What are the benefits of stretching? Is it a form of exercise?
Stretching is incredibly important for our overall health and well-being, regardless of our fitness regimen. It can be done as a supplement to a rigorous exercise program, or as its own exercise program. to It will assist the most elite athletes, as well as improve the quality of life for individuals who don’t do any athletics at all. In our neck of the woods, we often say “The needs of an Olympian are the same as a grandma-they vary by degrees, not by types or kind”. This is true for stretching as it is for anything else.
Flexibility is the ability to maximize the range of motion at a given joint. When we stretch, we help our muscle tissues and fibers expand so that the musculature around a specific joint (elbow, knee, shoulder, wrist etc.) is able to expand and contract more, therefore allowing the joint to “open and close”, or “slide and glide” further. When we refer to flexibility we tend to think of one specific joint at a time. Flexibility is the various tendons and connective tissue as they elongate or constrict joint motion.
Improve our range of motion
When we have improved capacity to extend and contract multiple joints simultaneously, engaging in multiple muscle groups, we are able to engage a wider range of overall motion. Range of motion is the amount of available movement of a joint, or multiple joints working in harmony. A simple way to differentiate range of motion from flexibility is recognizing that “motion” is in its name. It implies the body moving through time and space, with control and often with load (like a dumbbell) or coupled with an object (think olympic-lifting a barbell or doing gymnastics on the rings).
Improve movement patterns
The more flexible we are, and the better range of motion we have, the easier it will be to engage in daily activities safely. Being able to properly bend over to pick up our backpack, or safely squat down to pick up a child are limited and inhibited by our range of motion and flexibility. If we have improved range of motion, we will also be able to improve our various sport-specific demands, whether that be CrossFit, karate, baseball, or dance.
Increased blood flow
As we improve our flexibility, range of motion, and posture, we are able to better deliver blood and circulate it throughout our body. Blood is super important to the health of cells, and muscle tissue. Part of why we stretch before and after workouts is to help pump blood to the various tendons, ligaments and muscles we are engaging.
Stretching can reduce stress by not only helping our bodies be less tense, but also by helping us pay attention to our breathing, and as mentioned above, increased blood flow. A lot of us hold stress in our bodies, hence why we say things like “i feel tense”, or our body seizes up in moments of high duress. Any amount of stretching, regardless of our range of motion, can help us relieve stress.
Types of Stretching
In terms of stretching, we have four basic types. We have static stretching, which is what most of us think of when we think of stretching. It involves lengthening a body-part and holding it for a longer period of time. It is typically thought of as passive and gentle. A second way of stretching is active, in which you use the strength of a certain muscle group to lengthen, contract or stretch an opposing muscle group, again holding the position for a duration of time. Yoga is often thought of as active stretching. Dynamic stretching is a third option, which is movement oriented and based. Think of sprinters doing various high knees or hurdle-hops as a dynamic form of stretching, or gymnasts doing small kip swings. Finally, myofascial release is another type of stretching, in which we locate a “trigger point” such as a knot or overly tight spot, that you hold pressure on that area for a minimum of 30 seconds. This is usually done with bands, foam rollers, lacrosse balls, or the help of a trainer.
Whether you’re a top-tier athlete, or a novice, stretching is a fundamental and important part of living a healthy lifestyle!