Stretching A Point

Fitness is a Flex Away

by Peter J. Morel CFC, CPT, CAFS

Stretching, also known as flexibility training, is one of the most neglected parts of many fitness regimens. Described as the ability to move a joint or joints through a full range of motion, flexibility is important, as it helps one to avoid injury while exercising and when doing daily activities. Flexibility is determined by a number of different factors including age, gender, disability type, amount of physical activity, and how often you stretch. Many people must repeat specific motions over and over: pushing a wheelchair or walking with crutches, for example. This constant repetition can promote contracture of connective tissues or tightness in a muscle or in groups of muscles.

We need to remember that, as with exercise, it is never too late to start a stretching program. A regular program of stretching will not only improve the flexibility of the joints, connective tissue and muscles, but will also improve your posture, help prevent injury, help maintain your current range of motion, and in some cases, help relieve spasticity. All stretches should be held a minimum of 15 seconds to decrease stress and 30 seconds to increase range of motion. Individual stretches can be held for as long as one minute for people with moderate spasticity as associated with cerebral palsy in some cases, for example. If you are not yet accustomed to a stretching routine, begin with holding a stretch for 10 seconds and work your way up to a minute over the course of a couple of weeks.

Many people who understand that flexibility is an integral part of their fitness routine, now stretch on a regular basis but they make the mistake of targeting only certain muscles and joints. For example, paras will stretch their upper body muscles and joints but never their legs or back. Stretching the muscles and joints that are not functional due to paralysis can reduce spasticity and make daily activities like transfers easier. Stretching can also relieve lower back strain due to tight muscles brought on by walking with an unnatural gait.

Stretching should be static, meaning that the stretch should be held constant for the desired period of time. You should never feel pain, but rather a feeling of comfortable tension. Pain would indicate an injury requiring professional help. do not bounce while stretching, as this could cause trauma to tendons and ligaments. As with exercise, it is always important to remember to breathe. Breathing will help you relax; holding your breath will create unwanted stress. If you have had surgery on your knees, shoulders, elbows, neck, back, etc., you should consult your physician before beginning a stretching program. As well, if you have osteoporosis hyper-mobility, dislocation problems, or large amounts of scar tissue, medical clearance should also be sought out first. Scar tissue has minimal elastic properties and doesn't stretch easily. A lot of harm can be done by stretching improperly.

I like to have my clients do a full body stretch, depending on their present range of motion, spasticity, etc. If you're an athlete or play a sport as a hobby, you know that each sport requires different levels of flexibility. Winter sports enthusiasts such as hockey players and skiers should stretch not only the joints and muscles used for propulsion but also the lower back, knees and hip joints. This will help reduce the build-up of tension caused by being in a seated position for long periods of time. Hockey players need to concentrate primarily on shoulders, forearms, pectorals, and lower back, but this doesn't mean that they shouldn't also stretch other joints like the legs, hips, neck, and upper back. These areas are usually stretched prior to the pre-game warm-up.

Doing stretches before and after activity will significantly reduce the chance of injury. Keep a detailed log of your stretching program. We use the same log that tracks each athlete's workout to keep track of his or her flexibility. The information you want to record would include how often you stretch, what stretches were performed, how long they were held, and how you felt.

Two-person stretches are often used in such sports as track and field, basketball, rugby and hockey. These sports have a high injury factor and good flexibility is a must. Two person stretches should only be done with a qualified individual because of the possibility of injury.

The key point to remember is that flexibility is an important part of your overall fitness program. Just as cardiovascular exercise enhances physical fitness when done in conjunction with weight training, flexibility training will take it one step further. Until next time Stay Fit, and be Strong!