by Dr Mercola
Flexibility is likely the most overlooked part of a workout routine. Most people gravitate first to cardiovascular or aerobic work and then strengthening, adding stretching to cool down or warm up without recognising how it also helps stabilise their muscles and core to increase strength, balance and coordination.
In fact, flexibility is one of the foundational pillars to your exercise routine. Whether you’re a professional athlete or someone just seeking to improve your fitness level, stretching and mobility work is an important component.
Improving your flexibility allows greater joint mobility and helps reduce your day-to-day pain. With age, muscles naturally lose strength and size, becoming less supple. This loss of flexibility and elasticity may increase joint tightness and your risk of injury.
Whether you’re an avid exerciser or not, making stretching a part of your weekly routine will help prevent injuries and improve your ability to perform daily tasks. Spending all day at a desk may lead to neck and shoulder problems and tight hip muscles which contributes to pain and discomfort.
Benefits to Being Flexible
In the U.S., 31 million adults suffer from lower back pain, which may be effectively healed using specific stretches.
The benefits of stretching and improving flexibility go well beyond improved athletic performance. Flexibility helps protect mobility and independence as you age.
The elderly have a fear of loss of independence, which may be alleviated and the loss prevented through flexibility and balance exercises.
When muscles shorten and become tight, it places a strain on the joint and increases the risk of muscle damage. For instance, walking in high heels all day shortens your calf muscles and makes it difficult to walk barefoot. When suddenly called on for strenuous activity, such as playing tennis, it may easily be injured from being overstretched.
In one study, researchers found flexibility, and the ability to sit and rise from the floor, was a predictor of all-cause mortality.
Flexibility also helps release muscle tension and soreness and may help you increase mental relaxation.
While flexibility is primarily related to your genetics, gender, body shape and level of physical activity, it’s important to remember the benefits you receive from flexibility training build over time. In other words, there’s a cumulative effect from stretching, so you must remain committed to the process.
While stretching used to be recommended to warm up your muscles before exercise, researchers now know this may increase the damage to your muscles and joints. It is important to first get blood flowing to the area to make the tissue more pliable. This may be done using a slow warmup of the same motions you’ll be using and your workout.
In other words, if you’re planning to use the rowing machine, row slowly for five minutes before your workout. If you’re going to be running, jog slowly for five minutes with exaggerated leg motions. If you are incorporating stretching during the day, get up and walk around for a few minutes before stretching cold muscles.
Don’t Push Too Hard While Stretching
Your body has physical limitations and when pushed too far, you’ll cause micro-tears in the muscle without improving your flexibility. Additionally, some muscles in your body require less tensile force than others before you hit the end of the natural range of motion of your joint.
It’s also possible to overstretch muscles. When pushed beyond normal limits, overstretching may trigger instability within the joint and create micro-tears in the tendons and ligaments. This commonly happens when a muscle or tendon and ligament is overstretched during an injury.
An overstretched or torn muscle is called a strain and a damaged ligament is a sprain. Since these are interdependent, injuries to joints such as the ankle, neck and wrist may result in a strain and sprain, which is why these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but they refer to different injuries.
Try These Stretches at Home
Below are descriptions of some of the stretches affecting tight muscles for those who work behind a desk all day, and which may be done at the office to help alleviate muscle tension and stress.
• Neck and shoulder
Sitting at a desk all day, shoulders hunched and neck flexed forward, increases the tension in your neck muscles and reduces flexibility in your shoulders. Consider doing this exercise sitting on the floor behind your desk:
Sit cross-legged on the floor, back straight and hip centred. Extend your left arm out to the side with your fingertips touching the floor. Take your right arm over your head touching your left ear and gently stretch your neck to the right. Hold this for approximately 30 seconds and then switch sides.
• Hip swivel
While sitting on the floor, place your hands behind you for support. With your knees bent and your feet planted on the floor, allow your knees to drop to one side and hold for one to two seconds. Pull them up to 90 degrees and then let them drop to the other side. Do 10 repetitions on each side. This helps stretch your hips to full internal and external rotation, which become tight as you sit.
• Leg tuck up
Lie on your back. Bring your knees to your chest and grasp your knees with your hands. Squeeze your knees in; you may rock back and forth a little if you’d like to help open up your lower back.
• Cross body pull
While on your back, spread your feet a little wider than your hips. Cross your right leg over your left knee with your right ankle on your left knee. Using both hands, pull your right knee up toward your left shoulder. This helps to stretch your gluteal muscles and your lower back. Repeat on the other side.
• Squat To Pike
While sitting, move forward until your feet are on the floor and you’re in a squat position. You may have to lean forward to have your hands on the floor to balance. Keep your chest as close to your legs as possible and extend your knees without fully straightening them, while keeping your hands on the floor.
You’ll end up in a ‘touch your toes’ position (pike) and feel the stretch in your hamstrings. Hold this for two to three seconds and then return to the squat position. You may not be able to squat very low or get into a pike position with your knees nearly straight, but the objective is to attain flexibility over time.
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