Time to stretch yourself?

For many of us, stretching is something we largely associate with warming up and cooling down before and after a fitness session. Yet stretching is a wonderful physical activity that comes naturally and instinctively to everyone and can boost our health in lots of ways – in fact there’s more than one form of stretching.

If you think about it, you’re probably already stretching unconsciously as part of your daily routine. For example, after sitting in front of a computer or TV for a while, you may feel the need to stand up and raise your arms above your head or lean back slightly to stretch those stiff back muscles. Having even the briefest of stretches can help us to instantly feel more energised after a period of inactivity.

If you can incorporate stretching into your daily routine, even if it’s just for a few minutes, the more frequently you stretch, the more quickly you can gain flexibility.

Why stretching is important

We feel better because we’re loosening up our muscles and joints. As we grow older, muscles tighten and joints lose some of their range of motion. This can lead to soreness and increasingly limited movement that impacts on our ability to carry out general daily activities. If you experience difficulty when carrying out routine movements such as reaching up, turning around or bending down – stretching can help you to develop and maintain an increased level of flexibility in your joints.

Some of the many benefits of stretching include:

  • Improved flexibility and increased range of joint movement
  • Reduced muscle tension
  • Improved muscular coordination
  • Strengthening of key muscles such as the lower back
  • Increased energy levels
  • Improved circulation
  • Decreased potential for injury
  • Improved posture
  • Relaxed mind and body

Types of stretch

Static stretching is a low-impact stretch, designed to hold a static joint or muscle position. This type of stretch is minimally challenging and is safe and effective. Once in a static stretch, the aim is to remain in the stretch pose for up to 30 seconds.

An example of an everyday static stretch is a chest stretch. To carry out a chest stretch: stand tall with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and bent your knees slightly. Hold your arms out to the side, parallel with the ground. The palms of your hands should be facing forwards. Stretch the arms back as far as possible and hold for up to 30 seconds. You should feel the stretch across your chest.

Active stretching is a type of stretch that really helps to strengthen key muscles when performed regularly. An active stretch is one where you hold a stretch with no assistance other than your ‘helper’ muscles. For example, a leg stretch where you lie on your back with one leg extended in the air. These type of stretches are typically used in yoga. As they are more difficult to hold and maintain, these are usually held for just 10-15 seconds.

Dynamic stretching involves controlled, gentle leg and arm swings that take you to the limits of your range of motion. Dynamic stretching examples include controlled leg swings, arm swings or torso twists. Dynamic stretching is often used as part of a warm-up for an aerobic workout.

How to stretch

If you can incorporate stretching into your daily routine, even if it’s just for a few minutes, the more frequently you stretch, the more quickly you can gain flexibility.

When moving into a stretch, keep in mind it is a natural and instinctive exercise so there’s no need to bounce or use force. This may cause your muscles to tighten and presents a risk of injury.

Stretch in a slow and controlled manner and ensure you stretch only to the point of mild discomfort. If you experience any pain during your stretch, this signals that you have stretched too far. Hold each stretch for around 15-30 seconds.

Simple stretches to get you started

Why not give these simple but effective stretches a try? Start each stretch by lying on your back.

  • Overhead stretch: extend your arms over your head and feel your body stretch from your fingertips to your toes. Take three to four deep, relaxing breaths.
  • Knee to chest stretch: bring one knee to your chest, while keeping the other leg bent. Don’t raise your head or tense your neck. Take three to four deep, relaxing breaths and feel the stretch in your lower back and buttocks. Repeat with opposite knee.
  • Hamstring stretch: grasp one leg and pull it towards you, then straighten it as far as is comfortable. Keep the other leg flat or bent on the bed. Take three to four deep, relaxing breaths and feel your hamstring lengthen. Repeat with opposite leg.
  • Knees to chest stretch: bring both knees to your chest and gently grasp your legs. Don’t raise your head or tense your neck. Take three to four deep, relaxing breaths and feel the stretch in the lower back and buttocks.
  • Knee rolls: slowly roll knees to one side, keeping them together and ensuring both shoulders remain in contact with the bed at all times. Take three to four deep, relaxing breaths and feel the stretch in your lower back. Repeat on opposite side.

It takes time, but once you form the habit, you can really start to feel the benefits of stretching on a regular basis. Aside from the physical benefits to your joints and muscles, it can also be a very focusing activity, boosting your awareness of how your body is moving and working. So why not give it a try, and see for yourself the positives of making stretching a dedicated part of your routine.

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