Most of us like a quick stretch first thing in the morning. But as a regular activity, it can lengthen muscles and improve posture.
Did you stretch when you got up this morning ? Along with putting the kettle on and jumping in the shower, a morning stretch is a way of getting ourselves in gear before the day begins. But besides this brief, bleary-eyed burst of limbs, how often do you indulge ?
This flexing of a muscle or tendon helps its elasticity. It’s an instinct (think about animals when they wake up) that leaves us feeling flexible, invigorated and relaxed. Regular exercise shortens, your muscles, which is why stretching is incorporated into any cool-down to bring muscles back to their resting length. If we don’t do it, we become stiff, lose our range of movement and may develop pain.
“Easy movement of our bodies is something we take for granted until it’s going or gone,” says Ciaran Organ, founder of PureStretch classes. “I see fitness instructors in their 50’s coming to stretch classes after noticing their body deteriorate with wear and tear from years of exercise. Regular stretching gives them greater flexibility and mobility.”
POWER TO YOUR MUSCLES
As we get older our joints stiffen, our muscles age and we don’t move the way we used to. On average, a sedentary 50-year-old will lose almost half a pound of muscle every year (and you can start to lose it before that age if you’re inactive). But you don’t need to accept this decline as inevitable. Stretching can be restorative and preventive.
If you’ve ever done yoga you’ll know what regular practice can do in the long-term. A Downward-Facing Dog pose, for example, can evolve in as little as 30 days from needing to lift your heels to to getting them flat on the mat. If certain aspects of yoga or Pilates put you off, stretching is still within your reach, and the same benefits are up for grabs; you’ll walk taller, you’ll correct your posture and you’ll look and feel slimmer.
BUILD A ROUTINE TO SUIT YOU
Being able to maintain freedom of movement and core strength means you’ll be able to future-proof your fitness and weight-loss goals (and you’ll feel more positive as a bonus.) It’s the ultimate complementary therapy and redresses the balance of your more intense workouts. Try a simple daily 10-minute stretch routine, or commit to a 45-minute session once a week.
“Stretching supplies great blood flow to your muscles and enables them to work most effectively,” says Organ. “I can’t stress enough how fantastic stretching is for both your body and mind. You’ll be focusing in on yourself and how your body feels, and we don’t do enough of that.”
LENGTHEN AND STRENGTHEN
Stretching techniques can also be applied mid-workout. The Stretch & Tone class at Virgin Active incorporates stretching during a cardio/strength routine. Instructor Christine Turner gives attendees the option to stand on circular sliding discs known as gliders, which bring fluidity to sweeping foot and leg movements and help you get the most out of a stretch.
For Turner, the benefits are undisputed, “I find gliders give you the maximum stretch and work all your muscles, including the core, without you realising.”
But why add stretching mid-routine ?
“My theory is if you shorten your muscles with exercise you should then lengthen them, so for 45 minutes we alternate cardio and strength with stretches,” she says. “Using gliders means you get a fantastic active recovery, too. It really is for everyone – I have attendees aged up to 84.”
BLOOD SUGAR BENEFITS
Greater flexibility and range of movement is the undisputed benefit of stretching, but surprising evidence has begun to emerge that doing it regularly may lower blood sugar levels. In a small 2015 Korean study, participants with type 2 diabetes committed to an 8 week supervised program of static/passive stretching. Blood sugar levels were significantly reduced in the static stretching group, compared with the group who didn’t stretch or exercise.
In 2011, Australian researchers came to the same conclusion, when studying a group of adults who were either diagnosed with type 2 diabetes or at risk of developing the condition. After eating a meal and drinking fruit juice, participants in two groups underwent 40 minutes of stretching or mock stretching (meaning no tension was applied). The group doing the genuine stretches had a greater drop in their blood glucose levels during the regime.
Libby Dowling, senior clinical adviser at Diabetes UK, says there’s still much more research to be done before we can be sure of a link.
“While these studies suggest there may be some benefit to passive (static) stretching, they were in small numbers of people who were studied over a relatively short time period,” she says. “Without larger studies, where people are followed for longer, we’re unable to say whether passive stretching is a good alternative.”
What we do know is that keeping physically active can help both prevent and manage type 2 diabetes, and activity can take many forms and intensities to suit the individual. The studies suggest passive stretching may be of use for those with limited capacities who can’t exercise, those who are very obese or the elderly.
HOW TO DO IT RIGHT
Surprisingly, there is a right and wrong way to stretch, and contrary to what you might feel right, it’s not just about addressing back pain with back stretches or tight hamstrings with leg stretches.
“I recommend staying away from isolated stretches because muscles don’t just work on their own – everything is connected,” says Organ.
You may have tight hamstrings, for instance, but the problem may not be your hamstrings at all. It’s better to stretch the entire body, doing 20-30 second holds per stretch. Beware of over-stretching, too, which can weaken your muscles.
“As soon as you’re flinching, holding your breath or shaking, you need to stop,” she says. “This means you’ve gone too far and you’re putting your body through stress. When stretching, you’re aiming to feel enjoyment, like a really gorgeous yawn.”
FIND YOUR PERFECT ROUTINE
Stay flexible with this top picks for flexibility practice:
- NHS Strength and Flex 5 week exercise plan
- PureStretch classes
- Virgin Active Stretch and Tone classes
- Stretchworks DVD (general fitness level – all ages)
- Ciaran Organ’s 1 minute stretch routine
PS: I’d love to know if you found this blog helpful, a good one to look at would be especially the blood sugar benefits, hit me up in the comment section or alternatively drop me a message. I answer every email, just ask. Furthermore, if you were a fan of this blog then why not check out the blog on the stretching fix that be done in as little as 5 minutes.
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