Fueled at the most microscopic level by protein molecules, muscles are actually the end result of millions and millions of strands of fibers overlapped, layered, and bundled to form your muscle tissue. Skeletal muscles are voluntarily cued by the brain to contract, relax, lengthen, and adapt to changes in position and motion, as opposed to muscles like your heart which are ‘involuntarily’ and operate normally without special triggers from the brain.
How does stretching positively affect your muscles? For one, when you stretch, you lengthen muscle fibers, helping reorganize tissue strands and boost blood circulation which carries vital nutrients and oxygen with it to your muscles. You also help release waste by-product buildup in the muscles like lactic acid. Stretching additionally keeps muscles pliable and limber which can enhance athletic performance, improve time to exhaustion, as well as help prevent injury.
If stretching simply isn’t your thing, these 5 signs might indicate it is time to give it a try:
Tight, stiff muscles do not provide much in the way of flexibility and limberness. Bad posture involves the slouching and slumping of the back when sitting or standing – as the shoulders hunch forward and the spine rounds out, it puts compression on spinal discs and stresses adjacent muscles, tendons, and ligaments.
The tighter and shorter your back, neck, and hip muscles and connective tissues are, the less likely you are to sit tall with your spine lengthened and aligned. Stiff, inflamed back muscles are not only a result of bad posture, but they continue to drive unhealthy habits like bad posture because it takes more awareness and effort to sit up tall and straight when your muscles are shortened and immalleable.
What to do: Never go more than 30 to 45 minutes sitting in the same position. Get up from your seat, stretch, walk around for a few minutes, and try to sit back down feet flat with your hips balanced and your spine straightened. Try a standing desk or stability ball chair at work to promote better posture and stretch your back and leg muscles.
Low Back Pain
Acute and chronic low back pain plagues millions of people every year, though clinical guidelines indicate that most low back pain goes away on its own with or without treatment. Repeated low back pain is typically the sensation of lumbar muscles on and around the spine being inflamed and tight – either from overuse or a muscle spasm associated with making an awkward movement or strain.
Stretching in the form of yoga, tai chi, and similar low-impact exercises has been shown to alleviate low back pain by boosting blood flow to the affected area as well as properly drawing out and lengthening the muscles. The neat thing about stretching is that the body’s muscles are immediately triggered to contract when they are stretched. By holding a stretch, like the Downward Facing Dog yoga pose or the Cat Cow yoga pose, upwards of 20 to 30 seconds, you actually override the body’s initial reflex to contract with a message to relax and lengthen.
What to do: Combine low back pain treatments of alternating heat and ice therapy, massage, and acupuncture with regular stretching practice through yoga or tai chi. The deep breathing and mindful meditation components of yoga practice also aid with stress and anxiety relief, both triggers for painful muscle tension in the back too.
Feel a headache coming on? Before you head for the medicine cabinet again, consider stretching instead. Why? Because many headaches are simply brought on by tense, swollen muscles and joints in your neck and upper back that put pressure on the nerve endings at the top of your spine. This pressure can send shooting pain up your neck, through your head, and down your arms.
Simple neck and shoulder stretches can alleviate headache pain, and can be done from the convenience of your own desk even while you work. Stretches to prevent headaches may include holding your chin to your chest using one hand for 30 seconds at a time or rolling your shoulders forwards and backwards 5 times each. Improving blood circulation to these muscles as well as reducing tension can provide unexpected headache relief without medicinal intervention.
What to do: In addition to practicing regular neck and shoulder stretches, try heat neck wraps and massage to avoid headaches. Even neck and shoulder injuries, which require a rotator cuff support for example, can be aided with gentle and guided stretching.
Trouble Lifting Weight
So you’re not a bodybuilder, but you are noticing your workouts aren’t getting any tougher and that you’re not able to increase the amount of weight you can lift. Turns out stretching can help. Boosting your own flexibility enhances the mechanical efficiency at which you play sports and workout which can mean longer, harder workouts that burn more calories and build more strength.
Stretching after a workout when muscles are warmest and most pliable also helps boost blood circulation and flush out built-up lactic acid and other toxins in the muscles, as well as lengthen the muscle to where it heals at a longer, more limber length than a shorter one.
What to do: Always stretch when muscles are warmed up. Before a workout, practice dynamic stretching with a brisk walk or plyometric jump squats. After a workout, practice static stretching by standing in place and holding stretches at least 20 seconds at a time.
You Trip and Fall Often
Barring any vision or mobility issues, if you have become clumsy as you age and find yourself tripping or frequently falling, stretching may strengthen a fine motor skill set to help you. Not only does enhanced flexibility generate a stronger sense of coordination, but it can stimulate better balance as well.
When your range of motion is at it’s best due to regular stretching, your muscles’ reflexes can go from large, sweeping contractions to finer, more imperceptible contractions, giving you greater control over the reactive motions. One 2011 study credits this change due to stretching for an improvement in balance maintenance.
What to do: Stretch daily and strengthen balance with yoga, tai chi, or alternating weight bearing stretches, i.e. standing in place, lift one foot back and grab your ankle to hold it towards your bottom for 30 seconds., balancing on the other foot.
Incorporating small, manageable spurts of stretching activity every day could transform your day to day life – from relieving headaches to invigorating workouts and even alleviating back pain. Whether it is stretching before you head to work or practicing flexibility prior to jumping into bed at night, you’ll notice the benefits of routine stretching in no time.