Scenario 1: You managed to drag yourself out of bed and hit the gym before work. You had a great workout, you feel revitalised, and all that remains is some stretching to end things off. But stretching is forgotten the moment you look at the time and realised that you need to hurry to work.
Scenario 2: You’ve been sitting at your desk all day, staring at your computer screen. Your body is starting to ache slightly from having barely moved and doing nothing but typing and clicking away. You could use a bit of a stretch but glancing at your never-ending to-do list, your anxiety gets the better of you and you decide to stay put until you cross a few more items off that list.
Either of these situations sounds familiar? Stretching is an essential yet often overlooked component of one’s exercise routine. Flexibility training, typically exercises that involve stretching, have a number of benefits.
Why You Need to Stretch
1. Improved Range of Motion
By increasing the range of motion of your joints, stretching eventually enhances mobility not just when engaging in sports, but also in daily activities. Proper range of motion in the joints enables the normal alignment of the body to be preserved throughout the day. This can prevent the degeneration of your joints and even improve posture. Flexible muscles can lessen the resistance during different activities, reducing or even preventing the likelihood of pain and injury.
2. Better Blood Flow and Circulation
Stretch your way to better blood flow and circulation, which results in an increase in blood supply to muscles and joints. This means more efficient transportation of oxygen and nutrients. With an improved supply of oxygen to your brain, you can expect sharper concentration and brighter moods.
3. Relieves Stiffness, Aches and Discomforts
Sitting down all day at work and even intense fitness routines can lead to undue muscle tension which may increase stiffness and discomfort in the body. Muscles that are persistently tensed interrupt the flow of blood, cutting off the supply of oxygen and nutrients. Regular stretching loosens such tension and allows the muscle to relax. In particular, it strengthens your back muscles and reduces the possibility of muscular cramps, thereby healing and preventing back pain.
4. Reduced Stress
Enduring stress can cause increased muscular tension, exhaustion and anxiety. Research has shown that regular flexibility training decreases mental tension and may reduce depression and anxiety when used with mindfulness breathing. Focus on meditation exercises when stretching to decrease muscle tension. This almost automatically calms your mind and helps you feel less stressed.
When to Stretch
Stretching is also not the same as warming up, therefore it should not replace a proper warm-up, which boosts your heart rate pre-workout. Stretching does not actually reduce your chance of injury if done before a workout, so you should save it for after your training session. Nonetheless, it’s a common misconception that stretching can only be done after a workout. In fact, you can stretch at work, when you’re pregnant or even when you have sustained an injury.
Pre & Post-Workout Stretching
If you intend to stretch before your routine, you can incorporate dynamic stretching into your warm-up, including push-ups, jump squats, star jumps and lunges. These can boost your heart rate while engaging the muscles you use for your workout. Post-workout, try some static stretching that can help return your muscles to a relaxed state. Different stretches target different groups of muscles, so if an area feels particularly tight and sore, you might want to pay more attention to it. A few great stretches that target large muscle groups include:
Abs stretch (aka Cobra Pose)
Lie flat on your tummy and bring your arms in, putting your hands flat on the floor on either side of your chest. Lengthen your arms to raise your chest off of the floor while making sure to keep your shoulders down and straight. Hold for 20-30 seconds.
Hamstrings and Calves Stretch
Sit on the floor cross-legged then extend your right leg in front of you. Your left foot should be resting against the inside of your right thigh. Bending from your hip, reach for your right foot with your right hand as far as you can. If you can grip your toe, pull it back towards you slowly and hold for 20-30 seconds. Repeat with the other leg.
Stand with your legs shoulder-width apart and interlock your fingers behind you. Without bending your hips, slowly pull your hands away from your body. You should feel your chest open up as your shoulders squeeze together. Hold for 20-30 seconds.
Stretching during pregnancy can lengthen your muscles, thus offsetting the stress on your joints. It prepares your body for the growing baby inside you, making your muscles supple enough to bear the extra pregnancy weight. If you’re pregnant, focus on stretching the muscles of the upper and lower back, the legs, chest and hips. However, don’t engage in stretches that involve concentrated bends for your back or convoluted twists. Most importantly, do not stretch if you experience pain and listen to your body. A hip flexor is a great stretch to enhance your hip flexibility:
- Stand in front of a step board or at the bottom of a flight of stairs. If you’re using a step board, make sure you’re holding on to a wall for support or hanging on to a railing.
