My Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week is about stretching and flexibility. This is one aspect of a comprehensive exercise program that you might be missing. Here’s why that is a problem and what you can do to start improving your flexibility.
The benefits of regular exercise include increased endurance, strength, and flexibility along with increased energy expenditure for weight loss and weight maintenance. These benefits will vary depending on the type of exercise you perform.
Endurance (aerobic) exercise will improve your cardiorespiratory fitness and endurance. These improvements allow you to exercise at a higher intensity or for a longer duration. Aerobic exercise like walking or jogging is also the most effective at burning calories.
Resistance training (weight lifting) will improve your muscular strength. The practical benefit is that you will have an easier time completing physical tasks at work or at home, something that is increasingly important as you get older.
Ideally, your exercise program will include a combination of endurance and resistance training. But there is another type of exercise that you should also include—stretching.
Stretching is an important and often overlooked part of an exercise program. Stretching exercises improve your flexibility and range of motion. This can help reduce back pain and muscle stiffness, improve your posture, and may reduce your risk of injury when you are active.
Here are some key points to keep in mind as you add stretching to your exercise routine:
- Target major muscle groups. When you’re stretching, focus on your calves, thighs, hips, lower back, neck and shoulders. Also stretch muscles and joints that you routinely use at work or play.
- Warm up first. The idea that stretching is a good warm-up before exercise is outdated. Stretching muscles when they’re cold increases your risk of injury, including pulled muscles. Warm up first by exercising at low intensity for five minutes or, better yet, stretch after you work out.
- Hold each stretch for at least 15 seconds. It takes time for the muscles to stretch and lengthen. That can seem like a long time, so keep an eye on the clock or your watch. Then repeat the stretch on the other side. For most muscle groups, a single stretch is often sufficient if you hold it long enough.
- Don’t bounce. While it might seem that bouncing would give you a better stretch, the opposite can be true. In extreme cases you could even damage the muscle making you less flexible and more prone to pain.
- Focus on a pain-free stretch. You should expect to feel the stretch, but it shouldn’t cause pain. If it hurts, you’ve gone too far. Back off to the point where you don’t feel any pain, then hold the stretch.
- Relax and breathe freely. Don’t hold your breath while you’re stretching. This is especially important if you are doing a workout that emphasizes stretching, like yoga.
Yoga is one example of an exercise that results in improved flexibility as well as promoting stress relief. There are different types of yoga, some of which improve strength and endurance along with flexibility. Yoga classes can be modified to accommodate even the least flexible participants, so don’t be afraid to try it.
You may want to start by stretching at two to three times a week to improve and maintain flexibility. Exercises that target the major muscle groups should take less that 10 minutes to complete, so this can easily fit into other activities.
As with any exercise, doing more can yield better results. If you have a problem area, such as tightness in the back of your leg, you might want to stretch more often. And keep in mind that you can stretch anytime, anywhere — in your home, at work, or when you’re traveling.