Consumer Health Interactive
How will I benefit from stretching?
Stretching lengthens muscle fibers, extending your range of motion and helping you move with ease, power and grace. Besides being extremely relaxing, it can relieve some symptoms of conditions such as arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome. At work, regular stretch breaks help counteract the harmful effects of slouching in front of a computer all day. And keeping muscles pliable makes them less likely to tear during quick strenuous movements, such as throwing a baseball or lifting a child.
How does stretching work?
Muscles get sore when their fibers remain partly contracted, from either overuse (such as too many rounds of racquetball) or underuse ( too much time in the car). Tight muscles also trigger the body's stress response, which prompts them to tighten even more. By systematically lengthening those fibers, stretching helps ease muscles out of this semicontracted state. That makes it a great way to "cool down" after exercise. And the act of stretching itself builds body awareness: In slowing down to focus on each movement, you become less apt to use your muscles in harmful or inefficient ways.
What kind of stretches should I do?
For overall well-being, start with basic stretches that work the major muscle groups. Or look into one of the gentler forms of yoga or tai chi. For optimal fitness and protection against sports injuries, you'll need to combine stretching with strength-building exercises, since the combination helps to prevent imbalances between opposing muscle groups. Adding the right resistance or weight training to your stretching routine will do the trick, of course, but so can some stretching programs. A method called active isolated stretching, for example, uses isometric exercises to alternately contract and stretch each muscle or muscle group. Water exercise, Pilates, and power yoga are other, more dynamic ways to add strength building to your routine.
How do I get started?
It's often a good idea to spend a session or two with a personal trainer who's knowledgeable about stretching techniques. Or you can teach yourself by turning to an instructional book or video. "Stretching," by Bob Anderson (Shelter Publications), and "Sport Stretch" by Michael Alter (Human Kinetics), are reliable flexibility bibles. "The Whartons' Stretch Book" by Jim and Phil Wharton, gives pointers on active isolated stretching. Whatever you do, start slowly, building your routine as you go.
How hard or far should I stretch?
Stretch only to the point where you feel mild muscle tension, not pain. If it hurts, you're doing it wrong. Move into each pose slowly, and exhale as you go. Experts differ on how long to hold a pose. Some argue that after two or three seconds a stretched muscle automatically tightens to guard against tearing- a stressful sequence that, over time, can lead to tightness, injury, or pain. These experts advise holding a stretch for no more than two seconds to prevent that "snap-back" reflex from kicking in. Others, including Bob Anderson, advise holding a stretch for ten to 30 seconds. Perhaps the best approach is to see what feels best for your body.
Don't bounce as you stretch; that only tightens the muscle you're trying to extend. And try not to stretch "cold"; Wait until you've taken a warm shower or moved around a bit.
How often should I stretch?
Try to stretch for ten to 20 minutes, three times a week, for general conditioning. Stretch at other times to loosen muscles before swimming, tennis, or any vigorous sports or exercise routine.
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Griffin, K. Stretch Out and Relax. Health November/December 1997: 85-89
Wieland, D. Stretching Tips. Natural Health May/June 1998: 115.