Most of us think of stretching as something you do for maybe 15 seconds before you work out at the gym, to prevent muscle injury. But there’s a lot more to it than that.
So many of my patients complain of neck and back pain, which nearly always starts with tight muscles. Muscles can become tight due to posture problems, overuse, repetitive movements that strain one part of the body and cause compensation elsewhere, and (often) stress — which causes us to hunch up or hunch over, as our bodies unconsciously bear our burdens for us.
Much of this could be prevented with regular stretching!
Benefits of Stretching
- Increased Blood Flow. Some cultures think of blood as the “life force” of a creature, and for good reason: blood brings oxygen and nutrients to cells, and eliminates metabolic waste. So many great naturopathic therapies (also including hydrotherapy and massage) boil down to this: increased circulation = increased vitality.
- Greater flexibility. Think of it this way: if you drop a glass bottle on the ground, it shatters, because (among other things) glass has no “give”. It can’t absorb the impact. Conversely, if you drop a rubber ball on the ground, it bounces, because rubber can absorb the impact. You want your muscles to be more like rubber than like glass. Flexibility = “give.”
- Greater range of motion. The more range of motion you have, the better your balance becomes. Better balance will not only make you more graceful, but it will also prevent injury from falls.
- Greater strength gains. Recent evidence indicates that stretching may actually improve muscular performance and endurance, much the way lifting weights does.
- Stress reduction. Stretching forces you to slow down and breathe deeply, for one thing. It also decreases some of the secondary signs of stress, such as shoulder and neck tightness. But, as a side benefit to increased blood flow, stretching also releases the same endorphins you get from other forms of exercise — which is why a yoga class can leave you feeling euphoric!
Tips for Stretching Right
- Make sure you warm up first. Contrary to popular opinion, stretching itself is not a warm-up. A “warm up” is an activity that increases blood flow to the muscles. Stretching a muscle that doesn’t yet have that extra influx of oxygen from increased blood flow can actually cause injury. It’s a better idea to stretch your muscles after your workout, instead of before… or to at least “warm up” with some light cardio before stretching.
- Stretch for symmetry. Especially if one side of your body tends to have issues more than the other (which is most of us,) stretching can help to minimize stiffness, maximize range of motion, and prevent further compensatory problems down the line.
- Hold the stretch for 30-60 seconds. You want to give plenty of time for the muscle to respond appropriately. Tighter muscles will need a longer stretch.