Cardiorespiratory and Muscular Fitness, and Flexibility in Healthy Adults.” Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise: Vol.30, No.6, 1998, Position Stand by the American College of Sports Medicine.
* “Comparative effects of two physical activity programs on measured and perceived physical functioning and other health-related quality of life outcomes in older adults.” Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, Vol. 55, Issue 2, M74-M83, 2000, by the Gerontological Society of America.