The importance of stretching for your body




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As a Pilates instructor I’m often asked by new clients about the benefits of stretching and why it’s so important to include as part of a regular exercise routine.

Why is stretching important?  Stretching increases flexibility, improves circulation and increases the body’s ability to handle physical activity. Stretching is also an integral part of a warm-up routine, to avoid injury.

We all need to stretch (unless you have an injury or particular medical issues). It helps to keep our musculoskeletal system healthy and able to move freely, yet it is a component of fitness that a lot of us skip!  Let’s explore the benefits further to help you understand the importance of stretching and feel motivated to include in your routine.

What is stretching?

Stretching is a form of physical exercise in which a specific muscle or tendon is deliberately flexed or stretched. In everyday life, we bend, throw, lift, and twist in ways that most of us wouldn’t think of doing on a regular basis, most of the time, we’re not even aware of our movements; they’re just a part of our day-to-day.

This is fine in a sport or fitness setting, but when we try to do these same movements in our everyday lives, we may find ourselves slightly inhibited in our mobility by some tightness in our muscles. This is because, as we age, our muscles begin to tighten from the stress we place on them and this is a natural process. If we want to be able to move freely and with ease, we need to start doing things to help combat this process.

Importance of stretching
A group of people stretching in a park – focus on front woman

There are 2 key types of stretches:

Static Stretches: Involve taking a muscle to the end of its range of motion and holding there for a duration of 30 seconds or longer. An example of this is pulling your heel to the bottom (gluteus) and holding it there to stretch your quad. Use after a workout to reduce the risk of injury.

Dynamic Stretches: These involve active, controlled movements , performed through a larger range of movement. We are talking about walking lunges or arm circles. Dynamic stretches are often done preworkout as a way to prepare your tendons, ligaments and muscles for exercise.

You may also come across the terms Ballistic and PNF which are usually done with the assistance of a professional such as a physio and shouldn’t be tried alone.

What are the benefits of stretching?

Stretching has long been an essential part of physical activities and exercise, from running and walking to Pilates and ballet. But what is a good stretch and how does it benefit our bodies? The answer to both questions is that stretching improves flexibility, which is our ability to move our joints through their full range of motion. This increases our range of motion which helps us to perform movements more easily, but it also helps to prevent injuries and soreness.

Pain Reduction

Many find stretching reduces pain and allows them to be able to do their daily activities more freely.  Studies report that moderate exercise can decrease fatigue, pain, and stress.

Research has shown that exercise is an essential aspect in the treatment of chronic pain, so consider stretching as one of the natural pain relievers to improve your overall health.

One study found that a combination of strengthening and stretching specific muscle groups can reduce musculoskeletal pain and encourage proper alignment. This in turn, may help improve your posture. 

If you follow an exercise program such as Pilates, which is designed to stretch and strengthen your back and core muscles, it can help to relieve back pain and help prevent further bouts of pain.

A stretching and strengthening regimen should target the back, abdominal, and buttock muscles. Strong abdominal or flexor muscles help maintain an upright posture, as do strong extensor muscles, which run the full length of the back.

Strengthening the buttock muscles help support your back during walking, standing, and sitting.

The muscles of the upper legs also need to be strong and flexible because when they are weak and tight they can strain the supporting structures of the back.

Stretching is a valuable component of a treatment plan for anyone plagued by back problems. Supple, well-stretched, muscles are less prone to injury, while less flexible muscles and connective tissues restrict joint mobility, which increases the likelihood of sprains and strains.

Ask anyone who does Pilates, and they will tell you that it provides a wonderful combination of strength and stretching. We aim to always connect with our core to increase strength. We focus on mobility in our hips and spine, whilst many exercises will build strength in our gluteus and lengthening our hamstrings.

Improve your range of motion mobility

Stretching can help improve flexibility, and, consequently, the range of motion of your joints. Better flexibility may well improve our performance in physical activities.

Each persons body defines its own range of motion, and there is no standard when dealing with a varied population. 

To understand stretching, you must realize that your muscles are not in charge of your range of motion. Skeletal muscle facilitates bone and joint actions, which dictate range of motion. Each joint has a distinct contact surface that determines its mobility and limitations.

When you stretch your muscle, it is actually the joint and ligaments being moved across these various contact surfaces. Normal range of motion is part of healthy joint movements, it isn’t recommended for individuals to stretch past their limitations. 

There is no question that yoga and Pilates have revolutionized the way many people exercise moving away from a “no pain, no gain” mentality to a more holistic workout for their body. When performing any Pilates exercises the emphasis should be upon working within a ‘safe’ range of movement . You should avoid an irregular range of motion on your body. Movement should be allowed by your body, without force.

