This is the fourth part of my four-part series on exercise: Let’s Move. Be sure to read the rest of the series if you missed it. I stretch every evening before bed to help maintain my flexibility and to help with chronic pain. I’ve loved trying many of the stretches that Robin include in her e-book, Pain Free. A big thanks to Robin Konie for writing the post below!
With the New Year there are plenty of resolutions about eating better and exercising more. Something about a new beginning makes us want to be better. But lest you think you need to train for a marathon, sometimes it ís important to remember that small and simple things can bring about great changes.
This is why I love talking to people about the importance of stretching and daily movement.
Why is stretching important?
Sure, stretching is not a magical quick fix fitness trick that will make you somehow thinner, stronger, or more beautiful. We need to incorporate a variety of movement within our day – making sure to keep a balanced perspective of strength training, cardiovascular training, muscle endurance, body connectivity and flexibility. But stretching, even just a few minutes here and there, can make a big difference in how you feel during your day.
Beyond just improving our range of motion, taking a few minutes throughout the day to focus on some key specific stretches can make a huge difference. Stretching does not demand a huge time commitment, but just look at some of the benefits associated with stretching:
- Reduced muscle tension
- Increased range of movement in the joints
- Enhanced muscular coordination
- Increased circulation to various parts of the body
- Increased energy levels (resulting from increased circulation)
- Delayed onset of muscle fatigue
- Enhanced performance in daily life, sports, or other physical activity
- Improved posture
- Mental relaxation
- Added variety, enjoyment, and satisfaction to your exercise program
- Improves balance and coordination
- Helps alleviate back pain
- Helps improve cardiovascular health
- Decrease the risk of athletic-based injuries
An impressive list, right? Of course the quality and mindfulness that goes into our stretching habits makes a huge difference between killing time and changing your body.
Make your stretching matter
As with all health-related practices, you want to make sure you are smart about stretching. One of the perks of stretching is that you can do it pretty much anytime and anywhere (and you don’t have to put on any spandex either). There are, however, some essential tips to make sure you are getting the most out of your stretching as well as keeping your body safe:
Stretching cold muscles can easily lead to injury. Think of your muscles like a rubber band. The elasticity can turn violently breakable if ice cold. A lot of people think stretching is the warm-up before exercising. But to maximize your stretching efforts you may find that some light walking, jogging, or a couple of jumping jacks can prepare your body better. Of course if you are doing some serious stretching (working on those splits?) then you’ll want to break a sweat before diving in.
2. Remember that stretching is a full body experience.
Even if your goal is to improve your back’s flexibility, most stretches combine several major muscles groups (along with lots of little guys as well). Keep your mind focused on what you are doing. Don’t just stretch the parts of your body that are the most flexible. Breathe as you work on all areas (especially your weaknesses), making sure to balance both sides out.
3. Whatever you do, DO NOT bounce!
I’m not sure where the bouncing trend came from or when it started, but I remember plenty of horrific dance days as a child where my teacher would lead us into a bouncy stretch. This can tear the tissues of your muscle, which once healed can make you even tighter. Instead of bouncing, hold each stretch for at least 30 seconds while breathing deeply. This will help ease your body into the stretch while overriding the natural stretch reflex (the body’s way of preventing injury) in a safe way.
4. Listen to your body.
Stretching is not about pain. If you are really inflexible you might feel a slight discomfort as you expand your body’s range of motion, but ultimately the goal is gradual progress. Back off a little if you can’t relax and breathe into the stretch. You will still improve over time. Promise.
5. Be consistent.
Over my many years of teaching dance I’ve listened to a lot of students talk about their flexibility goals. These eager individuals would dive into a stretching program but were soon derailed as busy life got in the way. This is why I often recommend a “little but often” mentality. You don’t need to spend thirty – forty five minutes stretching. But if you are consistent about stretching every day for at least ten minutes you will see improvement.
6. Know when to stop
There are times when even a gentle stretch is too much. If you have a chronic condition or an injury you may need to adjust your normal stretching routine. For example, in the case of an injury (like a sprained ankle), stretching that area of the body is a bad idea. (And of course, always make sure to talk to your own health care professional before beginning any exercise or stretching program.)
I’ve seen stretching help lots of people who are dealing with chronic tension and pain. Consider checking out my free eguide: Move Free to learn some simple stretches that will help you improve your posture and lengthen shortened muscles.
You may also want to check out my ebook Pain Free: 60 exercises for pain-free living. This book goes beyond stretching and discusses the importance of Somatic movement to help reconnect to your body. The right kind of daily movement can help you feel more graceful, be more coordinated, and resolve chronic pain. (And it doesn’t require heavy weights or personal trainers.)
Tell me, what’s your favorite stretch and why?
This is a guest post by Robin Konie. Robin blogs over at Thank Your Body where she writes about toxic-free living, real food, and holistic approaches to movement and exercise. As a Registered Somatic Movement Therapist, Robin loves helping people on their own journey to real health. Go check out her website for more tips on healthy living!
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