Feeling stiff? Well, you probably are too tight, even if you don’t feel that way. Whether you are sitting all day or doing some motion with any part of your body repeatedly, such as walking, the odds are that your muscles and connective tissue need to be stretched out. People who read my columns or hear my lectures are familiar with my preaching the concept of balanced exercise— that all three aspects of exercise are important to accomplish: Aerobic exercise at least 4-5 times per week, resistance training to build muscles and stretching for flexibility. Of these three categories, stretching seems to be the most ignored. But that is unfortunate as it is something we all need to do.
What is flexibility? It is the joint’s ability to move freely in every direction and through a full and normal range of motion. This range of motion, or ROM, is essential for peak performance in both exercise and daily tasks. Just imagine dropping your pen and seeing it roll under the kitchen table. You have to reach down under the table in order to retrieve it. If this has become a difficult task for you to do, then you need to work on your flexibility.
Although there are two types of flexibility, static and dynamic, the static flexibility is the one that really affects our lives on a day-to-day basis. The way to increase flexibility and ROM (range of motion) is to do extensive stretching exercises. Here are some of the benefits of flexibility training:
- Increased physical efficiency and performance
- Decreased risk of injury
- Increased blood supply and nutrients to joint structures
- Increased neuromuscular coordination
- Improved muscular balance and posture
- Decreased risk of lower back pain
- Reduction of overall stress
It is important that when you stretch you use static stretching techniques, that is, hold your stretches for a minimum of 15 seconds each, but preferably for 30 seconds for each stretch. This produces a gradual and controlled elongation of your muscles and connective tissue through a full range of motion. The longer you hold a stretch, the more you can ease into the stretch. Remember that stretching should never be painful. As long as you feel an easy stretch, you are accomplishing what you need to. DON’T BOUNCE THROUGH A STRETCH! That is called ballistic stretching and is only for sport specific training. It may lead to injury.
Stretching makes both the muscles and connective tissue elongated and more elastic. It is best to stretch muscles that are warmed up since stretching cold muscles is not as productive and can lead to over-stretching injuries. Therefore, it is advisable to do some mild calisthenics or moderate aerobic exercise for a few minutes before stretching. When stretching you will probably notice that one side of your body will be more flexible than the other on any given day. This is normal. Also, women are naturally more flexible than men. Most importantly, remember that after age twenty-five, people begin to experience decreased extensibility. So, if you are not stretching, preferably on a daily basis, you will begin to feel the effects with a decreased range of motion.
Aside from regular static stretching, one can use yoga for flexibility. In a recent article by Kristen Domonell in the Healthy Living section of The Huffington Post, she discusses four unlikely benefits to yoga above and beyond the normal benefits of stretching.
- It Boosts Immunity – A recent Norwegian study found that yoga practice results in changes in gene expression that boost immunity at a cellular level. And it doesn’t take long: The researchers believe the changes occurred while participants were still on the mat.
- It Eases Migraines – Research shows that migraine sufferers have fewer and less painful migraines after three months of yoga practice.
- It Fights Food Cravings – Researchers from the University of Washington found that regular yoga practice is associated with mindful eating, an awareness of physical and emotional sensations associated with eating. By causing breath awareness, regular yoga practice strengthens the mind-body connection and decreases food cravings.
(NOTE: There are some forms of yoga questionable in Halacha– consult with your Rav)
Several years ago, a rav came to me specifically for weight loss. He mentioned in our initial workup that he has also been suffering from lower back pain. It didn’t take me very long to see that he had extremely tight hamstring muscles (those are located on the back side of your thigh). As part of his exercise routine, we began doing extensive stretching. His back pain began to subside and then he told me the following: For 10 years, whenever he would drop something, usually his pen, his wife would hear it and instinctively come and pick it up because he simply could not bend down to the floor and pick it up. One day when he was home bein hasedarim for lunch, he was on the phone with a talmid (student) and needed to write down some information. After he did, the pen slipped out of his hands and his wife was Johnny on the spot to pick it up, but she looked in amazement as he bent down and picked it up with ease. And that is a practical example of extending your range of motion. Like all exercise, it does come down to improving life-function.
Using any form of stretching in order to extend your range of motion and increase your circulation will “add hours to your days, days to your years, and years to your lives.”