Many people struggle with inflexibility and diminished range of movement in their joints, especially as they age*. It is generally accepted that stretching is an important part of any fitness and exercise program, so why is it often the most overlooked or poorly executed part of such a program?
Recent conflicting studies about the benefits of stretching have confused the ‘to-stretch or not-to-stretch and when-to-stretch” debate, but as somebody who teaches Method Putkisto, an exercise method which incorporates several types of stretching and strengthening, I think it is important to highlight the positive results that I see in the large variety of bodies and their owners’ lifestyles until more research is done.
Your focus may be on building strength, or you may prefer to regularly change your exercise regime, experimenting with whatever is ‘new”. However, before you invest a lot of time and money in the search for eternal youth, consider this; one of the most effective, inexpensive and non-invasive ways to look and feel younger is to perform daily stretches that keep the spine mobile; that lengthen the postural muscles to help sustain a tall, lifted posture; and that maintain a healthy range of motion in the joints.
There are many reasons to stretch, but my top 3 would be :-
- Flexibility – Stretching can help improve flexibility, and, consequently, range of motion in your joints.
- Performance – Better flexibility can improve your performance in physical activities and in everyday life.
- Strength** – Stretching can strengthen your body and speed recovery time; it improves blood flow to the muscles. Typically, strength training (eg using weights) results in fatigued, shortened muscles due to repetitive intense muscle activity that only takes the muscle through part of its full range of motion. Without stretching localised areas within the muscle have fibers that become stuck together and these ‘knots” remain stuck and reduce the effectiveness of muscle contraction. Stretching teases out these ‘knots” and conditions the body for optimum performance. These tight, shortened muscles also push your bony structure out of alignment resulting in loss of freedom of movement.
I am often asked if it is possible aged 50+ with over tight hips (for instance) to restore agility, strength, power and balance. Emphatically, yes, but keep the following principles in mind:-
- Proper Technique – do not make it up as you go along. Join a class, consult a specialist teacher (preferably Method Putkisto trained); stretching incorrectly can do you more harm than good.
- Stretching is not a Warm Up – Stretching cold muscles is a bad idea, and hurts, a lot. Warm up first, walking, jogging, biking or low intensity exercise for 5 – 10 minutes before you stretch. Alternatively, stretch after you exercise when your muscles are warm.
- Aim for symmetry and balance – this is more complicated than it appears, but put simply – work with your body as a whole; stretch both sides; stretch deep and superficial muscles.
- Focus – work on muscles and joints that you use routinely at work and play. Work with your body, the one you have rather than the ‘ideal” portrayed in the media.
- Smoothly does it – move slowly, take your time, don’t bounce as that can cause injury. Refer to my earlier blog on ‘The Importance of Working Safely”
- Avoid Pain – you should feel tension when stretching, not pain. If it hurts, you’re pushing too hard.
- Don’t Quit after you feel the initial benefits –stretching takes time and you need to do it regularly, 2-3 times per week; you will feel the benefits quite quickly, but if you stop, you risk losing what you’ve gained.
- Keep it Interesting – don’t do the same stretches, over and over, all the time, soon you’ll be on automatic, then bored. Add variety (different types of stretching), add movement, change the intensity….join a class, the energy of a group is often more beneficial than working on your own.
- Caution – talk to your doctor or physiotherapist about what is appropriate for you if you have a chronic condition, are recovering from surgery or injury. Stretching will not protect you from over-use.
* Young people, especially sporty ones, can also struggle with the same issues.
** conclusions of a number of studies in this area vary. What follows is my opinion.