Get most out of stretching

Jul. 10, 2013 @ 12:24 PM

Like many of you, my wife and I planted flowers this spring. In fact, we pretty much had our backyard deck covered with beautiful, blooming flowers. I spent most of a Saturday planting some begonias, coleus, geraniums, impatiens, and some others. Looked great, and my wife, Beth, was happy. I think I even got an extra tight hug that night.
But let me finish. I often kid with Beth that we should charge admission to our yard and woods as a local zoo, because I see deer walk through our yard just like they own the place, squirrels knock water on me almost every morning as I walk under wet trees to get The Herald-Sun, and birds sing to us all day (which I really enjoy). That’s not counting our rabbit that lives under one of our bushes, and the chipmunks scurrying in the back yard. We have our lizards and snakes, too, among other critters. But my point is I have to periodically spray my flowers to keep the deer and squirrels from nibbling and throwing the dirt all over the place. So this spring I go out and, meaning to spray the pretty flowers with some “animal off” I absent mindedly picked up the wrong can and gave all my flowers a good dousing of weed killer. After a couple of days when we saw our flowers start to shrivel and die, I figured out what I had done.
I don’t think I even got a hug that night from my Beth. And I’m pretty sure The Herald-Sun will not be asking me to write a gardening column anytime soon.
I do know a little about stretching though.
Be sure to warm up before doing your stretching. Stretching cold, tight muscles is not the best way to gain flexibility, so walk, ride a stationary bike, or do some light calisthenics (body weight exercises) to get a small perspiration going before you stretch. A light warm-up of 4 to 5 minutes or so will raise the temperature in your muscles, increase the blood flow, and prepare your body for stretching.
For the great majority of you out there, static stretching will give you all the flexibility you will ever need. Static stretching is simply where you stretch a muscle into a comfortable range and hold the position for a number of seconds. Much research suggests that holding a stretch for 30 seconds is about right. Holding a stretch for over a minute will sometimes trigger what is known as the stretch reflex, where your body senses danger and your brain sends a signal to the stretched muscle to contract, or shorten, so that you do not hurt yourself. Of course, you can also receive benefits from holding stretches shorter than 30 seconds.
Another effective type of flexibility training is called proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF). PNF stretching could encompass an entire column, and I will cover this topic more thoroughly in the future. But let me give you one quick example. One common type of PNF stretching is to alternate between stretching a muscle in a static fashion and then isometrically contracting the same muscle. This type of stretching is based on the principle that a muscle is at its most flexible state immediately after it has been contracted. If you are a person who for some reason needs a very high range of motion in your body, such as dancers, gymnasts, or martial artists, perhaps PNF stretching would be of benefit to you.
Be careful not to overstretch. It can certainly be done. Muscles and tendons have a certain amount of elasticity, in which they can be stretched and then return back to or close to its original length. But ligaments can be stretched also, and ligaments, which connect your bones to each other, are not elastic in nature, and once elongated, stay there. Too much mobility in a muscle can lead to less stability in joints of your body, such as the knee and hip.  So be careful when you stretch. Don’t overdo it, and don’t stretch to the point of pain.
The old slogan that is sometimes still thrown around, “no pain, no gain,” can be hazardous to your health. Aim for FROM, which is an acronym that stands for functional range of motion.  In other words, attain the kind of flexibility that enables you to feel good, move efficiently, and perform normal activities of your daily life. Let me give you an example. If you walked up to me and did a split, where you sit on the floor with your legs straight out to the sides of your body, I would ask you this. Why are you subjecting your body to this very possible danger and loss of hip stability? Hopefully you would then reply that your dancing, your sport, or some other very necessary part of your life requires you to do this. Perhaps you are a cheerleader. But there is no good health reason to try to attain this type of extreme range of motion. You can look and feel just fine, and be healthy, without being able to do splits.
To summarize, stretch several times a week, stretch all the major muscles, hold your stretches for a number of seconds, don’t stretch too far, and in doing so, you will be much healthier.
Lewis Bowling  teaches at N.C. Central University and Duke University. He is the author of several books on fitness and sports. His website is www.lewisbowling.com. He can be reached at 919-530-6224 and at Lewis_Bowling@yahoo.com.