Today, millions of people have discovered the benefits of stretching. Over the last years, studies have shown that people that live these active lives live fuller lives. In fact, studies show that a lack of physical activity directly relates to many major illnesses and death. Before the Industrial Revolution, people actually had to work hard to get their needed amount of movement. After the Revolution, it became a different story. People no longer needed to work physically to make a life for themselves. With this lack of movement came lack of flexibility. Now, everywhere you look, you see people out jogging, hiking, and playing golf, tennis, and other sports to stay active. The fitness trend is in; but it’s not a trend anymore. Now, it’s a way of life. Stretching is an important part of this way of life that many people leave out.
Many people would tell you that they love to exercise and workout. This is true because exercising releases many stress-relieving endorphins that help in many ways. What they won’t tell you is that they feel the same way about stretching. It would be considered one of their least favorite things to do. Truth is, stretching is also stress relieving and relaxing, but not in quite the same ways as exercise. Although stretching doesn’t reduce bodily fat nor does it gain muscle; it does set a good foundation for you to perform the necessary activities that lead to good health. With proper flexibility, many functions that were previously not achievable can now be done. For instance, a tennis game can be fun for a little while. But as your muscle tense up, you risk probable sourness and cramping. With good flexibility, your muscles stay loose and relaxed and your attitude toward the tennis game and other exercises are improved.
Flexibility is the amount of movement your joints can move. Stretching is the key to maintaining good flexibility. As you get older, your tendons begin to shorten and tighten, restricting your flexibility. By the time you hit your mid-twenties, your bones begin to harden and your joints have already set in place. This is not bad in any way. It also means that you’re less likely to have any dislocated joints throughout your life. However, your movement becomes slower and not as smooth. You find it much more difficult to do common tasks that were easier at a younger age. Flexibility is also the key to good posture. Many times you rely on some sets of muscle more than others. This causes these muscles to become stronger. When this happens, you’re posture is affected. The body is not aligned correctly which may cause injury down the road. Many simple routines of stretching can correct this misalignment and make you feel much better.
Before going right into a stretching routine, it is good to know exactly what you are doing to your muscles fibers and tendons. First of all, our muscles are made up of many little fibers called myofilaments. As a muscle contracts, the area of overlap between the different sizes of myofilaments increases. As it stretches, this area of overlap decreases, allowing the muscle fibers to lengthen. Once the muscle is stretched to its limit, additional length is gained through the surrounding tissues. As the tension increases, the fibers in this tissue align themselves along the same line of force as the tension. Hence when you stretch, the muscle fiber is pulled out to its full length, and the connective tissue takes up the remaining slack. When this occurs, it helps to realign any disorganized fibers in the direction of the tension. Doing this not only increases the range of motion, but it also helps to heal damaged tissue in the muscles and tendons. When a muscle is stretched, some of its fibers lengthen, but others do not. The length of the entire muscle depends on the number of stretched fibers. This is also true when a muscle is contracted. The muscle relies on the number of contracted fibers. The more fibers that are stretched, the greater the length developed by the stretched muscle. When you stretch a muscle, the muscle will naturally want to “reflex”. This stretch reflex is directly related to how fast the muscle is stretched. If you stretch a muscle quickly, it will naturally want to return quickly. One of the reasons for holding a stretch for a prolonged period of time is that as you hold the muscle in a stretched position, you give the fiber a chance to slowly extend to its longest point. When muscles contract due to the stretch reflex, they produce tension at the point where the muscle is connected to the tendon. When this tension exceeds a certain point, it triggers a “lengthening reaction” which stops the muscles from contracting and causes them to relax. There are many internal and external factors that restrict the natural relaxation of the muscle. Internal factors include the elasticity of your skin, tendons and ligaments, and muscle tissue; type of joint (some joints weren’t made to be flexible); or temperature of the joint (joints extend better when they are a few degrees higher than normal). External factors include the temperature of the place where you are training; the time of day; and your commitment to perform the exercises.
Strength training and stretching should go hand in hand. Many people think that there must always be a compromise between flexibility and strength. If you neglect flexibility training altogether in order to train for strength then you are certainly sacrificing flexibility. The same goes for excessive flexibility training. However, performing exercises for both strength and flexibility does not inhibit each other. In fact, flexibility training and strength training can actually enhance one another. One of the best times to stretch is right after a strength training workout. Contrary to popular belief, it is not good to stretch at the beginning of a workout. You must let your body warm up at least five minutes before doing any type of stretching. If you had to decide between stretching before or after the workout, after would be better. Stretching after a workout will help in several ways. Stretching the fatigued muscles right after a workout helps not only to increase flexibility, but also enhances the development of muscular growth, and will actually help decrease the level of soreness. After a strength workout, your muscles retain their tightness, and are shortened somewhat. This “shortening” is due mostly to the repetition of intense muscle activity that often only takes the muscle through part of its full range of motion. With this activity, the muscle will appear larger. At that time your muscle is filled lactic acid and other by-products due to the strenuous workout. If the muscle is not stretched after the exercise it will retain these by-products and never maintain the same length that it had. Stretching this muscle will allow the muscle to stretch back out and do-away with those by-products. Also a heavy workout will often cause damage to the surrounding tissue. Without stretching the muscle, this tissue will heal at a shorter length. But with stretching involved before healing, the time to heal is shorter and the tissue will not shorten upon healing.
Everyone can stretch regardless of age of flexibility. You do not need to be in good shape or be an athlete to be able to stretch. Stretching feels good when done correctly. You do not have to push your limits to progress in an effective stretch routine. Neither should it be a contest to see how far you can stretch. This will most often lead to injury. Rather stretching should feel more relaxing than anything, and should not feel uncomfortable in any way. If there is pain during a stretch then that is a good sign there is something wrong. If you stretch and exercise regularly, than you will learn to enjoy it more and more.
Stretching is key to maintaining a healthy life throughout the years. There are so many benefits to flexibility; but because it does not directly relate to what anybody wants to hear, they go on with their fat-burning, muscle building routines. Fact is, without stretching, the results will be very slow and inefficient. The results afterward would most likely be disappointing. Flexibility is a very important part of any fitness and should not be left out of everyday life.