Stretching, Health, Fitness & Dancing
Exercise or activity that involves stretching muscles ensures that joints are mobile and the body is more elastic and supple.
Stretching gradually increases elasticity, tone, and strength of muscles. It also improves range of joint motion, suppleness and posture. Plus it helps prevent stiffness and injury as well as improving general well-being and vitality.
What are stretching and toning exercises?
The body benefits from all forms or exercise and activity – and the non-strenuous forms provide just as many rewards, dancing is one of these.
Stretching, the truth:
the science behind range of motion
In 1998, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommended that athletes incorporate flexibility exercises in their fitness program to develop and maintain range of motion.
As a result, flexibility training has become a growing trend in the area of fitness as the population grows older and seeks a softer workout to regain strength and flexibility.
The media's positive portrayal of yoga and Pilates, including pictures and interviews with celebrities like Madonna, Christy Turlington and Meg Ryan, has also increased the public's interest in this form of exercise.
But when people talk about stretching, what do they really mean?
Many people's anatomic model for stretching is Gumby, which translates into their misinterpretation of the methods and techniques surrounding stretching. Flexibility and range of motion are critical components in the fitness equation, and every method and technique must be appropriate to what you are stretching and who is doing the stretching.
Each person's 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, but it is very unhealthy for individuals to stretch past their limitations. Studies have shown that people who continuously perform intense stretches that exceed their physical limitation create uneven mechanical wear on the joints and ligaments, which lead to osteoarthritis.
There is no question that yoga and Pilates have revolutionized the way many Americans exercise by going beyond a "no pain, no gain" mentality to a more holistic workout of the body. However, these forms of exercise can permanently alter body alignment, muscular balance and posture when students are pushed to extreme ranges.
You should never impose irregular range of motion on your body. It 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 people have to work at maintaining their normal range of motion or lose flexibility as they age.
Types of stretching
Further complicating the already-complex and controversial subject of flexibility is figuring out what exercises are best for you. Several methods of stretching will improve range of motion and enhance muscular performance. Here's a brief description of a few stretching techniques:
Static: Static stretching is often seen in the health clubs or at sporting events when athletes slowly stretch their muscles to the end point of movement and hold the stretch for a period of time, such as doing a split.
Ballistic: Ballistic stretching is a very controversial technique that uses bouncing and abrupt movements to gain momentum to create greater range of motion. Most experts feel that this type of stretch does not allow the muscles and tendons to fully adapt to the demand of the stretch position.
Active: In active stretch, the limbs and joints are stretched to a given point and held in position using an opposing muscle group. For example, to stretch your quadriceps you would bring your heel back to your buttock and hold it there using your hamstrings. This form of stretch is demanding, but effective because there is no external force applying pressure to the skeletal muscle.
Passive: During the passive stretch, muscles are taken through their range of motion by an external force, such as a piece of equipment, your own hand or a partner. For example, to perform a passive stretch of the chest, a partner would stretch you by securing your arms behind your body. The disadvantage of passive stretching is understanding how far to go; too little accomplishes nothing and too much can cause injury.
Slow movement: Slow movements of a muscle, such as neck, arm and trunk rotations, are stretching techniques that are more appropriate for warming up to do another activity.
Dynamic: Dynamic flexibility involves controlled swinging of your limb with a gradual increase of the distance, speed and intensity, without going past a healthy range of motion, such as a split leap in dance.
Many short- and long-term benefits occur as a result of regular flexibility training. Initially, stretching maintains and increases range of motion and increases blood supply to the soft muscle tissue. The changes can enhance sports performance and help prevent injury. Initiating regular flexibility training will also prevent the body from losing range of motion and allow the body to function better as a whole.
Stretching should not be confused with warming up.
Cold muscles should never be stretched, due to the risk of injury.
Breathing is an important aspect to consider during stretching exercise, as it helps relax the body, increases oxygenated blood flow, and removes by-products from muscles.
Slow deep breaths inhaled through the nose and exhaled through the mouth is the suggested technique. You should feel the abdomen, rather than the chest, expand. You should breathe out as you hold the stretch.
Things to be aware of
Many health books contain stretching routines, and your local gym or health centre can show you how to stretch safely and effectively.
• Never stretch cold muscles, as you risk injury.
• Never ‘bounce’ or perform jerky movements, as strain is placed on muscles and the skeleton.
• Never force a stretch that seems difficult, even if you have been able to perform it in the past.
• Stop immediately if you feel any pain.
• You should not hold your breath during stretching exercises.
• Stand up / get up slowly if you have been doing stretches on the floor.
Warming up and cooling down
Warming up and cooling down greatly reduces the likelihood of injury. However, it is unlikely that you will consider this before strenuous gardening or dog walking!
Exercise sessions or periods of activity should always commence with a warm up period.
This is because:
• Core body temperature is raised by a couple of degrees
• Oxygen supply to muscles is increased
• Muscles are less tense
• Heart, lungs and other organs are prepared for a period of activity – i.e. it gets your blood pumping
In theory, anything that increases body temperature can be useful for a warm-up period. During warm-up, you also prepare yourself mentally for a period of activity.
