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The Basics: Stretch Your Fitness Limits

In the quest for fitness, don't overlook flexibility
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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 mind."

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."

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."

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