or activity that involves stretching muscles ensures that
joints are mobile and the body is more elastic and supple.
Stretching gradually increases elasticity, tone, and strength
of muscles. It also improves range of joint motion,
suppleness and posture. Plus it helps prevent stiffness
and injury as well as improving general well-being and vitality.
What are stretching and toning exercises?
The body benefits from all forms or exercise
and activity – and the non-strenuous forms
provide just as many rewards, dancing is one of
Stretching, the truth:
the science behind range of motion
In 1998, the American College of Sports Medicine
(ACSM) recommended that athletes incorporate flexibility
exercises in their fitness program to develop and
maintain range of motion.
As a result, flexibility training has become a growing
trend in the area of fitness as the population grows
older and seeks a softer workout to regain strength and
The media's positive portrayal of yoga and Pilates, including
pictures and interviews with celebrities like Madonna,
Christy Turlington and Meg Ryan, has also increased the
public's interest in this form of exercise.
But when people talk about stretching, what do they really
Many people's anatomic model for stretching is Gumby, which
translates into their misinterpretation of the methods
and techniques surrounding stretching. Flexibility and
range of motion are critical components in the fitness
equation, and every method and technique must be appropriate
to what you are stretching and who is doing the stretching.
Each person's body defines its own range of motion, and
there is no standard when dealing with a varied population.
To understand stretching, you must realize that your muscles
are not in charge of your range of motion. Skeletal muscle
facilitates bone and joint actions, which dictate range
of motion. Each joint has a distinct contact surface that
determines its mobility and limitations.
When you stretch your muscle, it is actually the joint
and ligaments being moved across these various contact
surfaces. Normal range of motion is part of healthy joint
movements, but it is very unhealthy for individuals to
stretch past their limitations. Studies have shown that
people who continuously perform intense stretches that
exceed their physical limitation create uneven mechanical
wear on the joints and ligaments, which lead to osteoarthritis.
There is no question that yoga and Pilates have revolutionized
the way many Americans exercise by going beyond a "no
pain, no gain" mentality to a more holistic workout
of the body. However, these forms of exercise can permanently
alter body alignment, muscular balance and posture when
students are pushed to extreme ranges.
You should never impose irregular range of motion on your
body. It should be allowed by your body, without force.
Some people are born with the natural ability to stretch
their body to abnormal limits, but most people have to
work at maintaining their normal range of motion or lose
flexibility as they age.
Types of stretching
Further complicating the already-complex and controversial
subject of flexibility is figuring out what exercises are
best for you. Several methods of stretching will improve
range of motion and enhance muscular performance. Here's
a brief description of a few stretching techniques:
Static: Static stretching is often
seen in the health clubs or at sporting events
when athletes slowly stretch their muscles to the
end point of movement and hold the stretch for
a period of time, such as doing a split.
Ballistic: Ballistic stretching is a very controversial
technique that uses bouncing and abrupt movements to
gain momentum to create greater range of motion. Most
experts feel that this type of stretch does not allow
the muscles and tendons to fully adapt to the demand
of the stretch position.
Active: In active stretch, the
limbs and joints are stretched to a given point
and held in position using an opposing muscle group.
For example, to stretch your quadriceps you would
bring your heel back to your buttock and hold it
there using your hamstrings. This form of stretch
is demanding, but effective because there is no
external force applying pressure to the skeletal
Passive: During the passive stretch, muscles
are taken through their range of motion by an external
force, such as a piece of equipment, your own hand or
a partner. For example, to perform a passive stretch
of the chest, a partner would stretch you by securing
your arms behind your body. The disadvantage of passive
stretching is understanding how far to go; too little
accomplishes nothing and too much can cause injury.
Slow movement: Slow movements
of a muscle, such as neck, arm and trunk rotations,
are stretching techniques that are more appropriate
for warming up to do another activity.
Dynamic: Dynamic flexibility involves controlled swinging
of your limb with a gradual increase of the distance, speed
and intensity, without going past a healthy range of motion,
such as a split leap in dance.
