This is number eight in a series on the Real-time Results of exercise, the ones that will make your brain want to exercise. We have covered cardio and strength training. Today we start to look at stretching.
Stretching is one of those forms of exercise that many of us aren’t sure about. All the conflicting information and changing recommendations about stretching, and the fact that it doesn’t burn a lot of calories, can make it seem not worth putting in the time and effort to stretch. Even if you know stretching would help your stiff body, it’s not easy to do when it’s uncomfortable or even painful. Getting up and down off the floor can be a challenge and those old stretches we did in high school are not as easy as they once were.
Motivation for stretching can get tangled up on all the conflicting information and challenges with actually doing stretching. Let’s free your motivation to stretch with an updated look at stretching.
With all we don’t know about stretching, we do know it’s not:
- weakening or damaging muscles (when you do it right)
- about being able to touch your toes
- making your muscles longer
- only for the super flexible
- a waste of time
Interestingly, yoga has gained in popularity over the past decade. When people are asked why they do yoga, the biggest reason is flexibility. Why do so many people want to be more flexible?
Flexibility is defined by the range of motion of a joint or in other words, how much a joint can move. While this is important, I often hear people wanting to be flexible because they think it will make their stiff muscles feel better. But does being super bendy mean you feel and function better in daily life? Dancers may look beautiful, but they live with daily pain.
Flexibility does not guarantee comfort in your body. A person could be very flexible but still feel stiff and sore. They could even have a greater risk of injury because a very flexible joint is not a stable joint.
When flexibility leads to mobility, which is defined as freedom of movement, it does make you feel and function better. Mobility means your body can move in a wide variety of ways without resisting or fatiguing. So how can stretching make you more mobile?
Trying to answer that by looking at the research on stretching is tricky. There is not as much research on this type of exercise as on other types like cardio. Most of the stretching research is about improving sports performance and as we know, training for sports performance and training for well-being are quite different. We need to consider carefully where we get our advice about stretching; is it geared toward athletes or fitness for health and well-being? The handful of research studies that show stretching leads to injury are talking about athletes, and even then, the research is not conclusive, the injury risk is low and specific for certain sports.
What actually happens in the body with stretching has not been possible to document until only a decade ago. Before then, stretching studies measured how stretching improved range of motion of individual joints. Fortunately, recent technology allows researchers to understand stretching on a cellular level so future research will tell us more. One thing we have learned is that stretching is about much more than muscles. (more about that in the next blog)
Bottom Line: The truth about stretching is we just don’t have a lot of definite answers about why it’s good for us, but stretching does appear to be a greatly untapped way to feel comfortable in your body now, as well healthy in the future.