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The Virtues of Flexibility and Stretching

An Interview with Prevention Magazines Publications

Joy Lynn Freeman, D.C., Ph.D.(cand)

Why do our muscles become less flexible as we age?

  1. Some of this has to do with the change of fluid and mineral balance within the cells of the muscle—the normal biochemical changes that take place within the body as we age. Some of this can be altered by what we eat and the supplements we take.
  2. Another large contributing factor involves the amount of activity the muscles get. Diminished activity of the muscle will result in not only loss of muscle mass, it results in loss of flexibility as well. So some of the loss of flexibility is simply do with decreased activity. A muscle that goes through alternating bouts of contraction and relaxation, which happens in exercise, will be kept more flexible from this process. We all know the old adage—what you don’t use, you lose.
  3. But the other aspect of this more directly relates to stretching or lack of. Part of the reason for this lack of flexibility has to do with build up of normal metabolic waste material from muscle activity which occurs when it is not properly eliminated from the muscle. Metabolic waste material is a normal result of muscle use in short term muscle activity and will also happen with an underused muscle over the long term. This build up will cause muscles to become stiffer and more rigid ldots; less flexible.
  4. One more factor in this loss of flexibility has to do with the joints themselves. They begin to lose synovial fluid or lets say, the viscosity of the joint changes, hence the joint becomes less mobile.

How can stretching help us maintain our more youthful flexibility?

Stretching helps us keep those waste materials moving out of the muscles—promoting the proper exchange of waste materials for fluids and minerals that are necessary to maintain proper muscle function. (These waste materials can also be called byproducts of the chemical reaction that occurs every time we ask a muscle to move.) Stretching also keeps the joints more fluid, keeping them from drying up. There it is again, you if you don’t use it, you lose it. I like to think of it as, stretching is what brings life force into all parts of the body. It reaches into those nooks and crannies that would otherwise remain dormant or congested.

How does stretching work to help strengthen muscles?

  1. The physiology of this is a hard thing to describe with out a picture. It is like this—a muscle that is over contracted, or tight, is shortened. Slide the fingers of your two hands together moving from tips touching to all the way in. This is how muscle fibers line up. To demonstrate a relaxed muscle have your fingers overlapping slightly. If the muscle is already contracted that would be demonstrated by your fingers slid all the way in. This muscle will not have the same distance to travel when it contracts as a muscle that is at its most healthful length. Since Power = force times distance, it stands to reason that if a contraction happens over a lesser distance, it will not be as powerful-hence not as strong. A muscle full of waste material also creates an inhibition of the contraction, lets say there is more in the way of a most effective contraction. So it is the same result as an over contracted muscle.
  2. Another physiological reason is that when muscles become over used or have a build up of waste material the fibers of the muscle line up every which way rather than in nice neat rows. They are said to be deranged-much like a railroad track becomes deranged. The degree of this will vary. In the case of injury, i.e. sprain or strain they will be greatly deranged, but even in the case of just repeated muscle use and waste material build up they will be slightly less lined up. (how much I can not exactly say) But suffice it to say that when in this altered state, whether slightly or a lot, they are definitely not as efficient or strong. Hence stretching helps to bring these fibers back into alignment as well as eliminate the waste material, which then gives them the space to be in more optimal alignment as well as allows proper exchange of minerals necessary for muscle activity.
  3. Though there is another aspect of strengthening here. Because when we refer to stretching, it does not always just mean the elongating hold moves. Stretching to me also involves holding statically in some positions, or doing some slow simple moves. These moves or positions still fall in the category of “I am doing my stretching”, but they are actually strengthening moves. For example, holding a position that involves isometrically contracting the quadracept (the large muscle on the front of the thigh).

How does stretching protect from injury?

It is a similar answer as above. If the fibers are lined up properly, free as possible of any excess waste material, and are able to go through their full range of motion in a contraction, it stands to reason they will be less prone to injury. In other words they are just preventatively in a healthier state. But I will say this is controversial for some people don’t thing stretching makes any difference. But then are people who don’t think healthful eating makes any difference. Since they haven’t done any significant quantitative studies that I know of, regarding reduction of injury for those who stretch, I cannot state this in the definitive.

What are some of the commonly overlooked body parts that are important to stretch?

