Before you continue reading, I want you to stand up and reach as high as you can with both hands, hold it and reach up a little bit higher.  Doesn’t that feel great!  Today we are going to talk about stretching and how it impacts flexibility and your life. 

Flexibility is all about maximizing the range of motion in a joint or set of joints so you can move freely and optimize functional mobility.   Just because you age, you don’t need to lose the flexibility of your youth.  Keep in mind that it is a myth that you lose flexibility as you age.  Actual research shows that you simply move less as you get old and it is because you quit moving that you lose mobility.  Again, aging muscles are not a direct cause of lack of flexibility.  The truth is that we value convenience over activity so we find many short cuts to minimize stretching, i.e. buying loafers instead of shoes that need to be tied, using remote controls instead of getting up and changing the channel and lower cabinets so we don’t have the need to reach.

Our avoidance of stretching activities is why today’s information is so important.  I will discuss five key elements of stretching that will help you understand the “why” behind the benefits of being flexible.  Hopefully this information will educate and motivate everyone to get active and stretching.

First, you need to understand that stretching can be either dynamic or static.  Dynamic (involving motion) flexibility, also called kinetic flexibility, is the ability to perform fluid movements of muscles using full range of motion.  Very often this is a bouncing type of movement.  Conversely, static (involving no motion) flexibility is the ability to assume and maintain a position using the tension of the opposing muscle groups.  An example of static stretching would be to reach forward to a point of tension and hold.  Most researchers and coaches prefer static over dynamic stretching initially due to the reduced risk of injury since momentum is not involved in static stretches.  I agree.  If you are a beginner, start with static stretches.  As you warm up and improve your body awareness and skill you can move to more advanced methods of stretching.

Second, stretching is joint specific.  In other words, just because you can touch your toes does not mean you are flexible!  It simply means you have adequate flexibility in the hip in the forward bend position.   For most joints in the body there must be functional range of motion and with every joint the range is different based on the type of joint it is as well as the tendon, ligament and muscle configuration and attachments.  For example, the hinge joint in your knee and elbow has different ranges of motion compared to the hip and shoulder which is a ball and socket joint.  So first learn the primary joints in your body that are linked to locomotion and movement like the neck, shoulder, chest, back, arms, hips, legs and ankle.  Then select a stretching routine that you can do daily that will benefit each joint.

Third, stretching improves the range of motion (ROM) of joints.  ROM is the “normal” amount that your joints can move in a certain direction without causing injury.  It is important to have full movement in each movable joint to reduce the risk of injury and to improve physical mobility and performance.  The different stretches can be done in a number of ways; active range of motion (AROM), active assisted range of motion (AAROM), self range of motion (SROM) and passive range of motion (PROM).

Fourth, stretching increases circulation.  We know circulation moves nutrients and oxygen into the cell, removes waste, and keeps the pH level in order.  Here is the bad news - if a person is not active, (i.e. they sit at a computer or desk, in a car or on the couch for long periods of time); they might have a circulation problem.  Most people notice circulation problems in their hands and feet first.   A simple remedy is to move around, and specifically, to stretch your muscles. In fact, a natural reaction after sitting for a long period of time is to stretch. The neurological system sends a message to the physiological system to move.  A general stretch is fine.  Stick out your arms, arch your back, touch your toes, wiggle your fingers, roll your shoulders or just stop and simply listen to your body and you will know exactly what to stretch to get the oxygen and nutrients moving.

Fifth, stretching can relieve stress!  We all experience stress.  So how does stretching relieve stress?  This is simple. When the muscles are elongated, circulation is stimulated thus relieving the tension in the muscle.  We experience tension in a variety of ways including tension headaches, hand and arm fatigue, neck and shoulder tension, leg cramps sleeplessness, and depression.  The solution to stress is to get moving!