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Let’s talk about something important today. Let’s talk about stretching. Anyone who is actively on a fitness journey, has maintained a healthy lifestyle for years, or just beginning to get back in shape, one cannot overlook the component of stretching. I get it, many people hate stretching. It can be VERY uncomfortable. But if done properly, and regularly, stretching can become relaxing and comfortable once your muscles gain a little flexibility. And even if one does not work out every day, lord knows I do not ;), one would greatly benefit from stretching on a daily basis.
One may ask what qualifies me to write about this topic, so I’ll share a little background. I have over two and a half decades of advanced dance experience under my belt and over a decade of experience in dance instruction. Initially, I went to college as a Classical Ballet major. For a good majority of my life, dance was my life. Eventually, continued injuries forced me to hang up my shoes before I was ready, so I settled for a minor in dance with my previously completed credits. And, over time, I have adjusted to life outside the world of dance. However, I still maintain the vast knowledge I gained through my decades of experience and am passing a piece of that on to you today.
There are 5 key ways stretching helps your body: by reducing muscle tension, increasing the range of motion in the joints, enhancing muscular coordination, increasing circulation of the blood to numerous parts of the body, increasing energy levels. So, how do those 5 key things benefit you?
reducing muscle tension | I am a naturally stressed person, just ask my massage therapist. And people who are naturally stressed, or experience stress, tend to have contracted muscles which cause a physiological reaction of tension in the body. Stretching helps loosen these muscle contractions and tension while increasing blood flow to the body.
increasing range of motion | Improved flexibility will result in an improved range of motion which makes one’s bodywork less while moving. Furthermore, stretching decreases the likelihood of injuries during exercise or other sports activities.
enhancing muscular coordination | Stretching lengthens tight muscles that typically pull areas of your body down or away from their intended position. Keeping your back and torso muscles loose help keep your spine in alignment, relieve backaches and pain. When this pain is going, one typically experiences better posture.
increasing circulation | A regular stretching routine increases blood flow to numerous areas of the body which help by reducing post-exercise soreness and recovery time, as well as improving one’s overall health.
increasing energy levels | Stretching releases a person’s natural endorphins in their body. This gives a body energy and the feeling of joy, which helps fight fatigue. Furthermore, stretching before bed can help optimize your sleep.
One thing I must highlight is the importance of stretching properly. Stretching can have many positive benefits to a person’s overall health, but if done poorly and incorrectly, one is more likely to hurt themselves. And, unfortunately, most people do not stretch correctly. And, sadly, most people are not even taught how to stretch correctly because the majority of school gym teachers and coaches are not educated well when it comes to stretching. Because of this, the majority of people don’t have a strong foundation to build a healthy stretching routine on. Nevertheless, it is still possible to learn healthy habits at any point in life. And, once deciding on regular stretching routine, I would advise anyone to remember these 5 tips for stretching:
Do: warm up before having a significant stretching session. I prefer to do a quick stretch (for the safety of my muscles) before any activity. Typically, this takes approximately 5 minutes, it’s very basic stretching. Next, I warm up my muscles and get my blood flowing. It doesn’t matter what you do for this, some people love and thrive on cardio while others despise it. Some people love lifting weights while others have never picked one up. The point is, do whatever workout you prefer to get your heart rate up. I choose to do a more significant stretch at the cooldown of my workout because by this point my muscles are warm, they aren’t tight and stiff. It is easier (and less painful) to stretch at this point which allows for a safer, deeper stretch.
Do: hold each position for a minimum of 30 seconds. I prefer to hold each position for longer than 30 seconds. Back in the day, when I was gumbo I could lay in nearly any position for 15 minutes or longer comfortably. But that’s not the case anymore. So now, I hold a position for at least 30 seconds, release that position and give that muscle(s) a quick break, then repeat that same stretch again for an additional 30 seconds. Once you have reached a point were a 30-60 second hold on a position has become easy and comfortable, increase the length of time you hold that position.
Do: breathe deeply while stretching. Has anyone ever told you your muscles are like rubber bands? Well, they are. And, when you stretch in a position a muscle may feel like it’s being stretched to its snapping point. A person’s natural reaction is to start holding their breath or not breathe with ease. At this point, a person starts to cramp, making the discomfort of the stretch worse. One of the best things someone can do at this point is, take a deep breath. The oxygen will help relax your muscles. Furthermore, deep breathing can also allow for a deeper stretch. On the exhale of a deep breath, one is usually able to push the stretch a little further with less effort and discomfort.
Do: strive for symmetry. Realistically, most people are not striving to have the flexibility of a dancer, let alone a ballet dancer. So rather than strive to be gumbo, strive for symmetry. When you stretch in a position on one side of your body, stretch the other side equally. If one side is more flexible than the other, stretch the tighter side a little more so it becomes equally as flexible as the other. This will help make sure your spinal alignment and posture stay intact.
Do: let gravity help you. If you are fairly inflexible, are new to stretching, or prefer to stretch with a partner but do not always have that option, use gravity as your stretching partner. One can build an entire stretching session centered around the use of gravity alone. It’s safe, easy, and if done correctly, great for proper alignment and individuals who may have had prior back injuries (like me) or current back issues.
I would approach any new stretching routine with excitement, but also with caution. I would caution anyone with a chronic condition, injury, or lack of knowledge to adjust stretching techniques accordingly. For example, if you have a pulled muscle, stretching that muscle further could cause it more harm and worsen the injury. Another example would be when I broke my back. I fractured every vertebra in the lumbar section of my spine. I did six months of rehab, and during that therapy, I had a stretching regime tailored to help and not cause further harm to my injury. So if you have any health concerns at all, discuss them with your doctor and/or physical therapist to find the most appropriate way to stretch before beginning.
Good Luck Everyone!