Some people are born with the natural ability to stretch their body to abnormal limits, but most of us  have to work at maintaining our normal range of motion, or we run the risk of losing flexibility as we age. Stretching can without doubt helps us to maintain and improve our natural range of movement.

Improve your posture

The thing about developing poor posture and, consequently, bad balance, is that it happens gradually, without you even noticing it. 

With many of us working from home, hunched over a computer we are weakening our muscles. To counteract this we need to wake up those muscles.

As you perform stretches, you put those muscles to work, strengthening them, making them do their job again and, as a result, you’ll start to notice your posture improving. Couple that with the added benefit of stretches relieving tension from your back, and you’ll be able to stand and sit up straighter  again in no time.

As your posture improves, we might feel happier in our own skin, more alert and confident.  Doing stretches can be undemanding, quick, and you can do it basically anywhere.

In a time when we spend the majority of our days hunched at a desk, stretching is an amazingly quick and easy method for improving your overall fitness, posture, and balance. 

Stretching can bring alignment to the joints of your shoulders, hips, knees and ankles. When your body is properly aligned inflammation of the joints is reduced and mobility is increased. Stretching the muscles of the lower back, shoulders and chest can help keep the back in better alignment and improve posture. Better posture can lessen pain, what’s not to love?

Make movements easier

Stretching can make day to day life feel easier. We move our bodies throughout the day completing daily tasks. These tasks involve some level of flexibility, ie squating to pick something up, reaching to put something away in a cupboard.If we can increase our flexibility through stretching we can potentially perform these days to day task more easily and effectively. Yay!

Helps you feel relaxed

Stretching can make you feel good and therefore reduce stress levels. After we have exercised it’s important to let your body cool down, for your heart rate to lower  and your pace of breathing to slow. When we exercise our body is in a heightened state. Stretching combined with deep breathing can help to calm our minds and bodies and be a real mental boost. We feel in control of our minds and bodies. 

Stretching after a workout can also help with our bodies recovery process as it increase blood flow & oxygen levels.  

Improve your physical performance

Stretching can improve circulation, muscle flexibility, range of motion, and consequently, help us  perform better in workouts. . When exercising, muscles repeatedly flex and contract. Stretching causes muscles to lengthen and relax, resulting in the ability to maximize muscle engagement in the next workout. Stretching also boosts the body’s circulation by increasing blood flow throughout the body.

Better blood circulation will increase the supply of nutrients throughout the body and aid with the removal of harmful waste from the body’s muscle tissues, which can ultimately accelerate recovery time. No matter what our starting point or physical background, stretching is a universal weapon that can increase our performance..

Makes Your Muscles Leaner

Stretching exercises elongate muscles and increase flexibility but won’t trim fat from your legs. However, consistent stretching will relax tight contracted muscles and make them appear leaner.

A regular stretching regime can loosen up your limbs which improves your range of movement and increases circulation throughout your body. These benefits can then  contribute to an overall improvement in physical performance and our ability to engage in aerobic and resistance training therefore enabling us to be potentially more active.

Reduces Your Risk of Injury

When we warm up before a workout we can reduce our risk of injury. Dynamic stretching is a great component of a good warm up as it warms up the muscles, joints and tendons and temporarily increasing our range of movement. This can help you perform the moves in your workout with more precision.

For example when you squat and have stretched beforehand you are more likely to have a greater range of movement and be less likely to lean forward which could put pressure on your knees or lower back.

Safety tips for stretching

Here are a few tips to help optimize your stretching efforts.

  • It shouldn’t hurt. We should stretch until we can feel it, and even a bit more, but not to the point of pain. 
  • Breathe. We often get distracted when focusing on stretching and end up holding our breath. Try to breathe steadily and deeply, allowing our muscles to relax, and attempt to stretch a little further we did the day before.
  • No bouncing.  It’s a steady process, unlike other forms of exercise it is gauged in seconds, not repetitions. Move smoothly and avoid any pulsing movements. 

As with all forms of exercise, if repeated regularly you will see progress. It can be quite easy to measure progress as the benefits of increased mobility feed into your everyday life, what’s not to love. 

How to start a stretching routine

Now you understand the importance of stretching you’re wondering how you will fit it into your busy schedule. My advice would be don’t over complicate things. You don’t need to spend lots of time every day to reap the benefits.

The next time you are waiting for the kettle to boil do a few spine stretches, a waist twist, a side bend, or my favourite a ‘Roll Down’.

Before you sit on the sofa at night get down on the floor, TV remote in your hand, and start watching your latest boxset whilst doing a few stretches and then go and chill on the sofa.

Or why not try this routine? It’s taken from our FREE 8 day Pilates challenge course which you can sign up for here:

Happy stretching, get ready to reap the benefits! I look forward to seeing you on your PIlates mats soon.

About the author

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