We all know we are supposed to do it, but do you really know why stretching is necessary for our bodies? In order to explain why let me start with a few basic definitions.
Flexibility is a joint or set of joints’ ability to move throughout a predefined range of motion (ROM) and the ability of the muscles that cross over those joints to elongate. The more easily you can move a joint through it’s natural range of movements and elongate the associated muscles, the better your flexibility.
Range of Motion (ROM) is the optimal arc of movement for any given joint in the body. Each joint or set of joints has a different defined range of motion. Flexibility and range of motion are inherently related in that inflexible muscles inhibit a joint’s ability to move through its full range of motion.
Stretching is an activity in which a particular muscle or group of muscles are elongated in order to increase flexibility and restore muscle elasticity. Stretching can be active, in which you hold your body in a position of elongation. Or passive, in which a partner holds you in a stretch position with you doing little or no work.
Flexibility: Use It Or Lose It
Ok, so you know what stretching is and what it means to be flexible. So why do you care?
The biggest incentive for gaining flexibility is to correct poor posture and chronic pain patterns. Or, more importantly, to prevent them from occurring in the first place.
When we fail to use a particular joint through its full range of motion on a very regular basis, the muscles surrounding the joint that would normally stretch to accommodate the motion begin to lose elasticity making the motion more difficult when we do attempt it. Eventually with continued lack of movement those muscles begin to shorten until bending or twisting or rotating the joint the way is is intended to becomes impossible. At this point weak, underused and inflexible muscles begin to pull on the joints they are attached to causing pain during normal movement or even inactivity. This skeletal strain causes us to subconsciously hold out bodies in a way to reduce this pain which in turn creates poor posture and further underuse and shortening of the muscles.
Years of this cycle of underuse, muscle imbalance and poor posturing leads to the kind of elderly person we so often see that can’t reach behind their back, touch their toes or swing their legs enough to take a full stride when walking. Immobile joints and muscles are incapable of responding as quickly as healthy joints and muscles causing an overall lack of balance and a higher likelihood of fall and injury. A lack of use leads to the inability to use.
Bending To Fit Modern Times
In a better world we would all use our bodies the way nature intended using our different joints through their full range of motion many many times throughout the day. We’d plant, harvest and haul our own food which would keep our shoulder sockets rotating, our backs bending and twisting and our knees lifting and bending. “stretching” would be unnecessary, even unheard of because our daily activities would require our joints to move and our muscles to lengthen and shorten many times throughout the day.
Unfortunately the world we live in has most of us leading essentially if not completely sedentary lives. We sit in front of computers all day, we drive cars to where we need to go and we reserve physical movement for designated times and places a few times a week. Even those of us who exercise regularly are often not using our bodies within the full scope of its capabilities. We tend to box ourselves into being “runners” or “cyclists” or “swimmers.” While each of these are wonderful for our health, they are individually limiting in the movements they require. You do not need to be flexible overall in order to perform well athletically. In other words: we are not moving our bodies.
That is why the practice of consciously stretching or moving each and every one of our joints through their full range of motion on a regular basis is critical to overall health and wellness. You can do this through a yoga practice, a formal stretching routine or you can very simply do it on your own by taking five or ten minutes every day to bend twist and rotate your body. Whatever your method, just do it. With time and regularity your joints and muscles will regain flexibility and range of motion.
Resources For Starting Your Stretching Routine
The American Council on Exercise (ACE) has some good basic guidelines that you should read before entering into any stretch routine.
I have put together a Basic Stretching Routine that you can view in PDF format here.
YogaCards.com has a selection of free cards each featuring a different yoga pose that you can download, print and arrange into a customized routine for you to follow.