Stretch to Stay Fit

Do you remember those long nights studying for tough exams?  Remember how good it felt to stretch, arms overhead, fingers interlocked? It turns out that stretching is one of the four types of exercises essential for a good workout.

Stretching, like all other types of exercise, relaxes the body and the mind, helps you lose weight, improves metabolism and increases blood flow. But stretching also does something that other exercises do not do. Stretching protects. Stretching s-l-o-w-l-y challenges and gently strengthens the connections between the muscle and the joint cartilage where it attaches – the connective tissue. These connections are vulnerable to small tears when stretched rapidly and can be very painful (imagine twisted ankles or plantar fasciitis). Once damaged, connective tissue can take a long time to heal (as long as a fracture – 6 weeks). This can be avoided by stretching before you exercise.  

Rule # 1 – Never stretch a cold muscle.  Warm up first with a few easy aerobic moves (NOT jumping jacks that ballistically stretch muscles) that get the blood flowing and muscles warmed up.

Rule #2 – Think about the major muscle groups and move to stretch them specifically, especially the muscle groups you will be using in your exercise – hamstrings for football, lower back for golf, shoulder muscles for tennis, etc.

Rule #3 – Don’t use static stretches (prolonged holding of muscle in stretch); use dynamic stretches – moving a muscle slowly into the stretched position, to full extension and then slowly return to the relaxed position. If you are thinking yoga moves or tai chi moves, you have the right idea. Specific moves might include: goose-stepping to stretch the hamstrings, knee lifts to stretch the gluteus muscles, and butt-kicks to stretch the quads.

Rule # 4 – Do not stretch to the point of pain. Stretch to increase the length of the muscle which increases range of motion. Challenge it, but don’t tear it.

Stretching serves another important purpose not connected to a workout — it’s relaxing.

Sitting at a desk all day or standing in one position for hours on end can tighten up muscles, leading to headaches, backaches and other muscle pains. Try a few simple stretches to relax those muscles and give you a middle-of-the-day pickup – a mini-vacation for a boost of energy. 

From a sitting position at your desk, stand up – without using your hands.

Shrug your shoulders – up and around and down – and roll your head to loosen the shoulders and neck tension.

Extend your arms and your hands and make little circles in the air. Then extend your fingers palm up and gently stretch the fingers down to the floor with the opposite hand. Then extend the fingers with palm down and stretch the fingers up to the ceiling with the opposite hand. This will stretch the hands and forearms (great for arthritis pain.)

Twist your upper body at the waist to the left and to the right, then give yourself a big bear hug, hands on opposite shoulders and squeeze. Then extend an arm in front of you, grab it at the elbow with the opposite arm, and pull it across your chest.  Repeat on the other side. These relax the upper body and shoulder girdle muscles.

While sitting in a chair, extend your legs straight out in front of you. Point your toes at the ceiling five times and relax.

Sit up tall, stretch both arms over your head, fingers interlocked and palms pointed at the ceiling. Look up at the same time.

There! Now don’t you feel more relaxed and ready for the rest of the day?