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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, February 5, 2003

Importance of stretching often ignored

By Charles Stuart Platkin

 •  Five stretches a day advised

Moffat suggests performing at least five stretches a day:

Sit on the floor with your legs extended. Keeping your back straight and chin in, slowly lean your body forward and attempt to touch the top of your head to your knees — hold — and then return to starting position.

Sit in a chair away from the back rest, chin in and back straight. Bring right hand up and over the right shoulder and the left hand around the left-hand side of the waist, and up to the middle of the back. Try to have the hands meet mid-back. Hold, return to starting position, then reverse.

Lying on back, bring one knee to the chest and keep the other leg out straight. Turn head toward the extended leg. Hold, return to starting position, then reverse.

Sit up with back tall and straight, chin in. Bring your right earlobe toward right shoulder. Reach right hand over head and place it just above left ear. Pull left arm down and open up fingers as wide as possible. Hold, return to starting position, then reverse.

Sit on the floor with the soles of feet together and heels as close in toward the buttocks as possible. Keep your back straight and lean forward. Hold, return to starting position, then reverse.

I've stretched on and off for years, but I have to admit that lately I've been a bit confused as to its true benefits — and whether it's even worth my time. And to tell you the truth, the first time I read a study that stretching was not all that it was cracked up to be — well, let's just say I had an extra 10 or 15 minutes of free time every day.

But I recently became more interested as I watched my 8-week-old daughter wake up and spend a good two or three minutes stretching. "Have you ever seen an animal or person that doesn't stretch? There is something in our bodies that makes us want to elongate," says Bob Anderson, author of the best-selling book "Stretching."

Stretching is more or less the unwanted stepchild of fitness. Although it's been heralded for years as an integral part of fitness programs to decrease the risk of injury, relieve pain associated with stiffness or muscle soreness, improve athletic performance, promote relaxation, and reduce stress, it's still not widely practiced.

The primary purpose of stretching is to increase range of motion — allowing your limbs and joints to move further, thereby making them more "flexible." This occurs by increasing the length of both your muscles and tendons.

But do we really need to stretch? "Flexibility is one of the four components of fitness, the others being muscle strength, muscle endurance, and aerobic capacity," says Dr. Stephen Rice, a spokesman for the American College of Sports Medicine. "Just as not doing aerobics, strength training, or endurance training is detrimental, so is forgetting about flexibility. If you're flexible, limber, and well warmed up each day, your body can readily move through its range of motion with a minimum effort on your part. But if inflexible, cold muscles are asked to work to or beyond their maximum to accomplish what should be an ordinary task, increasing risk of injury."

Although stretching experts don't agree on everything, most agree on the following:

Warmup: It's important to warmup before stretching even if only for a few minutes, both to prevent injury and increase the efficacy of your stretch. "Although activity by itself does not have a major effect on range of motion, studies consistently show greater range of motion increases after warm-up followed by stretching than after stretching alone," says Dr. Ian Shrier, president of the Canadian Academy of Sport Medicine.

Feel no pain: Since each person is unique, the ideal advice is to stretch until you "feel it working." "We advise patients to stretch until they feel a certain amount of tension or slight pulling associated with this length, but no pain," says Shrier. Thirty seconds is the standard guideline for how long to hold a stretch, but keep in mind that "anything is better than nothing — even 10 seconds," adds Anderson.

Six weeks: It typically takes about six weeks to increase the range of motion on a particular body area, but again, this varies for each individual.

Maintenance is key: Stretching helps you maintain flexibility as you get older, so your objective should be to maintain a certain range of motion over time. Keep in mind, it is possible to overstretch. "If you're not gifted with flexibility and are constantly trying to improve your range of motion, you can overstretch. In fact, many gymnasts and other athletes who require extreme flexibility tend to overstretch to compensate for their lack of natural talent. This can be dangerous," says Anderson.

Don't bounce: There are three methods of stretching: static (simply holding the stretch without bouncing), ballistic (bouncing on the stretched area), proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (contraction, relaxation, followed by passive stretch — typically with a partner). Most experts agree that ballistic stretching can be dangerous, and that individuals stretching on their own should stick with static stretches.

Of all the benefits of stretching, the most important is its ability to make you feel better. "The general wear and tear of daily life are inescapable and in the same way exercise has been shown to alleviate stress, flexibility programs may do the same," says Marilyn Moffat, author of the Book of Body Maintenance and Repair. She suggests adding deep breathing, music, and a comfortable support surface to establish a positive environment. "Stretching allows you to feel alive by keeping you active," says Anderson.

Charles Stuart Platkin is a syndicated health, nutrition and fitness columnist.