Most often overlooked are the posterior or extension muscles of the spine. In other words, exercises that might require you to lie on your stomach and lift your upper body up off the floor. I am not only referring to the stretching type moves like the “cobra,” but also strengthening exercise where in this same position you might take your hands off the floor for a few moments and lift your upper body up with out the help of your hands. Both of these exercises, that is with and with out the hands are very important in prevention and relief of back pain. As this brings, strength and flexibility to the small muscles as well as the large muscles of the spine. We spend so much time in the flexed position, i.e. looking over a computer, standing over a sink, table or myriad of other forward bending jobs, that our spines suffer by the lack of extension, or back ward movement. Our lower spine has a natural forward curve for shock absorption. All the sitting and forward bending reduces that natural curve and causes many problems and symptoms. But I also feel the keeping the hamstrings flexible and strong plays a huge role in keeping our backs in good shape as well.

What muscles should we stretch every day?

The hamstrings (large muscles of the back of the thigh) are one of the larger muscles of the body and are constantly required to work, just in holding us upright and carrying us around—walking from here to there. When these are tight, we feel boggy, tired. It is harder to move about or get out of bed. We waste a lot of energy moving against over contracted muscles. That is why stretching makes us feel so good and so free in our bodies. It is not as if you can even feel it when your muscles are tight. You just know you don’t feel as alive, as vital. I call it boggy. If I go too may days with out doing some kind of stretching-as little as a few minutes, I know it in my state of mind, loss of enthusiasm and sluggishness of my body.

So back to the question. Main muscles—hamstrings, spinal extensors and the quads for some people. Twist your spine a bit. But the bottom line is do a little bit of something most each day. It almost doesn’t matter which ones you stretch. As long as you follow your body’s message and do the stretches and positions that feel good to you and do it for a digestible—doable amount of time so that you WILL do it regularly, that is all that counts.

How long should you hold and what should it feel like?

Typically 20 seconds in a static as opposed to bouncing stretch.. What it should feel like is a hard thing to describe, but lets say, gentle or mild discomfort is OK. Pain—NO. You might actually call it a pain that feels good. If it feels horrible or what you would truly describe as pain—then stop or don’t do that stretch. When you first start it usually feels much worse than after you have been doing it a while. So hang in there because you will get to where you say it feels good.

How much and often should people stretch?

This is my favorite question because this is what makes it or brakes it for people. Typically when a person decides, “I want to begin a regular exercise program, be it stretching or any type of self care, they tend to be over zealous and start with much more than they can maintain. I recommend starting out with a little longer routine in the beginning just long enough to learn what is new, then intend to create a very short routine for oneself. It is almost guaranteed that if the routine is not quite short it will not be continued and less done over a long period of time, is many times better than a long routine done for a short time. I have been stretching for years now, but I only do it regularly because my routine is very short and easy. Hence the way I feel when I don’t do it, which is tired, sluggish, sometimes headachy or back pain, far exceeds the slight effort it takes to do—so I do it. I am now 47, have better health and energy than I did years ago and people consistently say I look in my thirties. I attribute this to a combination of things; the emotional and attitude work described in my book Express Yourself, moderate eating—eating mostly healthful foods in moderate quantities (that is listening to my body when it says stop), moderate exercise—exercise that is fun to do and hence easy to maintain, like walks or swims, and regular stretching—5-10 minutes (or sometimes less) most days. This is not to say that more of any of this isn’t good, if you love it and do it regularly, then great. But if you are like so many of us in this fast paced world, where so many other things tend to take our attention or priority, developing routines you can stick with are the key. Stretching is so easy and can be done any hour of the day (even right before bed) because it is so relaxing. I tend to think before bed is the best time, because it slows me down, clears my mind and it is so much easier to get out of bed in the morning. But what ever time works best for you, just do any stretching even a small amount you can maintain. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

What is the best way for people to learn to stretch?

I recommend a good yoga, stretching or back care class. In person is always better than a book or anything else. But for those who do not have the time or availability of a class or feel uncomfortable doing things like this in public, my Back-care-cise videos are excellent tools for learning many new stretches and strengthening exercises. They are in class format and every video has different exercises so there are many to choose from. I always say to use them as a learning tool, just long enough until you can find the exercises that feel really good to you, learn them by heart, and then develop your own short routine based on this. Again, expecting to do a public class or even a 20-30 minute video on a regular basis or an extended period of time is unrealistic. So start out with the intention to do the more extended version of your exercise, just long enough until you can make your own do-able routine that you will stick with. Otherwise, we all know what happens and regularity is the key to positive, permanent improvement of anything.