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Stretching Your Horizons

By Alan Williams, PT, OTR/L, ATC, CSCS

While our kids were growing up, we always encouraged them to try new things. When it came to sports, we had them try everything from basketball, track, volleyball, soccer, and softball to horseback riding, swimming, archery, field hockey, and rock climbing. For food, my wife would cook new things at home, or we would visit different restaurants and encourage them to test the adventurous entrees in order to expand their “food horizons” (Dried squid satay? Go for it!). On vacations, we visited new and exciting – at least to us – destinations (okay, maybe I should’ve rethought that historic tour of Civil War battlefields, but at least I had a blast!). Sometimes the kids would lament being put through so much “culture,” but we were quick to remind them that stretching your horizons helps you grow.

Stretching your muscles is an integral, often overlooked, part of healthy living. Many people never even think to stretch, and if they do, they don’t really know how, what, or when to stretch. They might mimic moves they’ve seen athletes do on TV, but they never understand the why’s, how’s, and when’s behind what they’re doing, and therefore, never receive the full benefit of stretching. Well, for those of you who are new to stretching or maybe just need a quick refresher course, I’m going explain the why’s, how’s, and when’s of stretching.

WHY should you stretch? The benefits of stretching are numerous! It increases flexibility by relaxing muscles, allowing them to gradually reach their full length; this becomes easier with regular stretching over time. Increased flexibility leads to improved range of motion and decreased risk of injury because your muscles are better prepared for unexpected demands (which is increasingly important as we age and our flexibility deteriorates). Stretching also improves general health by reducing stress, improving circulation, and decreasing muscle soreness.

HOW should you stretch? There are several basic guidelines that should be followed in order to avoid injury and receive the greatest benefit from your stretching program. First off, always warm-up before you stretch. Cold muscles are resistant to stretching and are therefore easier to injure in the process. A low-intensity, 5 minute warm-up (whether by walking, jogging, biking, jumping rope, or whatever) will make stretching easier and safer. Next, hold each stretch for 15-60 seconds, and stretch only to the point of gentle tightness – if it hurts, you’ve gone too far. Lastly, focus on major muscle groups using a 360 degree mindset. For example, one major group is your leg muscles, but it includes muscles in the front (quadriceps, medial tibial muscles, etc.), back (hamstrings, calves, etc.), and sides (adductor muscles, etc.) of your leg. You don’t have to worry about stretching each individual leg muscle, but your routine should incorporate stretches that target all of these general areas.

WHEN should you stretch? Whenever you want to! Stretching is an easy and enjoyable way to improve your health every day. Stretching before and after exercise will help you to avoid injury and reduce soreness, but you can also stretch when you wake up, on your lunch break, while watching TV, before bed, or any time you feel stiff and sore.

If you’re still unsure about how to begin your stretching program, there are several resources available to you. Stretching by Bob Anderson is by far my favorite book on the subject; it covers everything from anatomy and physiology to individual stretches. Yoga is another excellent activity to improve strength and flexibility, and it’s easy to get started; there are classes, books, and instructional DVDs available for all levels of fitness. You can also contact your physical therapist for guidance on beginning your stretching program and which stretches may be most beneficial for your particular needs.

Stretching is such an easy way to enjoy many health benefits, there’s almost no excuse to not do it. Stretch your horizons and begin a regular stretching program today!

For more information about beginning a stretching program, call 463-0022 today!

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