Stretching For Beginners

By Kimberly Dawn Neumann

"From the time you're 12 years old, your flexibility begins to diminish, and with today's sedentary lifestyle, it could start decreasing even faster," says fitness personality Michelle LeMay, author of Essential Stretch and a former national competitive aerobics champion In other words, the pursuit of flexibility should be a lifelong endeavor. "Whether a person works out or not, everyone should stretch," says LeMay. "Stretching keeps you young."

Most experts agree that stretching after physical activity is the most beneficial (so if you're usually the one who skips out of aerobics class early, you might want to rethink things). However, it's important to include stretching beforehand if the workout is strenuous enough to pose risk of injury. Activities that should always include a pre- workout stretch include running, dancing, hiking, biking/indoor cycling, and weightlifting. If you're simply going for a light walk, stretching only post-walk is usually ample. "Stretch the muscles you'd primarily be working in those activities and always stretch the back because it's an important area of communication to the rest of the body," says LeMay.

Keep in mind that some people are naturally more stretchable than others. So don't get frustrated if you're struggling to touch your toes while your best friend is doing the splits. Flexibility is primarily due to genetics, age, and level of physical activity (the less active a person, the less flexible they're likely to be). The good news is that with an ongoing commitment to stretching, flexibility will improve.

Still need convincing as to why you should start stretching? Aside from the obvious benefits of injury prevention and relaxation, here are some other reasons for giving it a permanent spot in your fitness routine:

Enhances range of motion (ROM). According to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), a better ROM (which translates into better overall flexibility) may also slow joint degeneration.

Minimizes post-workout aches. Stretching post exercise can help lessen the muscle shortening and tightening that may lead to pain later on.

Helps you stand up straight. Keeping the muscles of the lower back, shoulders and chest open will allow you to have premiere posture thanks to a better aligned back.

Promotes circulation. Blood supply to the muscles is greater when stretching, which also means more nutrients being carried to all bodily tissues.

Saves energy. A flexible joint requires less work to go through a greater ROM. And a flexible body is more energy efficient (i.e. working out is easier when you're stretched).

Lessens low-back pain. ACE says that flexibility in the hamstrings, hip flexors and muscles attached to the pelvis relieves stress on the lumbar spine which in turn reduces the risk of low-back pain.

Reduces stress. This applies not only to mental but also physical since most wound-up people hold tension in their bodies. Habitually tight muscles effectively cut off their own circulation resulting in a lack of oxygen and essential nutrients.

Improves your sex life. Do we really need to explain this one?

Kimberly Dawn Neumann is a certified fitness instructor and health and fitness writer whose work has appeared in Prevention, Women’s Health, Weight Watchers, and Fitness magazines.

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