Tight muscles limit movement and increase the potential for suffering a muscular injury. As we age, our flexibility tends to decrease, which makes stretching an increasingly important activity. Most of us won’t strive for a level of flexibility appropriate for ballet or martial arts, but we want to be able to move with relative ease and efficiency.
There are many reasons for decreased flexibility, including:
- over or under-use of muscles
- remaining in static positions for long periods (like sitting for hours at a time)
- the central nervous system responding to a problem and keeping certain muscles tight
Benefit of Static Stretching
Reversing long-standing muscle restrictions and restoring good flexibility may take more than stretching alone, but stretching is a great place to start. Static stretching is a safe and effective method for improving flexibility. It involves moving into a stretch and holding it for 30 to 60 seconds. Longer holds tend to work better for adults age 65 and older. Quick bouncing movements into and out of a stretch (ballistic stretching) can potentially injure muscles and connective tissues and is not recommended.
Foam rolling is a good precursor to stretching, as it reduces tension in target muscles, making them more receptive to stretching. It does carry some precautions for certain health conditions, so be sure to check with your healthcare provider before using a foam roller. A five- to 10-minute aerobic warm-up is also a good idea prior to stretching. Walking or riding a stationary bike at a low level would work well.
How to Stretch Muscles
When you stretch muscles, you will create tension and feel mildly uncomfortable, but it should never be painful. Move slowly into each stretch and be aware of your posture and alignment to ensure you are stretching the desired muscle or muscles. Breathe deeply and slowly during each stretch to enhance muscle relaxation.
Despite what many people believe, stretching right before exercise has not been shown to significantly change the risk of injury during exercise. However, consistent stretching over time does help reduce the risk of injury. So, stretch to improve your movement and lower your long-term injury risk. Stretching can be done every day, and should be done consistently. If you are inflexible, try stretching every day for a couple of weeks and see how much better you feel!