Many short- and long-term benefits occur as a result of
regular flexibility training. Initially, stretching maintains
and increases range of motion and increases blood supply
to the soft muscle tissue. The changes can enhance sports
performance and help prevent injury. Initiating regular
flexibility training will also prevent the body from losing
range of motion and allow the body to function better as
Stretching should not be confused
with warming up.
Cold muscles should never be stretched, due to the risk
Breathing is an important aspect to consider during stretching
exercise, as it helps relax the body, increases oxygenated
blood flow, and removes by-products from muscles.
Slow deep breaths inhaled through the nose and exhaled
through the mouth is the suggested technique. You
should feel the abdomen, rather than the chest, expand. You
should breathe out as you hold the stretch.
Things to be aware of
Many health books contain stretching routines, and your
local gym or health centre can show you how to stretch
safely and effectively.
• Never stretch cold muscles, as you risk injury.
• Never ‘bounce’ or perform jerky
movements, as strain is placed on muscles and the skeleton.
• Never force a stretch that seems difficult,
even if you have been able to perform it in the past.
• Stop immediately if you feel any pain.
• You should not hold your breath during stretching
• Stand up / get up slowly if you have been doing
stretches on the floor.
Warming up and cooling down
Warming up and cooling down greatly reduces the likelihood
of injury. However, it is unlikely that you will consider
this before strenuous gardening or dog walking!
Exercise sessions or periods of activity should always
commence with a warm up period.
This is because:
• Core body temperature is raised by a couple
• Oxygen supply to muscles is increased
• Muscles are less tense
• Heart, lungs and other organs are prepared for
a period of activity – i.e. it gets your blood pumping
In theory, anything that increases body temperature can
be useful for a warm-up period. During warm-up, you
also prepare yourself mentally for a period of activity.
If you are following specific exercises, a short period
(5 – 10 minutes) of low-intensity aerobic activity,
such as walking or dancing, it's a good way to warm up
the whole body. Any activity that gently increases
cardiovascular output should be considered.
Muscles and joints should only be stretched or rotated
after core temperature and blood flow have been increased
through some form of aerobic activity. Slow gentle
stretches, starting with the upper and lower back, followed
by the lower body and limbs, help warm the muscles up further.
A cooling-down period after exercise is as important
as warming up, and should not be avoided. Again, cooling
down after gardening may not be considered, but may be
The purpose of cooling down is to minimise muscle fatigue
and soreness. Pain felt in muscles after exercise
is caused by the production of lactic acid during
activity. Cooling down assists the body in the removal
of this by-product, hence reducing pain and discomfort.
Simply stretching muscles is not a legitimate way to cool
down – but it can form part of the process. The cool-down
period is similar to the warm-up – and should include
gentle aerobic exercise as well as stretching.
Between 5 and 10 minutes of low-intensity exercise should
be carried out at the end of your activity, such
as walking or slower paced dancing. This assists in slowing
heart rate, removing by-products from the muscles, and
cooling core temperature.
After this short period, muscles should be gently stretched.
This reduces the cramping or the tight feeling sometimes
experienced, and improves flexibility. If you are sore
the day after exercise, some gentle warm-up and cool-down
exercises can help alleviate any discomfort, as lactic
acid will still be present in the muscles.
Did you know that a massage is a brilliant way to cool
down tired muscles after exercise?
Mind, body & soul
Physical activity and relaxation hold important places
in a holistic approach to health management. Use it to
find a new sense of well-being and inner peace.
Try to set aside 10 or 15 minutes a day, which is 'Me Time'
or 'White Space' in your daily schedule.
This is because:
• small increases in activity (and fitness) can lead
to large improvements in quality of life
• relaxation allows energy to flow more freely and
our minds and bodies to function more efficiently
Try any activities with which you feel comfortable and
which will gently raise your body temperature. The
most popular are walking, dancing, yoga, massage, and T’ai
Chi but even having a spa or bath with time to collect
your thoughts can help you relax.
Physical activity increases energy production by delivering
more oxygen to the muscles, which reduces fatigue.
