Stretching before and after exercise has long been accepted as good practice but, there is evidence to suggest that stretching should be an activity in its own right.

When we think of stretching, we tend to think of the perfunctory set of movements that we go through before we exercise and, if there is time, when we have completed an activity. After all, the main focus of the session is the activity we are doing, not the preparation, right?

In fact, as more and more fitness experts are realising, stretching is an activity which deserves time and attention being devoted to it. And it is not just for elite athletes. Anyone, including those with joint pain or limited movement, can benefit greatly from performing stretching exercises. Done correctly, stretching can enhance a person’s fitness, increase their ability to perform other activities, help to manage joint pain and promote a feeling of well-being.

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Certainly before any exercise, it is important that you stretch the muscles that are about to be worked, but the old days of a quick hamstring stretch, three seconds of work on the calves and a few arm circles, should be consigned to the fitness scrapheap. There are many viable arguments that suggest that anything from 30 minutes to an hour can be spent stretching – it can be seen as a pain-free workout.

Let’s examine the reasons why stretching is so important.

Increased flexibility is one of the main advantages of a comprehensive stretching routine. A greater range of movement will decrease the risk of injury and help with general mobility. Restrictions to movement in one area of the body can have a knock-on effect on other areas and lead to long-term injuries. If, for example, your Achilles tendon is very tight, then your foot will be constricted in its movements. This will lead you to walk with a different gait, putting strain on your calf muscle, hamstring and, ultimately, your back. You can see the potential for problems.

Stretching will also help you perform other activities better. If you enjoy swimming, but find that your arm movement is limited by a tightness in your neck and shoulders, then regularly stretching the muscles around your shoulder joint may well increase your range of movement and lead to a better technique.

Thirdly, stretching also increases blood flow to the muscles, getting more oxygen into your body, shifting synovial fluids and increasing your feeling of wellness. You only have to observe your pets when they wake up. The first thing they do is a deep, satisfying stretch. There is a reason for that, and one that we can all learn from.

Girl perform stretching and holding her footPoints to consider before stretching

Stretching is not a warm-up. Muscles need to be warm before you start stretching. Do some light movements that raises your heart rate and warms your body – walking, marching or slow jogging for five to 10 minutes prior to stretching is adequate.

Focus on the major muscle groups – calves, thighs, hips, lower back, neck and shoulders. And make sure that you stretch both sides. For instance, if you stretch your left hamstring, be sure to stretch your right hamstring, too.

Hold each stretch for a minimum of 30 seconds. The movement should be a slow, sustained stretch, so you can feel the muscle lengthening. Don’t bounce, as this will cause small tears in the muscle, leading to scar tissue and reduced flexibility.

Pain is not gain. You should feel your muscles lengthening and there should be tension in your muscles, but you should back off the minute you feel any pain.

Focus on problem areas. Ensure that all your major muscle groups are stretched, but if you have specific problem areas then spend more time on those muscles.

Make stretching part of your exercise routine. Like any other aspect of fitness, if you don’t do it regularly then you lose it. Dedicate at least one complete exercise session purely to stretching each week, and make sure you spend plenty of time stretching before and after other activities.

Pilates is a fantastic way to bring movement and strength training into your exercise programme. The moves you do in a Pilates class will increase the range of movement of your muscles, while strengthening them through gentle, controlled weight-bearing activities. Not only is this good for flexibility, but it also develops and maintains core strength – which is important for balance and stability.

Pilates is particularly good for people who suffer back and hip problems as it encourages deep stretching, correct alignment of the body and development of the core muscles which support the back.

Stretching exercises

Calf muscles (back of the lower leg)
Stand about two feet away from a wall. Put your hands on the wall and lean towards it, keeping your feet flat on the floor and your back straight. You’ll feel tension in your calf muscles. Hold it like that for about 30 seconds, and then ease up and do it again.

Hamstrings (back of the upper leg)
Sit on the floor, or on a cushion for comfort, with your legs straight out in front of you. Bending from the waist reach with your arms as far down your legs towards your shins as you comfortably can. Hold for 30 seconds, then ease up and repeat.

Quadriceps (front of the leg)

Stand with your legs together, holding onto a chair for support. Lift your leg and hold your ankle, pulling your heel as close to your buttocks as possible. If you cannot reach to hold your ankle, stand with your back to a low chair, bend your knee and rest the front of your foot on the chair. Hold for 30 seconds then repeat for the other leg.

Iliotibial Band (ITB) (side of the leg)
The ITB runs down the outer side of your legs and can get very tight. To stretch it, stand about two feet from the wall, turn sideways and hold the wall for support. Cross your outer leg in front of your standing leg and try to get your outer foot as close to the wall as you can. Hold for 30 seconds then repeat on the other side.

Lower back

Lie flat on your front on the floor with your hands just wide of your shoulders. Gently push as far as you can so your upper body raises off the floor and your legs and lower body remain flat. Hold for five seconds and then relax. Repeat this five time.

Upper back

Stand, or sit, and hold your arms straight out in front of you for about five seconds. Relax and do it again five more times. Then stretch your arms straight out behind you so that your shoulder blades move towards each other. You will feel the tension. Count to five, holding your arms like that. Do it six times in total.

Arms

Put your right arm straight out in front of you with your palm facing upwards. With your left hand, push down on your right-hand fingers until you can feel tension all the way along the straightened arm. Hold for 30 seconds and then repeat on the other side.

Neck

Look straight ahead and check your head, neck and shoulders are in a straight line. Turn your head slowly to the right looking as far behind you as possible. Hold for 10 seconds. Return to centre. Now turn your head to the left, again as far as possible. Also hold for 10 seconds. Repeat this movement three times on each side.

 

(images: shoed-in, cdn.sheknows)

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