Studies show that flexibility is just as beneficial as exercise. Exercise can help improve your memory and mood, control weight, boost energy and even combats health conditions and disease. But where does stretching come into play? Doctors, physical therapists, and massage therapist agree that flexibility is a vital part of keeping your body fit and able. Flexibility can help your body reach its optimum fitness level, plays an important role in injury prevention, and can prevent conditions like arthritis and carpal tunnel among others.
When you stretch a muscle you lengthen the tendons and muscle fibers that attach to the bone. The longer these muscle fibers are, the more you can increase the muscle’s size and improve upon range of motion. The more flexible the muscle the more it has a potential to become stronger as well. The increased range of motion (ROM) and flexibility that you gain can make everyday activities, like bending over to pick something up off the floor, easier on your body and decreases the risk of an injury.
Additionally, stretching may improve your circulation, increasing the flow of blood to the muscles. Good circulation can help to protect your body against a host of illnesses from diabetes to kidney disease. A 2009 study in the American Journal of Physiology indicated that people age 40 and older who performed well on a sit-and-reach test (a seated forward bend that measures flexibility) had less stiffness in their arterial walls, an indicator of the risk for stroke and heart attack.
Where do I start?
How flexible do you need to be? Well, being able to do a split is not necessary to a healthily life, but you need to be flexible enough to suit your lifestyle. A gymnast needs a lot of flexibility due to the amount of movement they perform, from tumbling, flipping, and jumping. On the other hand, a distance runner does not need a lot of flexibility to move their body forward in a straight line.
Flexibility can be improved upon with just 10 minutes of stretching per day. Focus on the major muscle groups such as upper body, back, and lower body. After a few minutes spent on theses areas typically you should spend your time focusing on specific stretches for any problem areas. So, if you sit at a desk for 8-10+ hours a day you will want to pay special attention to your lower back and other posterior chain muscles (glutes, hamstrings, and calves) as well as your hip flexors.
Stretching needs be done on a consistent basis to have any long-term affect. During this part of your day it is a great time to listen to your body while deep breathing and focusing on relaxation. Before beginning your stretching routine warm up your muscles, a walk or some jumping jacks work nicely. As you ease into each stretch the movement needs to be slow, smooth, and controlled. Breathe out as you move into each stretch. You will feel the muscles start to relax due to increased blood flow. Stretching should not be painful, only move to the point of resistance/discomfort. Each stretch should be taken to a static hold and no bouncing should take place. Below is a sequence designed be Emmanuel Durand, head coach for the Cirque du Soleil show O, in Las Vegas, and Angelique Janov, a certified Pilates instructor and a contortionist coach for O. The sequence should take about 10 minutes to complete.
For Your Upper Body
1. Place your hands on the back of your head and gently push it forward with your chin tucked. Hold for five seconds.
2. Now place the heels of your hands on your chin, fingers pointing toward your ears. Gently push your head back. Hold for five seconds.
3. Rest your right hand on the top of your head and gently press your right ear toward your right shoulder. Hold for five seconds. Repeat on the other side.
4. Raise your arms and clasp your hands above your head; imagine lifting and lengthening your spine. As you bend to the left, release your hands. Grasp your right elbow with your left hand and pull it to the left. Hold for five seconds. Come back to the center and repeat on the right side.
5. Repeat 3 times.
For Your Back
1. Lie on your stomach, legs straight and feet shoulder-width apart.
2. Place your hands on the floor under your shoulders and slowly lift your chest up. Hold for 10 seconds.
3. Come to a standing position with feet shoulder-width apart and pointed to the right. Lift the toes of your right foot off the ground, bend at the hip, and fold your body over. Hold for 10 seconds.
4. Come back to a standing position and repeat on the left side with toes pointing to the left.
5. Repeat 3 times.
For Your Lower Body
1. Sit on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you.
2. Lift your right leg off the floor, holding it with both hands. Flex your foot and hold for five seconds. Lower and switch legs.
3. While still seated, bend your right knee and lift your leg. Pull your knee to your chest. Flex your foot and hold for five seconds. Lower your right leg and repeat with the left.
4. Repeat 3 times.