The Basics: Stretch Your Fitness Limits
In the quest for fitness, don't overlook flexibility
We all know that aerobic exercise, strength training, and nutrition are
three components of a balanced fitness regime. But there's another, just as
important, component that's often overlooked: stretching.
"It's the one area that is completely being neglected," says Michael Anthony
George, a personal trainer to celebrities including Reese Witherspoon and
Why is flexibility -- the ability to move joints and muscles through their
full range of motion so important?
First off, staying flexible means avoiding injury and pain. Without
stretching, tendons, ligaments and muscles will shorten, causing damage over
time, says George, owner of Integrated Motivational Fitness.
"If a certain muscle group is weak, stiff, or tight, the body will actually
hijack peripheral muscles to aid in that movement," he says. "Over time, these
muscles can become injured."
For example, if someone is reaching into the car to pick up groceries and is
not strong enough in the abdominals, arms, and legs, "they are going to use
their back. If the motion can't come from where it needs to come from, it'll
come from somewhere else," says exercise physiologist Robyn Stuhr,
administrative director with the Women's Sports Medicine Center at Hospital for
Special Surgery in New York.
Aliesa George (no relation to Michael Anthony George), owner of Centerworks
Pilates in Wichita, Kan., sees the benefits of improved flexibility in her
clients on a daily basis. Staying flexible, she says:
- Counters the shortening that occurs when muscles are repeatedly used -- as
in exercise or a repetitive daily activity -- and keeps muscles elastic
- Increases the range of motion in joints
- Decreases joint pain and stress
- Improves balance, stability, and circulation
- Aids athletic performance, relaxation, and posture
In fact, Michael George says poor posture is the No. 1 problem he sees. He
uses the term "collapsed thoracic syndrome" to describe the rounded and raised
shoulders and tight necks often caused by slumping over a computer monitor for
hours at a time,
"It happens gradually and we don't even notice," he says. "One day we look
in the mirror and find our shoulders are a little rounded."
Good posture, he says, "prevents injury, speeds recovery, and improves
physical appearance." But of all its benefits, a better appearance is the one
he stresses to his clients. "People are concerned about body image," he says.
"They don't care about injuries until they have them. Out of sight, out of
In a sense, stretching can also help you stay young. "As most people get
older, they experience gradual losses in flexibility, partially due to aging
and partially due to lack of activity and exercise," Stuhr says.
This not only affects your workouts, but it can also affect the ability to
perform daily tasks, like reaching to put away groceries or turning your head
to look behind you while driving. The good news is that no matter what your
age, you can improve your flexibility and with it, your quality of life.
"It's never too late to increase flexibility," says Aliesa George. "It just
takes regular practice."