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
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
"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
- 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