How to become more flexible

During periods of inactivity, such as sitting or sleeping, the muscles in our body shorten and, as a result, tighten and become more rigid. (Photos: Envato Elements)
The importance of physical exercise can never be emphasized enough, as it is an integral part of overall health. The Centers for DiseaseControl and Prevention (CDC) and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommend that adults practice at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week, as well as muscle-strengthening activities twice a week or more to work all major muscle groups.اضافة اعلان

Physical activity helps prevent many diseases and can also help manage preexisting conditions, such as diabetes. Nevertheless, there is another form of physical activity that should hold as much importance as exercise, but unfortunately does not. Current recommendations from the ACSM suggest stretching a minimum of 2-3 times per week, although daily stretching is most effective. 

Importance of stretching

One of the best analogies to describe the muscles is to compare them to a balloon. When you start to blow up a balloon, it may be difficult at first because the balloon is still rigid and accustomed to its smaller size. However, if you give a balloon a couple of stretches before inflating, you will notice that it inflates much more readily, and it is also less likely to pop.

Muscles work in a similar fashion. During periods of inactivity, such as sitting or sleeping, the muscles in our body shorten and, as a result, tighten and become more rigid. When the time comes to use the muscles for even simple tasks such as walking, they are comparatively weaker and unable to extend to their full potential. This carries the risk of joint pain, strains, and even muscle damage. The risk is even greater for those who perform more strenuous activities such as weightlifting. As such, regular stretching helps keep muscles long, lean, and flexible, which can drastically reduce these associated risks.

The core principle of stretching works on the physiology of the muscle. Muscles have a myotatic reflex, which is the contraction of a muscle in response to its passive stretching. When the muscle lengthens, components of the muscles recognize the stretching and work to resist it. In moments of strenuous activity, this resistance may result in muscle damage. This reflex is an entirely involuntary response and is one of the chief mechanisms responsible for muscle stiffness.

By routinely stretching, the stretch reflex can be delayed, which will improve overall flexibility and reduce the risk of muscle damage.

Essentials of stretching

There are many forms of stretching, but all have common essential foundations that one must be mindful of. One important essential is that stretching should not be considered a warm-up.

Referring to the balloon analogy, stretching while it is cold can increase the risk of it snapping. Muscles that are “cold” run the same risk, but that comes in the form of muscle tears.

A proper warm-up would be a brisk walk or light jog for 5-10 minutes. This will improve the flow of blood to the muscles and effectively prepare them to be stretched. Symmetry and focusing on the major muscle groups is also essential to avoiding injury.

Ensuring that the left and right side of your body are equally flexible reduces the risk of injury. Similarly, routine stretching of muscles and joints of major muscle groups, such as calves, thighs, hips, lower back, neck, and shoulders, reduces the risk of injury during daily activities.

Finally, pain should be well understood. Stretching, especially the first few times, may be discomforting, but it should not be painful. If you begin to experience pain deep into a stretch, ease off the stretch until there is no more pain and hold the stretch.

Forms of stretching

Each type of stretching serves a unique purpose and when working out, a combination of stretches can be used to best serve your needs. The two most common and important forms of stretching are static and dynamic. As the name implies, static stretches are performed in a stationary position, stretching a joint as far as comfortably possible and holding for 30-90 seconds. For many years, static stretching was the main form of stretching and was commonly used to warm-up. Recently, however, studies have shown that those participating in sports or anticipating strenuous activity should avoid static stretches as a warm-up as surfacing evidence shows that a single bout of static stretches has the potential to reduce maximal strength, power, and performance. As a result, dynamic stretches have become the preferred warm-up stretch.

Dynamic stretching is the process of actively moving joints and muscles in sport-specific motions for 10-12 repetitions. The purpose of dynamic stretches is to prepare the muscles for the range of motion that is anticipated from the workout or activity. This preparation increases blood flow and flexibility while reducing resistance, all of which has been shown to temporarily increase power, sprint, jump and overall performance.

Despite the recent popularity of dynamic stretching, static stretches still serve an important role in workouts. Static stretching after exercise may help reduce post-workout stiffness as it helps return muscles to their pre-workout lengths. Those who participate in sports or work out at the gym should warm up with dynamic stretches and perform static stretches as a part of the cooling down process.

There are many other forms of stretching although their use is questionable and often requires supervision. Active isolated stretching is similar to static stretching, with the exception that the stretches focus on specific muscles and requires the used of additional force. The additional force may come in the form of a rope or hands which are stretched until tension is felt and held for 1-2 seconds. The major concern regarding this stretch is overstretching, especially when done with a rope.

Another form of stretching is proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation stretching, which is effective but may be dangerous if done incorrectly. The stretch involves contracting the muscle, releasing and then immediately stretching, typically with the assistance of a person. Due to the risk involved in this stretch, it is recommended that it only be done under the supervision of a physical therapist or trainer.

The final common form of stretching is ballistic stretching. It is outdated and has largely fallen out of favor, however. Ballistic stretching involves slowly moving into the stretch and once tension is felt, bounce or rock on the stretch to move past the point of the original stretch. This stretch is no longer recommended due to the danger associated with applying excess pressure on the muscle and connective tissues.

Benefits of stretches

Stretching serves a wide variety of purposes and benefits not only those who exercise, but also those who incorporate them into morning or nightly routines.

Stretching improves flexibility and range of motion, which in turn reduces pain and stiffness. Additionally, stretching improves blood flow and circulation, which, combined with increased flexibility, will enhance overall performance. Finally, stretching can be used to treat symptoms of stress and stress itself. When under high levels of stress, muscles will begin to tense and stretching will help alleviate the tension. When combined with mindful breathing exercise, stretching can also help reduce mental tension and anxiety.

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