The air is warming up, the sun is shining a little longer…spring is almost upon us. One of my favourite things about this season is the way life seems to get a fresh start. New flowers bloom, trees start regrowing leaves, and animals awake from hibernation. If you’ve had a lower energy winter season, don’t worry. Spring is the perfect opportunity to start fresh, beginning with one of the most important things you can be doing for your body: regular stretching. This one thing can help prepare you to get the most out of the longer days and sunshine for the fun things you like to do like walking, hiking, bike riding, and gardening.
Why is stretching important?
When it comes to the way our bodies move, there are a lot of intricate systems that need to be able to work in harmony to be effective. These include our muscles, joints, tendons, bones and connective tissue (fascia) that hold it all together. Our bodies perform at their best when we keep them regularly moving and active. Unfortunately, that’s not something we’re always good at remembering to do.
Here’s a practical tip for first thing in the morning or after sitting for awhile. Do what cats and kids do as soon as they wake up—they move, reach, twist and turn—all forms of stretching. A cat stretch for humans is called a pandiculation—it’s just nature’s way of loosening up any fascial cobwebs that occur while the body heals and repairs tissues while we sleep.
For example, think of the last time you had a deadline or spent a few hours or days too many working away at a desk (or Netflix binging.) Did you find afterwards that your hips or legs felt stiff and immobile? Was it hard or uncomfortable to stand up? Even just a few hours can have this effect in the short term. However, if you don’t take measures to keep your body in good shape, these problems can become more permanent.
There are a number of excellent benefits to regular stretching, including:
- Improved flexibility and mobility
- Better range of motion and lubrication in your joints
- Increased blood flow to major muscle groups
- Better performance in physical activities
- Improved posture
- Helps decrease muscle tension and pain
- Helps with mindfulness and stress relief
Although all forms of exercise help to engage and activate your body, stretching is a particularly good way to do it. Stretching helps to keep our muscles lengthened and relaxed, allowing joints to use or extend their range of motion, all of which will help you stay flexible and avoid mobility or pain issues down the line. Conversely, not stretching your muscles enough will lead them to become tight and shortened—and when you do need to use them for something physical (whether it’s a sport, gardening or lifting a filing cabinet) you may find yourself unable to do the things you were expecting to.
How to approach stretching
When thinking about stretching your body, it can be a bit overwhelming to figure out where to begin. After all, the body has about 600 muscles—so how do you go about stretching in a way that’s effective and efficient?
Here are a few things to keep in mind.
Focus on the major movement areas
The more areas of your body that you can stretch, the better. But it’s not exactly practical (and sometimes, not possible) to stretch every single muscle in your body. That’s why I recommend focusing on the major movement areas of your body while stretching. For mobility, you should be mainly prioritizing the opposite movement to what you do all day long – eg. if you work at a sitting job, you want to stretch to open up the front of your hips. If you stand all day, you would want to stretch out your back by bending forward.
If you could only stretch a handful of muscles for the rest of your life, these would be my recommendations:
- Hip flexors (front of your hips/pelvis)
- Quadriceps (front of your thighs)
- Hamstrings (back of your thighs)
- Low back
- Calves (back of the lower leg)
So if you’re not sure where to start with stretching, look into some basic routines that engage these muscle groups for the best results early on.
Remember that consistency and duration are key
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will your full range of flexibility and mobility. Like other forms of exercise, stretching has a cumulative effect—meaning that your range of motion will gradually increase over time with consistent daily work. It’s important to maintain a stretched position for a minimum of 30 seconds but ideally closer to 60 seconds to allow the stretch reflex or body’s defense mechanism to relax, which allows greater range of motion to occur.
Please ensure you stay in pain-free range of motion, meaning the intensity of the stretch should not be more than 6/10 on a scale if 0 in “no stretch” and 10 is “get me out of this stretch NOW” since overexerting yourself or impatiently stretching with improper technique can put a stop to your progress.
Once you’ve reached your goals of flexibility, it still takes a 3-4x/week stretching routine to maintain it. Stretching is a lifelong commitment, but the sooner you work it into your routine and form a habit around it, the sooner you’ll be able to experience the benefits.
Don’t cut corners with stretching
Related to the last point, there are no shortcuts when it comes to building flexibility in your body. Patience and consistency will always offer you the best results, while rushing will only lead to stunted progress and potential injuries. Pay attention to proper stretching techniques, and don’t be afraid to seek out help if you’re not sure how or the best way to target a problem area.
Consider starting Stretch Therapy (ST)
Although you’re probably familiar with the basics of dynamic and static stretches, there is another type of stretching that, despite being incredibly effective, may be unknown to you. This is called Stretch Therapy, or ST, which incorporates Contract/Relax techniques to help physiologically relax the muscles post-contraction, and results in less muscle tension and improved range of motion.
Stretch Therapy primarily focuses on the myofascia (“myo”= muscles, and fascia) in your body—a network of muscles, nerve endings and connective tissues that spans the entire body. Fascia surrounds our muscles, bones, joints, internal organs, and more, and plays a vital role in the proprioception and awareness of where your body is in space. Stretching or movement hydrates and lubricates the fascia, allowing more input or sensations to the brain to be experienced.
Stretch Therapy is pain-free and can provide very quick results as compared to other methods. Benefits of ST include:
- Improved mobility and flexibility
- Pain reduction
- Increased circulation throughout the body
- Recovery from scar tissue buildup and other injuries
Stretch Therapy is an invaluable way to help recover from injuries, feel more physically alive, and start getting active again as winter finally draws to a close.
If you’re searching for someone to help you with the fundamentals of stretching, I’m here to help. With years of experience in various disciplines of physical therapy, I’m able to identify which exercises and routines will benefit people depending on their pre-existing conditions, mobility, and lifestyle.
If you have more questions about stretching, Stretch Therapy, or anything else physical as we enter the warmer months, contact me today!