As a therapist and sports trainer I have experienced and witnessed the numerous benefits of stretching. In my experience, flexible people tend to have less physical (musculoskeletal) ailments, and yet many people are reluctant to spend sufficient time, if any, to incorporate stretching into their lifestyle or exercise routine.
Often people consider stretching an easy and boring thing to do, or do not consider it an essential part of exercise or daily life. In fact flexibility is an essential part of health and the pursuit to increase and lengthen muscles and the soft tissues of the body requires effort and dedication, with benefits that are long-lasting.
o Stretching is the activity or action of increasing the length of a muscle and joint mobility to achieve flexibility. The aim is to increase or maintain a degree of flexibility to at least the average range of motion (ROM) in a joint or group of joints. This ROM varies according to activity, age and requirement, with the average recommended ROM based on healthy, non-athletic patients. So depending on your activity, you may require more ROM and flexibility than recommended. Even if your activity requires less ROM than your joint can offer, healthy joints and muscles must at least be able to attain the normal ROM.
o Shortened and constricted muscles and ligaments hold the body in restricted positions that contribute to poor posture. Poor posture can attribute to other issues such as restricted breathing, chronic pain, headache, cramps etc. By maintaining and increasing muscle and joint flexibility, joints, ligaments and muscles maintain their correct position and symmetry, improve correct posture and body appearance.
o Optimal flexibility increases efficiency of movement. Muscles require energy to move and the tighter the muscle, the more energy is required to move it. When muscles, joints and ligaments are flexible, the body moves more efficiently using less energy, leaving extra energy for additional activity.
o Another benefit of increased mobility is the ability to perform daily tasks; e.g. brushing one’s hair or reaching up for something. Flexibility is also important for safety; e.g. being able to cross a street quickly or stride out to move out of harm’s way without tearing a muscle.
Stretching reduces injury
o The answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Any time you extend a joint or overstretch a contracted muscle or shortened ligament beyond its range of motion you are likely to injure it, regardless of your degree of flexibility. Being flexible means that you are able to move your joints and body through its full ROM with reduced possibility of overstretch and injury. If however your activity or sport requires you to move through greater degrees of flexibility and ROM then the norm and you do not have that range, then yes, you can injure it. So the answer is? Ensure you have at least the average range of flexibility and greater flexibility to suit your specific work or sporting needs.
o Stretching the fascial tissue and ligaments relieves the compressive irritation on nerves causing the cramp. As the tension on the nerves ease, the cramp may subside, though massage and related therapies are required to assist with neural and chemical factors that attribute to cramps.
Heightened body awareness
o Through the process of stretching the person learns to tune-in to their body and develops a deeper connection with how it feels. As muscles and joints relax and align with correct posture and body symmetry, the individual is more acutely aware when they begin to tense and have poor posture and limited range of motion. In this way regular stretching teaches the individual to maintain better postural habits.
Self-discipline of the mind and body
o To obtain any goal and degree of success requires focus and discipline. It is the same with maintaining and improving your flexibility. It requires constant practice and persistence to attain the desired result. In the process the mind becomes disciplined in its pursuit of the goal and the body becomes accustomed to the effort required to achieve the result. Over time the body and mind become attuned to the discipline and effort required and in doing so the person develops mental and physical mastery.
Opportunity for self-reflection and meditation
o To set aside time to stretch is in itself a positive step in self-reflection as the person realises there is a need for self-care. When a person takes time to stretch and tune-in to their body, it allows time for the mind to switch-off from the daily mind-chatter; a time for self-reflection or meditation. Just like a dedicated yoga practitioner, there comes a point where the physical act of stretching encompasses a spiritual and mental state of calmness and connection.
Stretching and the Aged
o As we age muscles, ligaments and tendons shorten and tighten, especially if they are not used. This reduced flexibility impedes on joint mobility and decreases active ROM which can lead to falls and injuries.
Types of Stretching
o Static – Holding a stretch position for 1 - 5minutes
o Dynamic / Ballistic – moving through an active range of motion
o Passive – You relax while another person stretches your limb
o PNF – Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation
• An advanced form of flexibility training, which involves both stretching and contracting of the muscle being stretched and is one of the most effective forms of stretching. Variations of PNF stretching include Facilitated stretching, Contract-Relax (CR) stretching, Hold-Relax stretching, Post Isometric Relaxation (PIR) and Contract-Relax-Antagonist-Contract (CRAC) stretching.