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The Basics: Stretch Your Fitness Limits

In the quest for fitness, don't overlook flexibility

Stretching and Exercise

Though some studies have concluded otherwise, the fitness experts interviewed for this article say they believe that doing aerobic or strength-training exercise without stretching does increase the risk of injury.

Many of the studies have focused on young, active, fit individuals, and haven't looked at different populations, such as middle-aged or older, or sedentary people, Stuhr says.

And as a Pilates teacher, Aliesa George knows what tight muscles do to her clients.

"A high percentage, if not all, of injuries I see ... are definitely flexibility related or muscle-imbalance related, which is in part due to having muscles that are too strong or too inflexible."

Naturally, she says Pilates is a great way to improve flexibility: "With the emphasis on bending the spine in all directions -- flexion, extension, and rotation -- improvements in total body flexibility happen quickly."

And because of Pilates' emphasis on proper body alignment, its benefits carry over to other activities, "helping you practice using correct muscles during other workouts and throughout the rest of your day," she says.

Michael George, whose approach combines traditional Western fitness with Eastern practices, says it doesn't matter whether you choose yoga, Pilates, or basic athletic stretches.

"I'm a believer in all of them," he says. "People should add variety to their program to keep things interesting."

How to Get Started

Whatever type of flexibility exercise you choose, Stuhr cautions, use self-restraint -- don't just leap into that Pilates or yoga class and start trying to keep up with the folks in the front row.

"People tend to do too much," she says. "They go in and complete an hour class when they probably only should have done about 15 minutes."

She recommends choosing a class appropriate to your fitness level, or taking a private lesson with a qualified teacher. Listen to your body and don't overdo it, she says.

And if you're new to flexibility training -- especially if you have an injury or disability -- it's a good idea to get evaluated by a qualified fitness professional or physical therapist.

Here are some tips to consider when stretching:

  • Be sure your muscles are warm before you stretch. If you are going to stretch before a workout, walk for five minutes first to get blood flowing to the muscles.
  • Never bounce or push during a stretch.
  • Ease into the stretch. Start with trying to hold it for 10 seconds. Work up to 30, and eventually 90 seconds.
  • Exhale as you stretch.
  • If you cannot stretch both before and after a workout, most experts advise stretching after the body has warmed up.
  • Never stretch an injured muscle or joint.
  • Stretching every day is optimal, but try to do it at least three times a week.

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