When we think of taking care of our body, we often gravitate towards exercise, a healthy diet, regular sleep habits, better posture, and even shoes that help our gait. All of these are necessary. They enhance our fitness and health. But what about mobility and flexibility? Stretching is the answer. Yet, we overlook it.
Why is it important?
“A lot of people don’t understand that stretching has to happen regularly. It should be daily,” says David Nolan, a physical therapist at Massachusetts General Hospital. Why? Without it, the muscles become tight, inflexible, and ultimately lead to shortening. This could be due to bad posture, movement patterns, improper body mechanics, etc.
Imagine a rubber band that has just been sitting for a while. When you try to stretch it, it is brittle and snaps. Our muscles are comparable. Without stretching they are unable to extend. That puts us at risk for joint pain, strain, and muscle damage. “For muscles to remain flexible and long, regular stretching is non-negotiable. That way, in moments of sudden exertion, our body is ready to tackle it, and muscles don’t get strained by the force of the event,” says Dr. Deepak Dhokia of Ashburton Family Practice.
There’s more to it too.
The most well-known and accepted benefits of muscle stretching exercises are improved range of motion, alignment of bones and joints, and strengthening of connective tissues. If you’re into athletics or sports, this could go a long way in enhancing your performance. For the rest of us, such benefits add value to our long-term health – better blood flow, improved mental health by reducing anxiety, lesser injury, and a more productive stress response. We could do with it all.
But where do we begin?
If not in the habit of it already, daily stretching might seem daunting. Especially, since the benefits aren’t visible instantly. But you’ll know the difference if you stretch for 3-4 days and then stop, only to begin again. The second time around, you’ll notice what muscle stiffness is. Here’s where you can start a practice:
- Static stretches. These stretches involve holding a comfortable position for 10-30 seconds and are done after a workout or strenuous activity as a recovery mechanism. Here, focusing on two muscle groups is beneficial – lower extremities like calf, hamstrings, hips, and the upper back which includes the shoulder and the neck. Why these groups? The former bears the weight of our body and regulates our movements. The latter is where we hold the impact of our laptop work.
- Dynamic stretches. These are active movements that cause your muscles to stretch, but the stretch is not held in the end position. They are movement-based and are usually done before exercise to get your muscles ready for action. For example, shoulder/ hip rotations, spot jogging, etc. 5-10 mins of dynamic stretching makes for a powerful warm-up.
While stretching is good, it is important to remember that it is also a form of exercise. If you have an injury, seek medical advice before stretching that part of the body to prevent further damage. Similarly, know that stretching is meant to be comforting. If it pains, it’s time to stop.