Step by Step
The key to feeling good? Being flexibleBy SALLY ANDERSON
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 29, 2003
If your flexibility is limited, you know the discomfort that comes from not having free range of motion, or not being able to spontaneously turn around when someone calls your name or not being able to perform many of the daily movements you once enjoyed.
Flexibility is the total range of motion of a joint or group of joints; a joint is anywhere two bones meet. Tight muscles shorten the range of motion in the joints they move, which leads to muscle strain and fatigue, lower back pain, incorrect postural alignment and poor balance. Flexibility is the most neglected component of physical fitness. Even physically active people who participate in cardiovascular (aerobic) and strength workouts will often forgo stretching exercises.
While there are some physical changes that occur during aging that might impede flexibility, the good news is that debilitating losses in flexibility are preventable and correctable. Muscles have the dramatic ability to rebuild tissue even at 90.
What causes "middle-age" muscles to tighten and the range of motion in a joint to decrease?
If physical activity diminishes, the connective tissue surrounding the muscles shortens and tendons and joints become dehydrated, which limits the muscles' stretch ability. Because muscles have the ability to stretch and return to their original position, exercises can lengthen the muscles and loosen the joints to which they are connected. Normal range of motion will be retained when the muscles, tendons and connective tissue surrounding a joint are stretched regularly.
If you would like to start a stretching program, here are things to consider:
It is important to stretch after the muscles are warmed up. Jumping out of bed and stretching immediately is not nearly as effective as it would be if you moved around a little first. Before stretching, try a few rhythmical movements such as walking, easy jogging or any other low-intensity aerobic activity for about five or eight minutes. If you rev up the circulation, the muscles will be more responsive to the stretch.
When balance is a concern, be sure to use a sturdy support such as a chair or table.
Don't make stretching into a contest. Flexibility levels vary not only from person to person, but from joint to joint. Everyone has a "genetic setpoint" for flexibility, so stretch within the limits of each individual joint. At no time should you feel pain. Remember, it is better to understretch than overstretch.
Proper breathing enhances flexibility by relaxing you and helping to deliver oxygen-rich blood into your muscles. Inhale before you initiate the stretch, slowly exhaling through your mouth as you perform the stretch movement. Repeat the breathing pattern several times as you hold the stretch.
Stretch after intense exercise. Because of the repetitive muscle contractions that occurr with exercises, the muscles adapt to a shortened position and will welcome a stretch. You will find maximum gains in range of motion occurring from stretching after exercise.
Concentrate on the stretch. Don't rush through the stretches. Perform each stretch smoothly and slowly; sudden jerking or bouncing can hurt your joints. Try to do three to five repetitions.
Flexibility relates specifically to each joint and muscle group. Alternate between different stretches to target all the major muscles.
You may stretch every day; but if not, try to stretch a minimum of three times a week. Keep reminding those muscles to stay limber. You will probably notice the increase in your flexibility within a few weeks.
Here are a few stretches you can try:
1. Shoulders, arms and upper back stretch (can be done standing or sitting).
Interlace your fingers with palms facing away from you and extend your arms at chest level, about shoulder height.
2. Lower back stretch.
Lying on a comfortable surface, bring both knees toward your chest, wrapping your lower arms under the bent legs; you can also do this stretch one leg at a time.
3. Calf stretch.
In a standing position, lean slightly forward from the hips as you bend into the front knee, while stretching out the back leg straight behind you. Be sure to have your front knee over the ankle and toes of the back foot facing forward, keeping the back heel on the floor.
4. Quadriceps stretch (front of thigh).
Standing on your left leg, bend your right leg behind you. Reach behind with your right hand and take hold of your right ankle, keeping your hips stabilized and knees next to each other. Standing tall with shoulders back, enhances the stretch. Repeat on left side.
5. Hamstring stretch (back of thigh).
Lying on a mat, bend knees with feet flat on the floor. Without lifting the hips off the floor, raise one leg with foot flexed, as high as you can. You may hold the leg below the knee to increase the stretch. If this is too difficult, try an assisted stretch by wrapping a towel or strap around the foot of the leg you are stretching; holding the ends of the towel or strap, slowly extend the leg upward.
- Sally Anderson is happy to hear from readers but cannot respond to individual queries. Write her in care of Seniority, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731; or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
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