Why is there so much controversy around something so basic? Should one stretch or not? Like all aspects of living, common sense plays a role in how, when, or the amount to stretch. I like to move around before I start stretching, so my body has its normal range of motion as a starting point. If for some reason I am extra tight from something I did the day before, than I am even more careful to warm-up before stretching. My body is giving me feedback and I use feedback from the stretching to tell me about my body. I use certain set stretches to check in with my body, but I also like to include new stretches, so my body is challenged in new ways. Thoughtful stretching gives me a chance to have a conversation with my body, so I know what to expect before moving onto the workout phase. With aging and changing body mechanics, flexibility is helping to keep mental plasticity in the picture as well. The old adage of "flexible mind and flexible body..."
Take a look at this article as a middle of the road approach to stretching.
by Liz Neporent
Do I need to stretch? - Jennifer, NYC
To the natural-born yogis out there, reaching down to touch your toes may not seem like much of a goal. But then there those of us who began ordering the daily newspaper online because bending down to get the dead-tree version is too much of a challenge. If your muscles are tighter than your budget, maybe it's time to stretch.
Actually, the concept of stretching has taken somewhat of a beating in recent years. A research retrospective commissioned by theIDEA Health & Fitness Association in 2010 found that stretching before a workout doesn't diminish the risk of injury and, in fact, may increase it by making the joints less stable. Stretching doesn't seem to mitigate the muscle soreness that comes from running a marathon or moving the furniture, either, and it may have a negative impact on both strength and athletic performance.
Hearing this, I know it sounds like stretching is a bad thing to do, but I don't think that's the case. I believe the purpose and the benefits of stretching and the importance of good flexibility have simply been misunderstood.
For starters, people with good flexibility look better because they stand up straighter and move more gracefully than those who are more stiff. As you age -- and we all age -- maintaining bendability is key for preserving balance skills and preventing falls. When your muscles are tightly wound you also begin to lose a degree of what scientists call "normal range of motion." A good example of this is when you reach up for a dish on the top shelf of the kitchen cabinet or when you twist around in your car seat to reach something in the backseat -- without decent flexibility, these simple actions become extremely challenging tasks.
Some loss of flexibility due to age is unavoidable. However, at its heart, flexibility is a use-it-or-lose-it skill. And luckily, the main foundations of it can be preserved with a regular stretching routine. So for all of you squeaky, rusty Tin Men out there, here's how you can learn to touch your toes, a feat that is not only satisfying but may help easeback pain and improve your posture.
This routine assumes that nothing more than muscle tightness, as opposed to injury, is preventing your fingers and toes from meeting. Let me point out there are many other ways to improve flexibility, including yoga, Pilates and dynamic stretching; I love these activities and recommend them highly. But this plan is for someone who wouldn't dream of walking into a fitness class yet maybe wants a little relief from sitting at a desk all day or hauling the kids around or who just wants to feel more relaxed.
Also, I know some fitness pros will balk at the thought of touching your toes because they claim it's a dangerous movement. I personally believe it's a good functional aspiration because it's a movement you use in many variations frequently in everyday life, often without even realizing it. Orthopedists still use the toe touch as a basic test for determining degree of lower back and hamstring mobility. If you want, reframe the objective so you're reaching for your toes in a sitting position, rather than standing.
Aim to stretch daily or on most days. Only do the movements that feel good and never push a position to the point of pain. If something hurts, don't do it. Consider working with a certified trainer or physical therapist to help you stay safe and -- literally -- reach your goals.
You'll need: a chair, a rope, and a towel or belt.
Warm up with at least three to five minutes of cardio, such as brisk walking, or do this routine at the end of a cardio workout. While holding onto a chair with one hand for support, swing your right leg 20 times, gradually allowing it to go higher and higher. Keep your knee relaxed but your leg as straight as possible. Repeat this three times with each leg.
Now sit down in the chair, straighten your right leg and wrap the belt around the instep. Place your right heel on the floor and lift your toes. Place your left foot flat on the floor with knee bent. Gently pull yourself forward, hinging from the hip and keeping your back as straight as possible. Move to the edge of your comfort zone -- a position where you feel a strong pull through the muscle but not pain. Hold for 30 seconds. Repeat twice with both legs.
Remain in the chair and bend both knees, keeping both feet flat on the floor. Hinge forward and place your hands on your thighs. Do a seated cat/cow stretch by alternately arching and your back upward and downward 20 times slowly and continuously.
Now stand with your feet a few inches wider than hip-width apart and slowly lower your torso and arms toward the floor as far as is comfortable. Hold the chair for support if you need to. Hold for 30 seconds and then slowly stand back up. Repeat with your feet a few inches closer together and keep repeating until your feet are together.
Continue the routine daily until you can touch your toes with your feet placed together. For those of you aiming for a seated toe touch, simply transfer this last set of movements to the floor where you are sitting up straight, legs out in front of you.
Let me know how it goes. Post a comment or tweet me. I'm working on flexibility myself. As a runner, I feel it's important to have at least some degree of stretchiness for posture and proper stride length. I'm not striving to be a gymnast or prima ballerina; I just want to move more freely and stand up straighter.
Liz Neporent holds a masters degree in exercise physiology and is certified by the American Council on Exercise, the American College of Sports Medicine and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. She has co-authored various books on health and fitness. Follow Liz on Twitter, @lizzyfit.
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