If you are following specific exercises, a short period (5 – 10 minutes) of low-intensity aerobic activity, such as walking or dancing, it's a good way to warm up the whole body. Any activity that gently increases cardiovascular output should be considered.
Muscles and joints should only be stretched or rotated after core temperature and blood flow have been increased through some form of aerobic activity. Slow gentle stretches, starting with the upper and lower back, followed by the lower body and limbs, help warm the muscles up further.
A cooling-down period after exercise is as important as warming up, and should not be avoided. Again, cooling down after gardening may not be considered, but may be helpful.
The purpose of cooling down is to minimise muscle fatigue and soreness. Pain felt in muscles after exercise is caused by the production of lactic acid during activity. Cooling down assists the body in the removal of this by-product, hence reducing pain and discomfort.
Simply stretching muscles is not a legitimate way to cool down – but it can form part of the process. The cool-down period is similar to the warm-up – and should include gentle aerobic exercise as well as stretching.
Between 5 and 10 minutes of low-intensity exercise should be carried out at the end of your activity, such as walking or slower paced dancing. This assists in slowing heart rate, removing by-products from the muscles, and cooling core temperature.
After this short period, muscles should be gently stretched. This reduces the cramping or the tight feeling sometimes experienced, and improves flexibility. If you are sore the day after exercise, some gentle warm-up and cool-down exercises can help alleviate any discomfort, as lactic acid will still be present in the muscles.
Did you know that a massage is a brilliant way to cool down tired muscles after exercise?
Mind, body & soul
Physical activity and relaxation hold important places in a holistic approach to health management. Use it to find a new sense of well-being and inner peace.
Try to set aside 10 or 15 minutes a day, which is 'Me Time' or 'White Space' in your daily schedule.
This is because:
• small increases in activity (and fitness) can lead to large improvements in quality of life
• relaxation allows energy to flow more freely and our minds and bodies to function more efficiently
Try any activities with which you feel comfortable and which will gently raise your body temperature. The most popular are walking, dancing, yoga, massage, and T’ai Chi but even having a spa or bath with time to collect your thoughts can help you relax.
Physical activity increases energy production by delivering more oxygen to the muscles, which reduces fatigue. So after any activity you should feel more energetic and invigorated.
Adopting a variety of activities is beneficial in order to reduce the risk of injury, and prevents local muscular fatigue, which results from highly repetitive actions. It also prevents a sense of monotony or boredom and allows you to design your own holistic programme catering for all aspects of your health, not just the physical. Relaxation helps achieve the full benefits of activity.
If none of these suits you then why not simply try to increase any daily physical activity with your friends and family by going walking, dancing or bowling. You could even treat yourself to a massage or to some aromatherapy or reflexology.
Remember that as your health is based on many physical, mental and social aspects, it is important that you participate in a variety of activities that will help improve each component. Don’t simply focus on your physical health.
Tips for success
You don't need to be 'gym crazy' or a top athlete to be succesful in fulfiling a healthy lifestyle. The following suggestions show you just how easy it is to fit activity and exercise into your daily routine.
Make activity a part of your daily life
Why not walk to collect your newspaper rather than have it delivered. Check your local paper for alternative activity-promotion campaigns such as walking or cycling schemes, go out social latin / salsa dancing and join with a couple of classes per week.
Don’t run before you can walk
Running is not recommended as a new activity for older people as the impact can cause serious injuries to the knee and hip joints. Fast walking is much safer - and may be more beneficial for someone wishing to burn fat.
Be patient. Remember that any exercise or activity is better than a sedentary lifestyle. Aim to build up to half an hour of activity on most days of the week.
Don’t let yourself become dehydrated
Take a drink every 10 – 15 minutes whilst exercising and frequently throughout the day.
Make it fun
Choose activities you enjoy and vary them.
Time is one of the biggest barriers to becoming more physically active
Don’t try to exercise when you are hungry or when your favourite TV programme is on. If exercise competes with a more positive behavioural cue it will lose every time. Instead, try to incorporate it into everyday life so it becomes a habit, one that you would miss if the habit were broken.
We use excuses every day to avoid activity and exercise. We look at the most common exercise myths, and why they are simply untrue.
Physical activity in the home is not effective
Findings indicate that adherence to home-based aerobic programmes was significantly higher at 75-79% compared to 53% for group-based aerobic programmes (King et al 1999).
It hurts – “No pain, no gain, no way”
Learn the difference between pain and your body's normal discomfort from physical exertion. To be of benefit the activity should make you feel warm and breathe more heavily than usual, but not cause any pain.
I’m too old to start
There is no upper age limit to the benefits of exercise, even among people who have been lifelong couch potatoes.
I can’t exercise in my condition. I might injure myself. It will do me more harm than good
People tend to exaggerate the risks of exercise and underestimate their capabilities, believing that the need for regular exercise decreases with age. Such attitudes are inaccurate and misinformed, based on faulty perceptions and beliefs. Why not ask your GP for advice?
So remember – it’s never too early or too late to start being physically active, but it is always too early to stop. (Vuori, 1996)
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The British Lung Foundation
Stretching, the truth: the science behind range of motion
By Michaelene Conner
Atlanta Sports Mag