When Exercising, Don't Skip Stretching

It's no stretch to say that a lot of us underestimate the value of flexibility.

"Most people just skip stretching altogether," says Tammy Hischke, functional assessment coordinator for the Cooper Fitness Center in Dallas. "They think it's boring and don't really understand its importance. The attitude is, 'It doesn't burn calories and it doesn't build muscle, so how important can it be?'"

While it's true that stretching won't strengthen your heart or flatten your stomach, it can help you reach those goals more efficiently. Aerobic exercise and strength training need muscles that are in balance and work smoothly. That's where stretching comes in -- as a complement to the activity you choose. It's so important the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) includes flexibility training in its recommendations for staying fit.

Stretching is important because as you exercise, your muscles shorten. By regularly stretching the muscles, you counteract that shortening. Stretching promotes flexibility, allowing you to move your muscles and joints through their full range of motion.

Stretching is a gentle wakeup call for your muscles, ligaments and tendons. Extending these soft tissues and moving them through their full range increases blood flow and decreases the shock to those areas when you move into the vigorous part of your workout.

Muscles that are warmed up before being put under a sudden stress are more likely to be able to handle the stress. Mild warm-up exercises before vigorous exertion is always recommended.

You can hurt muscles, ligaments and tendons that aren't ready for stress. There is no large-scale, scientific proof that stretching before exercise can head off injury. A recent Australian study, in fact, concluded that stretching had little to do with injury prevention. However, stretching after exercise has been shown to be beneficial and is recommended.

Stretching can help keep the body limber by releasing muscle tension and tightness. A tight muscle "is not able to function like it should."

There are lots of wrong ways to do a stretch and one right way. The wrong technique at best makes a stretch less effective and at worst can cause injury, especially to vulnerable body parts like the lower back and knee. Consulting a qualified instructor is probably the best way to learn technique. But a yoga class, videotape or book can suffice.

Once you educate yourself about stretching you'll find that it's an important part of your overall wellness.

How to get the most from your stretching

  • Do five to 10 minutes of walking or light jogging to warm up before you start exercising and stretching.

  • Stretch two to three times a week. If you work out two to three times a week, just make it part of your workout routine.

  • Stretch all major muscle groups, especially those your activity involves. For running or other leg-centered exercise, that means the quadriceps, hamstrings and calves. Stretch the shoulders, chest and back before activities working the upper body. As you stretch, exhale. As you hold the stretch, inhale.

  • Stretch each muscle group individually using slow, gentle movements. Breathe while you stretch, and hold the position no more than 20 to 30 seconds. One to three repetitions should do unless an area is very tight.

  • Don't try to balance and stretch at the same time. Holding onto a chair or wall for standing stretches provides more stability.

  • Don't bounce while you stretch or make sudden movements. Back off if you experience pain. Stretching the wrong way can harm muscles by creating small tears that may become bigger when you exercise.

Three good stretches

Quadriceps: Stand with knees together. Pull your left leg up behind you with your left hand; keep your torso upright and pull your heel toward your buttocks. Brace yourself with your right hand. Switch legs and repeat.

Hamstrings: Sit on the floor; extend your left leg in front of you. Put your right foot against your inner left thigh. Gently bend forward from the hips, keeping back straight. Switch legs and repeat.

Chest: Stand facing a wall. Put your right palm and forearm flat against the wall, then rotate your torso to the left. Switch sides and repeat.

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