Jennifer Trizuto, MPT
If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a hundred times: To keep those joints moving, do your stretching exercises. But stretching tends to be low on the exercise totem pole for many people. Here’s why it shouldn’t be, along with tips on how to stretch properly and a few exercises to help you get started.
As we age, we all lose flexibility in the muscles, tendons, and ligaments that move and support our joints. Not moving a joint, as we might not if it’s painful, can add to the problem. Stretching can help maintain flexibility and even improve it, and when your muscles are flexible, there is less strain on your joints. Everyday activities, from bending to tie your shoes or pick something up off the ground to reaching for items on a high shelf, are much easier to do when you’re flexible.
Muscles rely on blood for nourishment, and stretching increases blood flow to and from the muscles. Not only does this feed the muscles, but it also helps to take away any waste products. When we work our muscles during strengthening and conditioning exercises, they contract, or shorten, repeatedly, and waste products build up. By increasing blood flow, stretching helps clear the waste products away.
Stretching can also help to improve posture. Poor posture can lead to back pain, neck pain, shoulder tendinitis, breathing difficulties, and if you have osteoporosis, compression fractures in the spine. Stretching can help maintain the length of the muscles in your chest, allowing you to stand up taller. Sitting with good posture while you work at a computer can decrease excessive strain on your hands and wrists.
Keeping your joints flexible can also help with coordination and balance. If your joints can move through their full ranges of motion, your body is better able to correct imbalances and prevent falls.
Another benefit is that flexible muscles take less effort to move than stiff muscles. Muscles get stiff for many reasons. Heavy work, poorly coordinated movements, poor posture, lack of activity, repetitive motions, and pain can all cause muscles to become tight and stiff. Stiff muscles lead to poor joint flexibility and decreased efficiency of movement. As a result, we need to use more energy to do things we otherwise would do effortlessly, such as dressing and grooming.
To stretch, you need to place your body in a position that extends, or lengthens, a specific muscle or muscle group. It is safer to stretch one muscle or muscle group at a time than to stretch multiple muscle groups at a time. If you try to stretch more than one muscle group at once, your posture is compromised, and you can injure yourself.
Click on stretching to see some common stretching exercises. But before you try them, there are some general rules of thumb you should keep in mind.
Always warm up before you stretch. It’s very difficult to stretch a cold muscle, and you run the risk of pulling it. If you’re doing just a stretching session, warm up by moving continuously — walk, dance, ride a stationary bike, or gently move your arms and legs while you’re sitting in a chair. If you find this painful, you can warm up the muscles you want to stretch by placing heat on them for 10–15 minutes before you stretch. If you’re stretching as part of your overall exercise program, stretch after you do strengthening or conditioning (aerobic) exercises. Until fairly recently, it was thought that people needed to stretch before doing aerobic or strengthening exercise so that they wouldn’t injure themselves. Research has shown that this isn’t necessarily true. It is better to stretch after your vigorous exercise, while your muscles are warm. Exercise experts recommend a cool down period at the end of every exercise session, and stretching is a good cool-down activity.
Don’t stretch into pain. When you stretch, you should feel a gentle pull. If you push the stretch too far, it will hurt. Only push as far as needed to feel that gentle pull. Stop if you feel pain in the muscles or joints. A stretch should never hurt your joints. If you have joint pain after stretching, talk to your doctor about seeing a physical therapist. A physical therapist can show you stretches that accommodate your specific needs and limitations.
Don’t bounce when you stretch. We stretch to lengthen the muscle. When we bounce, the muscle is more likely to contract, which is the opposite of what we want. Bouncing can also cause small tears in the muscles. When the body attempts to heal these tears, scar tissue forms. The scar tissue can make the muscle less flexible. Stretching should be done slowly and steadily, without bouncing.
Hold each stretch for 30–60 seconds. A 1995 study of 57 men and women who were 21–37 years old suggested that a 30-second hold for a stretch was sufficient. A 2001 study involving participants aged 65 and older found that a 60-second hold led to better range of motion for this age group. My suggestion would be to hold the stretch for as long as you feel comfortable, for up to 60 seconds.
Relax and breathe while you stretch. Do not hold your breath or attempt to push really hard. It will only make you tired and sore.
How often you stretch is also important. I tell my clients they must always stretch after they complete a strengthening or conditioning exercise program, when their muscles have been worked more vigorously than with normal everyday activities. But even on days when they don’t do a complete program, they should stretch. If you work in a situation in which you do repetitive activities such as computer work or assembly line work, you should take regular stretching breaks to prevent excessive strain on your muscles and joints, which can lead to aches and pains.
If you can’t get into a regular exercise routine, even occasional stretching can be beneficial. In addition to helping you stay flexible, stretching can be quite relaxing and a source of stress relief. If you have questions or concerns, there is help out there. You can see a physical therapist, occupational therapist, exercise physiologist, or certified athletic trainer. Your local recreation department, hospital, YMCA/ YWCA, or Seniors’ Center may offer classes focusing on stretching. Yoga may be an option, as well, as it focuses on stretching. Look for a beginner yoga class. If you try a group exercise program, make sure you tell the instructor you have arthritis and let him or her know about any limitations that you have.
Last Reviewed February 24, 2013
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