Noyes News and Events

December 18, 2017

Get Up, Stretch, Repeat

As I am writing this article, the snow is coming down and the wind is whipping.  When the temperatures dip and the sun goes down early, it is easy to hibernate.  Curling up on the sofa with a warm blanket and watching a Hallmark movie is all you want to do.  Unfortunately, all that sitting can make us stiff and uncomfortable.  The less we move, the more we suffer with stiff joints and muscles.  Stretching on a regular basis may improve flexibility, mobility, and balance.  

According to a 2016 Harvard Health article, flexibility gained from stretching is important for overall health as we age. Flexibility is the secret sauce that enables us to move safely and easily. "People don't always realize how important stretching is to avoiding injury and disability," says Elissa Huber-Anderson, a physical therapist at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.  Flexibility declines as the years go by because the muscles get stiffer. And if you don't stretch them, the muscles will shorten. "A shortened muscle does not contract as well as a muscle at its designed length," explains Huber-Anderson. Calling on a shortened muscle for activity puts you at risk for muscle damage, strains, and joint pain. Shortened muscles also increase your risk for falling and make it harder to do activities that require flexibility, such as climbing stairs or reaching for a cup in a kitchen cabinet. "Warning signs that it's becoming a problem would be having difficulty putting on your shoes and socks or tucking in the back of your shirt," says Huber-Anderson.

Experts ranging from Harvard to the Mayo clinic, agree that the more often you stretch your muscles, the longer and more flexible they will become.  The results are increased range of motion, reduced risk for muscle and joint injury, reduced joint and back pain, improved balance, lowered risk for falling, and improved posture.

Before starting a stretching program, it is good idea to chat with your doctor.  This is especially important if you have arthritis or another condition such as Parkinson’s disease that affects muscles and joints.  Your doctor may refer you to a physical therapist who can evaluate your muscle health and develop a program tailored to your specific needs.  

If your doctor gives you the greenlight to stretch, the Mayo Clinic offers these tips for safely moving those muscles.  It is very important to use the proper technique as stretching incorrectly, can cause more harm than good.

Use these tips to keep stretching safe:

  • Don't consider stretching a warmup. You may hurt yourself if you stretch cold muscles. Before stretching, warm up with light walking, jogging or biking at low intensity for five to 10 minutes. Even better, stretch after your workout when your muscles are warm.

Consider skipping stretching before an intense activity, such as sprinting or track and field activities. Some research suggests that pre-event stretching may actually decrease performance. Research has also shown that stretching immediately before an event weakens hamstring strength.

Instead of static stretching, try performing a "dynamic warmup." A dynamic warm-up involves performing movements similar to those in your sport or physical activity at a low level, then gradually increasing the speed and intensity as you warm up.

  • Strive for symmetry. Everyone's genetics for flexibility are a bit different. Rather than striving for the flexibility of a dancer or gymnast, focus on having equal flexibility side to side (especially if you have a history of a previous injury). Flexibility that is not equal on both sides may be a risk factor for injury.

  • Focus on major muscle groups. Concentrate your stretches on major muscle groups such as your calves, thighs, hips, lower back, neck and shoulders. Make sure that you stretch both sides.  Stretch muscles and joints that you routinely use.

  • Don't bounce. Stretch in a smooth movement, without bouncing. Bouncing as you stretch can injure your muscle and actually contribute to muscle tightness.

  • Hold your stretch. Breathe normally and hold each stretch for about 30 seconds; in problem areas, you may need to hold for around 60 seconds.

  • Don't aim for pain. Expect to feel tension while you're stretching, not pain. If it hurts, you've pushed too far. Back off to the point where you don't feel any pain, then hold the stretch.

  • Make stretches sport specific. Some evidence suggests that it's helpful to do stretches involving the muscles used most in your sport or activity. If you play soccer, for instance, stretch your hamstrings, as you're more vulnerable to hamstring strains. So opt for stretches that help your hamstrings.  A physical therapist can recommend stretches for your situation.

  • Keep up with your stretching. Stretching can be time-consuming. You can achieve the most benefits by stretching regularly, at least two to three times a week.  Skipping regular stretching means you risk losing the potential benefits. For instance, if stretching helped you increase your range of motion, your range of motion may decrease again if you stop stretching.

  • Bring movement into your stretching. Gentle movements, such as those in tai chi or yoga, can help you be more flexible in specific movements. These types of exercises can also help reduce falls in seniors.

Lorraine Wichtowski is a community health educator at UR Medicine Noyes Health. If you have questions or ideas for future articles, contact her at (585)335-4327 or lwichtowski@noyeshealth.org.