Got a Minute?
Before the burn, don’t forget the stretch
In the women-only facility where I work out, there is a dedicated area for stretching before or after exercising. It is often empty, even though many of my fellow exercisers are coming and going while I am there.
I’m a bit baffled by this, because my favorite part of the workout is at the end when I get to stretch. I see it as my reward for working hard around the circuit.
After doing a bit of research on the topic of stretching, it seems there has been some controversy over the years about the benefits of stretching. According to Lynne Thompson-Cundiff, assistant director of fitness, Southern Illinois University Carbondale Recreational Sports and Services, “The issue isn’t whether or not to stretch, it’s more about what type of stretching is more appropriate depending on whether you’re stretching to increase or maintain flexibility or stretching with regard to a warm-up,” Thompson-Cundiff says.
“Since the warm-up is designed to prepare your body for the upcoming demands that you are going to impose, what you do in your warm up should mimic the activities that you are preparing for,” Thompson-Cundiff says.
She goes on to say that the best kind of stretching to do before a workout is called dynamic stretching, which is movement through a range of motion. Examples of this would be circling your shoulders or swinging your legs back and forth.
It’s important to note that these types of stretches should be done after a five minute or so period of light activity in order to warm the muscles up before stretching.
In the cool-down portion of the workout, the best kind of stretching is static stretching, or holding a stretch for a longer period of time. In order to derive the most benefit from this type of stretching, the exerciser should stretch the muscle or muscle group only to the point of feeling a slight pulling sensation but no pain. As the stretch is held, the muscle will relax, at which point the stretch can be increased again until the same pulling sensation is felt. Ideally, each position should be held for a minimum of 15 seconds, and 30 is even better.
There is another type of stretching that is best avoided. Most experts believe ballistic, or bouncing during a stretch, is dangerous and can be linked to an increase in muscle injury.
How do you know what stretches are the best ones to do? Where I work out, there is a poster that shows a variety of stretches that cover all the major muscle groups. If you don’t have that available, there are books about stretching, or you can check out online resources.
The experts agree that stretching can increase flexibility and range of motion, or how easily and how far a joint can move through its intended actions. As we age, our muscles and joints tend to naturally decrease in these motions unless we work at keeping them loose and limber.
Stretching daily can go a long way towards this goal. Just remember to warm the muscles up for a few minutes first, or you may end up doing more harm than good. A warm-up can be as simple as marching in place while swinging the arms.
I know why many people don’t stretch after a workout. They think they don’t have time. Many of us are on a schedule that often feels so tight we can’t even eke out five minutes to stretch.
But those few minutes can mean the difference between having tight, tense muscles all day or looser, more relaxed ones. It can also mean the difference between being able to continue exercising for the foreseeable future or having to sit out with an injury for weeks or months. An easy choice, I think.