Sure, brisk walking is good exercise. Swimming and biking, too. But there's another aspect to physical fitness that is oftentimes overlooked -- flexibility training.
"We know we should stretch, but it seems to take a long time and the benefits seem minor," says Renee King, Health and Fitness Director of the Anderson (S.C.) Area YMCA. "In reality, stretching takes very little time and the benefits can be tremendous. Regular stretching improves balance and posture, enhances athletic performance, and increases our muscles' range of motion. If our muscles are flexible, we're less likely to strain them with everyday activities."
The most important thing to remember is to start slowly, according to Bill Warner, a clinical massage therapist at Warner Muscular Therapy Clinic in Anderson.
"Don't get into a rigid program right away," he says. "Just go out and play, and try not to take it too seriously. You'll strengthen your muscles and not hurt yourself by overdoing it."
Committing oneself to doing stretching exercises for just minutes a day is the first step toward a fit body. It might not seem like much, but every stretch counts.
"I'd rather have someone (stretch) than anything else. If a person is not stretching and sits at a desk all day every day, their muscles are going to get shorter and tighter every year," Warner says. "The key is really trying to do a little stretch here and a little stretch there. Take five minutes a day."
He says common mistakes in stretching include over-repetition and forcing a stretch. Never force your body into a position that causes pain. All this will accomplish is causing damage and turning you off to any exercise at all.
"Every stretch you do should be done comfortably, not this massive stretch and feeling pain. Relax, breathe and hold for a comfortable amount of time," Warner says.
Physical therapist Jim Stoker, director of Clemson Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation, reiterated the fact that intense pain has no role in correct stretching.
"The 'no pain, no gain' theory does not apply to stretching," he says. "You should only have what can be described as 'moderate tightness.'"
Also, one should avoid a jarring, bouncing stretch (called a ballistic stretch), and instead strive to maintain a more static position.
|¢ Stretch your hamstrings. Tight hamstrings are common and can lead to lower-back pain.¢ Stretch your calf muscles, especially if you wear high heels. Women who wear high heels can end up with tight calves and Achilles tendons.¢ Breathe deeply while stretching. Don't hold your breath. Inhale before you execute the stretch, and exhale as you move into the stretch;¢ Don't bounce. Ease in and out of each stretch, breathing deeply.¢ Don't stretch hard before warming up. Very gentle stretching before exercise is OK, but stretching afterward is better and will result in a greater range of motion through the joint and muscle.¢ Don't over-stretch. Mild discomfort if fine, but stop if you feel any pain.Source: Renee King, a health and fitness director for YMCA|
"Your muscles have a stretch reflex, an inherent protective mechanism. When you apply a ballistic stretch, this normal reaction is to contract in order to protect itself," Stoker says. "You're forcing a stretch that's neither safe nor productive."
He suggests warm-up aerobic activity prior to stretching, such as 5 or 10 minutes walking or riding a stationary bike, to increase blood flow to the muscles.
Of course, one who is new to stretching or exercise in general certainly shouldn't expect to be able to be a human pretzel right off the bat (without requiring medical attention). Training the muscles to stretch takes time, but is well worth the wait.
"Consistency in stretching is really important," Warner says. "If you just treat (the muscle) gently and you constantly remind it again and again, it becomes more flexible. If you can become more active than you were, you've won. Even if you did nothing but stretch, your body would feel wonderful. You'd still be out of shape, but you'd be ready to get in shape."