Researching and writing for our last blog had us learning so much about stretching, we felt the need to spread the educational wealth! Along the way we found that while there are substantial investigative reports to praise the abundant benefits of stretching, there are also some contrasting scientific views and studies. What better way to cover a self-care strategy than to lay it all out there and let you decide if or how to incorporate stretching into your own routine.
Background on stretching
Generally speaking, we start to learn simple stretching techniques during childhood either in physed/gym classes, or in other movement driven extracurriculars and athletics. The reason why we should try to touch our toes may not have made sense at the time, but is one of those subjects where hindsight is 20/20. Our ideas of what stretching means can include unrealistic expectations like Gumby or Cirque du Soleil performers. But realistically, there is no standard as some people are just naturally more flexible in varying motions which can make it look easier and different than for others.
Depending on your perspective as an adult, stretching drills can be a pleasant, satisfying feeling or still an excruciating unimportant drag. Most people lose range of motion as they age and have to work at maintaining a healthy level of flexibility. However, if done improperly, may actually work against us by exacerbating certain injuries and even inducing conditions like osteoarthritis. For that reason, please always consult your physician with questions or before starting an intense stretching regimen.
Scientists and physiologists have specific arguments on both sides of the fence. On one hand, stretching allows for more blood flow into muscles to ease soreness and when done regularly can help joints fully move through certain ranges of motion. However, the same study reveals that it does not improve athletic performance or reduce the amount of soreness after exercise. Furthermore, performing lengthening stretches to a hamstring muscle prior to sprinting can actually negatively affect performance.
Despite differing opinions and varying experimental results, what remains true is that the benefits of stretching tend to be uniquely individual to the population studied. Because you’re not stretching the actual muscle in pain, rather the ligaments and tissues around it, effectiveness has been shown in improved circulation resulting in reduced tension and stress relief. Also, frequent conscious stretching leads to increased mobility and range of motion (ROM). The guidance of a professional in movement/sports science and/or a physical therapist who can evaluate the body and recommend the proper stretches to provide relief plus substantially reduce the risk of further injury or future immobility. It is highly recommended to seek assistance if you experience pain or discomfort.
In this brief overview, we will first cover the three main types of stretching and their subcategories.
The most common of all methods, it involves holding a specific position until a stretching sensation is felt then letting go and repeating. Performing these holds alone, without assistance, it is referred to as an active stretch. The stretch is considered passive when performed with the help of equipment or a partner.
This form of stretching also involves two variations, active and ballistic. For the sake of this outline, the definition of Ballistic stretches are “rapid, alternating movements or bouncing at end range”. However, ballistic forms of stretching are no longer recommended as they do not show any positive results and may produce further injuries. Active dynamic stretches involve moving a limb through its full range of motion and rather than holding, repeating the movement several times.
The PNF or “proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation” technique has patients first fully contract the muscle in focus or peripheral muscles for roughly 10 seconds before subsequently stretching it with resistance provided by a practitioner or equipment such as a strap or band. A variation PIR or “post isometric relaxation” has the patient hold the contraction at about 25% full capacity followed by a stretch.
When and how to start stretching?
Decide the reason you want to stretch. Is it for more mobility and flexibility or to relieve pain? Or is it for pleasure, relaxation and restoration of homeostasis? All areas can benefit from a good stretch but focused stretching can help relieve aches and pains in targeted areas. Physical therapists use a combination of techniques often including stretching to rehabilitate injuries or imbalances.
The great thing about stretching is it can adapt to many environments, whether standing, sitting or in a tight space so it can pretty much be done anywhere, at any time and every day. With proper attention to movements, being mindful of structure and pain levels of course. Feel the difference after doing it everyday and even track your progress with photos. Loosening up the neck and upper back especially helps dissipate tension headaches from flaring up. Plus, a break from looking at your monitor or other screens can help ease eye strain. Even getting up from your desk to walk around doing high kicks or Frankenstein’s counts as a dynamic active stretch. Or for a quick desk stretch, check out this routine from Joe Yoon.
If you’re normally enveloped in projects, meetings or multi-tasking, it’s understandably difficult to take a stretch break. But consider the value on your overall well-being when making the active choice, maybe enlist the help of technology to set steady reminders. Another smooth move is to have a few stretches in your back pocket to activate when you have a few extra minutes between tasks. And since not everyone sits at a desk all day, here are a few classic stretches that can help in a pinch.
Too often underrated is stretching before bed. In most scenes related to morning activities like breakfast or coffee, you may notice an actor giving the arms over the head stretch to indicate its time to start the day. This had me thinking about nighttime routines in general. Do we organically feel the need to stretch before starting a whole night of lying down? Most likely its not a natural tendency to give a good “arms over the head” stretch before climbing into bed. But what if we approached sleep the same way we did starting our day? After all, recovery is a vital part of maintaining a balanced homeostasis. Studies have found that meditative movements are shown to produce higher quality sleep. While there are lots of options available, we thought sharing a couple of our favorites could help jump start your own search:
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The general consensus around stretching is that it can be beneficial for flexibility, mobility, circulation and relaxation when done properly. It’s important to remember that stretching cold muscles puts you a greater risk for injury so a quick warm up to get the blood flowing is advisable. Also, don’t push it. Even if you can’t go too far, it’s ok, everyone starts somewhere. As long as you’re feeling it and not injuring anything further. Finding the time and place for a self-care stretching strategy takes some effort but your body and mind will surely thank you.