Stretch Yourself!

Stretching-1Spring is here! The days are getting longer, the grass is getting greener and the sun is getting sunnier! As Spring rolls in, excitement fills the air as it seems to bring with it a vibrant energy in anticipation of summer! No more excuses, it’s time to get out and get moving!

Part of the magic of Cape Town is that it has something to offer for everyone! Exercise is not confined to a gym or a studio; if that’s not your thing; take a jog along the promenade or try your hand at stand up paddle. Grab a friend and enjoy the fresh air as you explore the magnificent mountain trails; brave the icy ocean and go for a surf- or simply take the dogs for a stroll along our fabulous beaches! The options are endless, and it would be a sin to miss out on all the wonderful ways you can move your body this spring!

Of course, stretching goes hand in hand with whatever movement you choose, and for some, it is the movement of choice in itself!

Why should we stretch, when should we stretch, and for how long should we do it? These are some of the most common questions that arise when encouraging people to stretch; and some of the questions this post will endeavor to answer!

Why Stretch?

When you exercise you require your muscles to contract and shorten in order to generate force and movement. Years of researcher’s investigation into the way muscles work have taught us that muscles adapt to the demands placed upon them. Thus, when muscles are constantly asked to shorten, whether during use/exercise; or from constantly holding static positions like sitting, the muscle eventually adapts and becomes held in a chronically shortened position.

Muscles work in pairs around the various joints in your body, and when one muscle becomes short, it can create a compensatory lengthening in the opposing muscle.

This can have a negative impact on joint range of motion and can lead to unhealthy movement patterns throughout the body, as well as joint locking and painful knots and trigger points in the muscles.

Stretching helps lengthen muscles after periods of exercise or prolonged static positions and prevents them from becoming chronically shortened. In this way, it encourages flexibility and helps you to achieve and maintain healthy, full range of motion in your joints. Stretching also increases blood flow to muscles which helps prevent them from developing those painful knots.

Stretching Styles and Timing

There are many different ways to stretch. The two simplest methods are static and dynamic.

Static stretching is the most common, yet slightly more old school approach where you simply hold a certain muscle in a lengthened position for 30 sec- 3 min. This is an effective and relatively easy way to stretch.

Dynamic stretching is seen as a more functional way to stretch as it moves your joints through their range of motion for 12-15 repetitions (the cat/camel stretch, arm swings, leg swings). Since dynamic stretching warms up your muscles and gets the heart pumping, it can be used as a form of warm up before exercise.

Proprioceptive Neuro Muscular Facilitation (PNF) is a another form of stretching which uses contraction and relaxation of the muscle opposing the muscle you wish to stretch in order to enhance relaxation and lengthening. This form of stretching is easiest done with a partner and is commonly used as a treatment tool.

When should you Stretch?

I recommend a 5-15 minute warm up or dynamic stretch before exercise and/or a 5-15 min static or dynamic stretch session after your workout is complete.

Research has shown that static stretching before exercise reduces the amount of force your muscles are able to produce, thereby decreasing your power and potentially negatively affecting your performance. It has also been shown that static stretching before exercise may predispose you to developing muscle strains, which is clearly something we want to avoid!

Stretching may also be done as a form of movement in its own right, in which case you can decide whether you prefer doing your routine in the morning or the evening.

The Bigger Picture.

As with most health goals, consistency is key! Regardless of which method you choose, getting into the habit of stretching is a great way to empower yourself to achieve and maintain a healthy, flexible body! Find a way to make your stretch routine enjoyable: create a playlist to keep you entertained; practice breathing techniques and use your stretch time as a relaxation period; or get outside and make your stretch a time to connect with nature. The more enjoyable it is, the more likely you will be to stick to it; and before you know it you will have fallen in love with the feeling!

It is important to note that your pattern of muscle shortening and lengthening will depend on the activities you perform daily as well as your unique compensatory patterns. Consulting with a manual therapist or movement specialist will help you determine which muscles you should concentrate on stretching, and which muscles you need to focus on strengthening. Once this has been determined, your therapist can work with you to design a unique stretching program specific to the body you are in!

Enjoy the way you move and Stretch Yourself this spring!

Move Well. Live Well.