Archive for Sunday, February 20, 2005

Relieve the tension

February 20, 2005

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In this stress-filled world, there's never enough time to exercise. And if you do carve out 15 frantic minutes for a workout, it's all about stair-stepping until your buns burn, waiting on weights and crunching until the cows come home.

As for stretching -- say what? Who needs it?

We all do.

Stretching is a no-cost, fast-acting stress-reliever that improves blood flow, prevents muscle stiffness and can re-energize just about anyone, no matter what their level of tension.

But lots of people never do it, and that includes the fittest among us. Flexibility is a primary component of overall fitness, along with aerobic capacity and strength. But as hard as it is to get some people to work out, it's even harder to get anybody to stretch.

I spent many futile years in ballet class where stretching was refined into a torture worthy of the Spanish Inquisition. I was always in so much pain -- either from the rigors of the moves or the humiliation of trying to do them -- that I never stopped to think about the therapeutic benefit of those long hours of excruciating stretches.

But now that I have stopped to think about it, I realize that stretching's "therapeutic" value shouldn't include ending up in therapy. If stretching hurts your body or your self-esteem, you're doing it wrong. Stretching should be smooth and effortless, and it should soothe your battered psyche.

If you have time to stretch only once during a workout, do it afterward. And even if you don't exercise regularly, a regular stretching routine -- shoot for three 15-minute sessions a week -- can improve your mental and physical well-being. Stretched muscles hold less tension and relax more easily, which makes you feel more relaxed.

The stretches I'm demonstrating incorporate elements of ballet, yoga and Pilates.

Now to the exercises. I use a fitball, a chair and the floor, but most of them can be done using any one of these. Remember not to bounce, and hold the stretch for 20 to 30 seconds or until all the tension is gone from the muscle.

Side stretch

Side stretch

Ball hug

  • Stretches: Upper back, shoulders and spine.
  • How to: Stand and drape your arms over the top of the ball to hold it against your body. Inhale as you tighten your abs and lengthen your spine. Exhale as you bring your chin to your chest and round over the ball. Knees should be soft. Breathe normally as you hold for 30 seconds.

Side stretch

  • Stretches: Abs, chest.
  • Child's pose

    Child's pose

  • How to: Stand with feet hip-distance apart. Put both hands on the ball and roll it forward as you bend from the hips. Keep one palm on the ball as you raise the other arm to the ceiling, opening your chest and following the arm with your eyes. Keep weight equal on both feet. Hold for 30 seconds, breathing normally.

Inhale as you return to the starting position. Exhale as you lift the other arm to the ceiling.

Forward bend

  • Stretches: Back, shoulders, hamstrings.
  • Ballet stretch

    Ballet stretch

  • How to: Sit tall with your legs together and extended in front of you. Exhale as you bend from the hip and round your upper body over your legs. Reach toward your feet or rest your hands at your sides. Breathe normally for 30 seconds. Inhale as you return to the starting position.
  • Variation: If you feel any lower-back discomfort, sit on a pillow as you do this exercise.

Child's pose

  • Stretches: Back.
  • How to: Start on all fours. Push back with your hands and bring your rear to your heels. Keep your forehead on the mat and round your spine. Extend your arms above your head or relax them at your sides. Breathe normally for 30 seconds.
  • Variation: Do this with arms extended and hands on the ball. Or sit on a chair with a pillow on your lap. Relax forward, resting your forehead on the pillow and letting your arms hang at your sides.

Ballet stretch

  • Stretches: Back, legs, hips, neck.
  • How to: Place one heel on a chair in front of you. Keep both legs straight. Inhale as you raise your arms overhead. Exhale as you reach out over your leg, grabbing the back of the chair if possible. Inhale and return to a stand. Do this twice with the legs slightly turned out and twice with the legs parallel. Now, without taking your foot off the chair, turn your body so the chair is next to you and place your foot flat on the chair seat, knee bent. Inhale and lift your arms to shoulder height. Exhale and bend toward the chair; as you do that, hold the chair back with one hand and bring the other overhead. Inhale as you return to a stand. Do this stretch three times. Switch legs and begin with the front stretches.

Spine stretch

  • Stretches: Back, shoulders, abs.
  • How to: Stand with your feet together. Bend from the hips and put your hands on top of the ball. Inhale and roll the ball forward, lengthening your spine. Exhale as you bring the ball toward your legs, dropping your chin to your chest and rounding your back, abs tight. Think about pulling your belly button to your spine. Alternate between the positions for 1 minute.

Back to basics

Stretches to improve flexibility should focus on your body's major muscle groups: calf, thigh, hip, lower back, neck and shoulder.

  • Warm up first. Stretching cold muscles increases your risk of injuries. Walk while gently pumping your arms, or do a favorite exercise at low intensity for 5 minutes.
  • Hold each stretch for at least 30 seconds, or until you feel all the tension release from the muscle you're working. It takes time to lengthen tissues safely. Hold your stretches for up to a minute for a really tight muscle or problem area. That can seem like a long time, so keep an eye on the clock to make sure you're holding your stretches long enough.
  • Don't bounce. It can cause small muscle tears that can lead to even tighter, more painful muscles later.
  • It shouldn't hurt. If you feel pain as you stretch, you've gone too far. Hold the stretch at a pain-free point.
  • Remember to breathe.

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