Let's Get Flexible

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by By Barbara Schuetze /

KING5.com

Posted on June 1, 2009 at 7:51 AM

Updated Thursday, Nov 12 at 1:52 PM

About the Author

Barbara Schuetze is a Portland, Ore., freelance writer who specializes in health and wellness topics. She has written for most of the major health systems in Oregon and Southwest Washington, and her work has appeared in magazines, newspapers and on the Web. She has been writing professionally since 1983.

Flexibility training is an important, often neglected component of fitness programs. Being flexible entails maintaining or increasing the range of motion (full, natural movement) of your joints.

Normal range of motion varies from person to person--and from joint to joint. Many factors affect flexibility, including genetics, gender, body type, the mechanical properties of the muscle-tendon structures, your activity level, and your age.

You can't alter the genes you inherit--we can't all run away and join Cirque du Soleil--but you can reduce loss of flexibility by staying active. The more active you are, the more flexible you're likely to be.

Improving athletic performance motivates many people to enhance their flexibility. For those who are not athletic and/or not inclined to work out, it's important to know that getting and staying limber is vital to your general well-being.

Simply put, flexibility allows you to maintain the functional movement needed for everyday activities. And loss of flexibility can lead to things like not being able to dress yourself, climb stairs  or drive your car.

Stretching is the key component of flexibility training. Most fitness experts agree that flexibility reduces the risk of injury, increases your range of motion, releases muscle tension and soreness, improves posture, and increases physical and mental relaxation. However, there are varying opinions about which type and frequency of stretching is optimum.

To develop a flexibility training program that is safe and effective for you, consult a certified personal trainer (who is knowledgeable in this area), a physical therapist or your health care provider.

Stretching Basics There are different schools of thought when it comes to stretching techniques, but two of the major types are dynamic and static.

  • Dynamic stretches (what in the old days used to be called "warm ups") are movements that mimic a specific sport or exercise in an exaggerated yet controlled manner. Examples include windmills, toe-touches, arm circles and walking lunges.
  • Static stretches refer to movements in which the muscle is passively stretched to the point of mild discomfort by holding it for an extended period. Static stretches should be held for 10-30 seconds.

According to the 2007 Guidelines from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the American Heart Association: "Recent studies show that static stretching before exercise may not significantly prevent injury, except in sports that involve jumping and bouncing activities, such as basketball and soccer. A warm-up of brisk walking, jogging and dynamic stretches is actually more important before stretching. Static stretching should only be performed after a warm-up and especially following exercise in order to maintain functional flexibility." 

What's a Body to Do? Jim Chesnutt, M.D., medical director for the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) Sports Medicine Program, says, "Don't stretch before you start an activity--rather, start an activity at low level, warm up for 5-10 minutes, then pause and do some dynamic stretching using slow, controlled motions."

The cool-down period is the optimal time to stretch. "After you exercise, muscles relax and are more likely to respond to stretching," notes Dr. Chesnutt. "Muscles are more likely to tolerate stretching and less prone to injury."

People often focus on lower body flexibility. "It's important to include upper body flexibility and strength training to maintain range of motion and functional activity in your shoulders, neck and upper back too," says Dr. Chesnutt.

Portlander Paul Collins, who holds a degree in exercise science and works as a personal trainer certified in strength and conditioning, says that when it comes to static stretching, you should warm up with a shower or 5-minute walk before stretching. 

To increase flexibility, he advises static stretching of all the muscle groups, and holding each stretch for 30 seconds, five times a week. "Some people may need to build up to holding each stretch for 30 seconds, but over a six-week period with 30-second stretches, you'll see an increase in your range of motion."

"Other ways to improve flexibility," Collins adds, "include staying active, joining a yoga class, taking strength and flexibility training, or hiring a personal trainer."

Stretching Strategies Whatever stretching you do to increase flexibility, remember to target all your major muscle groups and:

  • Warm up properly
  • Don't bounce
  • Relax and breathe
  • Listen to your body--if it hurts, dial back
  • Stretch whenever you exercise, and stretch at least three times a week if you don't exercise regularly
  • Spend additional time stretching to meet sport-specific goals or special rehabilitation needs
  • Cool down properly

Want to enhance your flexibility and get additional benefits? "The best thing to do," says Dr. Chesnutt, "is light, non-impact aerobic activity, five days a week, thirty to sixty minutes a day, which helps in terms of flexibility, strength and function"--for performing activities and movements relevant to daily activities. He recommends exercises such as walking, cycling or swimming, which don't involve a lot of special skills and are proven to increase range of motion, strength and general health.

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