For many people, each day begins with mundane tasks like brushing the teeth, opening blinds, and heading into the kitchen for a cup of gourmet coffee or Japanese matcha tea. Why not add a light stretching routine to the daily mix?
Regular stretching is one of the easiest, most relaxing and beneficial things that people can do for their bodies on a regular basis. No special equipment, skills or knowledge is required. And unlike many other physical fitness routines, you don’t even need a partner or trainer. Taking the time to learn a few simple stretches can help just about anyone achieve and maintain essential physical flexibility, relieve stress, and feel better throughout the day.
In non-Western cultures, people routinely take walking, stretching or exercise mini-breaks as a part of their typical work days. Australians and Japanese are known for incorporating workday walks into even the busiest schedules. In China, hundreds of millions of children, adults and seniors begin each day with Tai Chi stretches, a healthful regimen that has been practiced for thousands of years.
What are the advantages of stretching? Whether you’re looking to maintain fitness and flexibility or just loosen up tired, stressed muscles, stretching delivers dozens of obvious and not so well-known benefits, regardless of a person’s age, physical abilities or fitness level. Here are some of the key advantages that many people experience as a result of regular stretching:
Better flexibility and increased range-of-motion are common results of a daily stretching routine. But the real reason both those things are so important has to do with injury prevention. When muscles and limbs become “looser,” and more moveable, that means you can move about more actively before injuring yourself. Tense, inflexible limbs and muscles are easily injured, mainly because they aren’t adapted to motion or stretching.
When muscles are in motion, blood flow increases, delivering vital nutrients to the joints and tissue. As a result, waste products in the blood are carried away and the muscles become more efficient.
Physical tension often leads to other problems, including mental stress and overall bodily inflexibility. Stretching can instantaneously remove muscle tension and eventually lead to less mental and emotional stress in one’s life. In a way, muscle tension is like low-level pain. When a muscle is stretched and then relaxed, all sorts of chemical processes take place that cause tension to decrease, or sometimes disappear altogether.
When a stretching routine includes the muscles of the lower back, neck and shoulders, the body usually responds, in time, with better overall posture. Hunched shoulders are often a long-term result of a tight, tensed upper body. Learning to loosen the torso’s musculature with daily stretching can eventually lead to a more erect, efficient gait.
Words of caution
Always remember to stretch properly. There is no need to overdo a particular stretch or hold it for a long time. If you feel pain while stretching, stop. That means your body has gone a bit farther than necessary. You should be able to hold a stretch comfortably for about 30 seconds without pain. Try to stretch smoothly, without bouncing. Jerky, bouncy movements will not give the desired results and could lead to injured muscles.
Even though you don’t need to stretch every day, in order to maintain flexibility you should try to do so about four times per week. It’s not so important to spend a lot of time each day, but rather to be consistent from day to day with a regular routine. It’s also a good idea to bring balance to your stretching. For example, if you stretch your left calf, also attend to the right one. The same goes for larger muscle groups especially, like the hips, thighs and shoulders.
There are so many reasons to make stretching a regular part of a daily routine. Whether first thing in the morning, just before bedtime or during a busy day at the office, it’s easy and relaxing to take five or ten minutes and stretch the tension away.
There are hundreds of ways to stretch, but a good basic routine is really all you need, and need not take more than ten minutes. If you have more time, stretch two or three times per day, making sure never to overdo any particular stretching posture. It’s all about taking things slow and easy. That’s why so many people build a “stretch break” into each day’s activity. After a week or two, the body gets used to an everyday stretching session, and the mental advantages are also a big plus. Physically and mentally, a stretching habit is healthy and relaxing for all the right reasons. Athletes, office workers, children, and older folks can do themselves a huge favor by stretching their muscles anytime, anywhere.
Keep in mind that you should speak with you health care provider before beginning any type of exercise or stretching regimen, especially if you are injured or have had physical problems in the past. Stretching is not a remedy for injured or over-used muscles, so caution is always the watchword, as it should be with any type of physical activity or exercise regimen. Happy stretching!