So after any activity you should feel more energetic and
Adopting a variety of activities is
beneficial in order to reduce the risk of injury, and prevents
local muscular fatigue, which results from highly repetitive
actions. It also prevents a sense of monotony or
boredom and allows you to design your own holistic programme
catering for all aspects of your health, not just the physical.
Relaxation helps achieve the full benefits of activity.
If none of these suits you then why not simply try to increase
any daily physical activity with your friends and family
by going walking, dancing or bowling. You could even
treat yourself to a massage or to some aromatherapy
Remember that as your health is based on many physical,
mental and social aspects, it is important that you participate
in a variety of activities that will help improve each
Don’t simply focus on your physical health.
Tips for success
You don't need to be 'gym crazy' or a top athlete to be
succesful in fulfiling a healthy lifestyle. The following
suggestions show you just how easy it is to fit activity
and exercise into your daily routine.
Make activity a part of your daily life
Why not walk to collect your newspaper rather than have
it delivered. Check your local paper for alternative
activity-promotion campaigns such as walking or cycling
schemes, go out social latin / salsa dancing and join with
a couple of classes per week.
Don’t run before you can walk
Running is not recommended as a new activity for older
people as the impact can cause serious injuries to the
knee and hip joints. Fast walking is much safer -
and may be more beneficial for someone wishing to burn
Be patient. Remember that any exercise or activity
is better than a sedentary lifestyle. Aim to build
up to half an hour of activity on most days of the
Don’t let yourself become dehydrated
Take a drink every 10 – 15 minutes whilst exercising
and frequently throughout the day.
Make it fun
Choose activities you enjoy and vary them.
Time is one of the biggest barriers to becoming more physically
Don’t try to exercise when you are hungry or when
your favourite TV programme is on. If exercise competes
with a more positive behavioural cue it will lose every
time. Instead, try to incorporate it into everyday
life so it becomes a habit, one that you would miss if
the habit were broken.
We use excuses every day to avoid activity and exercise.
We look at the most common exercise myths, and why they
are simply untrue.
Physical activity in the home is not effective
Findings indicate that adherence to home-based aerobic
programmes was significantly higher at 75-79% compared
to 53% for group-based aerobic programmes (King et al 1999).
It hurts – “No pain, no gain,
Learn the difference between pain and your body's normal
discomfort from physical exertion. To be of benefit the
activity should make you feel warm and breathe more heavily
than usual, but not cause any pain.
I’m too old to start
There is no upper age limit to the benefits of exercise,
even among people who have been lifelong couch potatoes.
I can’t exercise in my condition. I might injure
myself. It will do me more harm than good
People tend to exaggerate the risks of exercise and underestimate
their capabilities, believing that the need for regular
exercise decreases with age. Such attitudes are inaccurate
and misinformed, based on faulty perceptions and beliefs.
Why not ask your GP for advice?
So remember – it’s never too early or too late
to start being physically active, but it is always too
early to stop. (Vuori, 1996)
Spirduso, W.W. (1995) Physical Activity and Aging, Human
American Council on Exercise (1998) Exercise for Older
Blair, S et al (2001) Active Living Every Day , Human Kinetics
Shephard, R (1997) Aging Physical Activity and Health,
Allen, L (ed) ( 1999) Active Older Adults, Ideas for Action,
World Health Organisation (WHO) Guidelines for Promoting
among Older Persons, 4th International Congress on Healthy
Aging and Sports,
August 1996 Heidelberg, Germany
"Saving Lives, Our Healthier Nation" 1998
Hooper, A and Perring, M (2000) Get Fit, Feel Fantastic,
Carrol & Brown
Howley, E.T and Franks, B.D (1997) Health & Fitness
Instructors Handbook 3rd Edititon, Human Kinetics
Kennedy, W.L (ed) ACSM’s guidelines for exercise
testing and prescription, 5th Edition
Sobel, D and Klein, A.C Arthritis (1998) – the
complete guide to relief using methods that really work,
White, E (2000) The Beat Fatigue Handbook, Thorsons
The British Lung Foundation
Stretching, the truth: the science behind range of motion
By Michaelene Conner
Atlanta Sports Mag