- Put one foot on the step, bend your knee but ensure it does not go beyond your ankle. Stretch your other leg straight on the floor behind you without locking your knee.
- With your back straight, lean into your bent leg, until you feel a stretch in your straight leg. If you can, lift your freehand straight up into the air. Hold for 15-20 seconds, then do the same the other side.
Stretching at Work
Falling asleep at your desk? Or maybe you have lost feeling in your legs from sitting all day. Stretching is probably going to help you concentrate better, and, as an added bonus, it will even help you prevent strains and sprains of the joints, reduce the pressure on your spine and in the long-term, it improves productivity. You don’t even have to leave your desk for some of these:
- Shoulder Stretch – With your palms facing up, push your arms up and clasp your hands together above your head. Stretch upward for 2 to 3 deep breaths. Hold your arms out straight in front of you, palms facing down.
- Upper Back Stretch – Drop your head until they are aligned with your arms and look down at the floor. Round your upper back and hold for 2 to 3 deep breaths. Do not stiffen your neck or shoulders.
- Torso Twist – Plant your feet securely on the floor, making sure they’re slightly apart. Inhale and put one hand on the back of your chair. While slowly exhaling, twist your upper body toward the arm on the chair back. Your other hand should be pressed against your leg for leverage. Stretch for 2 to 3 deep breaths and repeat on the other side.
Check out other stretches that you can do at your desk, do watch our video with Dr Gary Tho:
When Not to Stretch
There are some instances where stretching can do more harm than good. You should avoid stretching an area if you have:
- An unstable joint in that area
- A strain in that area
- Acute pain while stretching and area, especially around the joints
- An infection or inflammation around the joint in that area
- Been told by a medical professional not to stretch that area
Tips for Better Stretching
1. Avoid Bouncing
The worst thing you can do while stretching is to bounce and shift as this can conversely cause your muscles to stiffen and increase the possibility of a pull or tear. Give yourself ample grounding and remain steady throughout the stretch. Avoid over-stretching by holding a stretch for not more than 30 seconds. Watch yourself in a mirror to monitor your movements and improve your form. Consult a trainer should you need more guidance on your stance.
2. Use your Breath to Guide You
The relaxation brought about by stretching is enhanced when you use your breath as a guide to your movements. Breathe normally without holding your breath, inhaling and exhaling slowly as you intensify your stretch. Rapid breathing or the lack thereof leads to unnecessary tension in your body, thereby increasing the likelihood of injury. Ensure you’re on a comfortable mat if you’re engaging in stretches on the floor. Concentrate on your breathing and on the areas being stretched.
3. Mix it Up
Just as with your usual exercises, varying your stretching routine can ensure that you don’t get bored as it can lead to sloppiness and a lack of focus. Consequently, you might be putting yourself at risk of injury. It is also recommended that you stretch as many muscle groups as you can in one routine. This is beneficial in ensuring a more holistic workout.
4. Warm Up your Joints
As aforementioned, it is not advisable to dive into a stretch (dynamic or static) without first warming your body up. You could end up doing your body more harm than good and increase the chances of pulls and tears. Perhaps start with a short, slow jog before going into deep stretching for better results.
5. Stretch As Often As You Can
Stretching daily will eventually be hugely helpful to your body. So periodically remind yourself to stretch from the moment you wake up. See stretching as a continuation of your workout routine as opposed to a separate set of exercises. Set up a system in the office such that you and your colleagues (or even your friends over texts) can remind each other to have a little twist and turn. Before you head to bed, try some slow stretching coupled with deep breathing to bring your body in a state of relaxation and ready it for bed. Studies have shown that just five to ten minutes of daily stretching can lead to significant improvements in your flexibility and strength.
Be gentle when stretching and avoid jolting movements that can cause injury. The key thing to remember is to take it slow, doing a little everyday, throughout the day. You’ll be surprised at how much more flexible you’ll be in just one month!
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