Do you know the story behind the traditional 7th inning stretch in baseball? One urban legend dates it all the way back to April 14, 1910 when President William Howard Taft was attending a Washington Senators game. In the middle of the 7th inning, Taft stood up to stretch his cramped legs. Out of respect for the President, everybody else in attendance at Griffith Stadium stood up too – and voila – a tradition was born. I don’t know if the story is true, but I do know President Taft had the right idea. A little extra therapeutic attention to your muscles seems to go a long way in prevention. And now that Spring Training is in full swing, it seems fitting that we address the therapeutic benefits of a sound stretching program.
Studies have shown that adding stretching to your fitness regimen can add 8.1 years to your life. It not only keeps your limbs more flexible but also slows down arterial stiffening and subsequent heart disease. For sport-minded individuals, a regular stretching program can improve athletic performance and decrease the chance of injuries. Tight muscles also contribute to the hunching over that gives the appearance of “shrinking” in many senior citizens. My great Aunt Ruby, for example, was 5’7” in her youth – but had shrunk to a diminutive 5’0” in her twilight years. Why? Because she never knew the benefits of a stretching regimen and her muscles had tightened up as she aged.
Our bodies were designed to move, a fact which was noted ages ago by Hippocrates, the father of medicine:
“Use and move your body in moderation and exercise and it will keep you healthy and age you more slowly but if unused and left idle it will be liable to disease, defective in growth and age quickly.”
Whether you’re an athlete trying to stay at the top of your game, or you just want to look and feel good, stretching is the best place to start. And the best time to stretch is when your joints and muscles are warm, like right after your workout or after a hot bath or shower. Here are some guidelines to follow as you begin a routine stretching regimen:
- Active warm ups and stretches are recommended for 10-20 minutes 3 times per week.
- Consult your doctor, particularly if you have any injuries or health limitations, prior to embarking on any stretching or therapeutic exercise program.
- Begin with a warm up. An effective, active warm up raises your body temperature and prepares you for your workout. It should mimic the activity you will be doing, only at a lower intensity. For example, if you’re going for a run, warm up by walking slowly for the first for 5-10 minutes before you run. Stretch when you are finished your run.
- Stretching without warming up is like starting a cold car engine, so be gentle to avoid pulling a cold muscle.
- Make sure you perform your stretches in the correct position.
- Breathe and relax – maybe play some relaxing music while you stretch.
- Do not bounce! Think of a rubber band and if you pull it enough – it will snap.
- Do not get in a fight with your muscles – stretch, but do not strain. Reach slowly and stop when you feel the muscle start to fight back. Hold each stretch for at least 15-30 seconds and ease up so the position is easy to hold, breathe into it and repeat. If you feel too much pain you may be trying to stretch too far.
- Do not compare your stretching ability to others, but rather focus on improving your limberness. Stretching is not a contest.
Take stretch breaks at work to reduce tension from sitting. This is not only good for your muscles and joints, but it also helps refresh your brain! Tune in later this week for pre- and post-workout stretching programs. Debby will also point you to some good books and DVDs on stretching as well as sport-specific stretching regimens.