This is what I feel like when I stretch….
This is probably what I look like when I stretch…
Let’s face it, hardly anybody likes to stretch. In fact, most people down right hate it, and, because of that, choose to neglect it altogether. While resistance and cardiovascular training tend to get the majority of our attention, an well-balanced, healthy lifestyle should still involved some flexibility training. Stretching is the red-headed step-child of the fitness industry. Although nobody really enjoys it, it’s still a part of the family and something that you can’t just ignore.
So what does stretching actually do to our bodies?? Well, here is a short list of some of the main benefits of a flexibility program.
Increased flexibility. This one sounds like a no-brainer, I know. But, consistently stretching has been proven to decrease range of motion restrictions that are caused by muscular tightness. Ever bent over to pick something up and felt your hamstrings pulling off your bones??? That’s because of muscular tightness. Having increased flexibility – not just in your hamstrings – will not only make movement easier, but allow you to move through a wider range of motion, also.
Decrease in low back pain. One of the most problematic areas in the body is the hip/low back region, particularly for the adult population. A lack of flexibility and/or range of motion in this area is strongly associated with pain. Most therapeutic (and the best preventative) measures for this involve stretching programs.
Increase blood flow. Stretching has been proven successful in increasing blood flow to the muscles being stretched. This is beneficial for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, is can help in reducing cramps, which has long been associated with ischemia (insufficient blood flow). It can also help with muscle recovery if done post-workout, as blood carries many of the nutrients and substances that are vital for muscle growth and recovery.
Prevention of muscle shortening. Really, muscle shortening?? Yes, this can actually happen. If you stay in a certain position for long enough, or if your muscle is used repetitively through a limited range of motion, it will adapt. Generally that means shortening. Think of your hip flexors, the group of muscles that cross over the front of the hip. If you are in a seated position for the majority of the day, these muscles will naturally adapt and become shorter. This could lead to pain not only in the hip flexors themselves, but in the low back as well. And this issue leads me to my final point…
Maintain balance between muscle groups. Imagine you’ve got a pole that’s being held up by two cables running to the ground in opposite directions. Cable 1 is fastened to the ground pretty loosely, with just enough tension to keep the line straight. Cable 2, however, is fastened into the ground as tight as the screws and bolts will allow. So, which direction do you think the pole is going to lean?? Obviously, toward Cable 2. This is the way your human body is with bones and joints. If you have a joint/bone/area of the body in which multiple muscles are acting on it, they need to be flexible. If you muscle or group of muscles is abnormally tight, they will disrupt the balance throughout our body.
Stretching has many, many benefits. Only some of them are highlighted here. Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy stretching about as much as a trip to the DMV, but I do it anyway. I don’t do it to see how far I can reach my hands or how high I can swing my legs. I do it because I don’t want to suffer pain and inevitable injury that accompanies a limited range of motion and flexibility. So, do as I do… Spend about 10-15 minutes 3-4 days a week in the agony of stretching, so that you can enjoy the other 23 hours and 45 minutes of your day.