I Bet You Can't Touch Your Toes

“Don’t keep reaching for the stars because you’ll just look like an idiot stretching that way for no reason.” ~Jimmy Fallon

“Forty is the old age of youth; fifty is the youth of old age.” ~Victor Hugo

My age, 45, puts me at the top of the life span bell curve. It’s a great view, but now that I have trudged up this midlife hill, I have noticed that there are a few things I can’t quite do like I did when I was 25. I don’t bounce back from exercise as quickly. I can’t sleep-in anymore because my back wakes me up at 5:45 a.m. And I definitely can’t eat like I used to, so I live vicariously through my teenage sons who take for granted that they can order a 24 ounce T-bone at Bennie’s Red Barn.

Being that my medical practice revolves around promoting a healthy lifestyle, I try to practice what I preach by eating well and exercising a few days a week. Like most adults, however, I seem to have 30 hours of obligations to try and cram into a 24-hour day, so squeezing in 30 minutes of exercise only occurs if I wake up at 0-dark-thirty to work out. Occasionally when I’m up this early, ready to jog or do a push up or two, I think to myself that maybe I should stretch first. Should I stretch? What do I stretch? How do I stretch? Can I even touch my toes?

Man Stretching on a BridgeStretching can be a very controversial subject. Some folks believe in it and some don’t. Some even think it may cause injury. I am in the pro-stretching camp and think it is beneficial when performed properly. I have talked at length on this subject with Paul Trumbull, Director of Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation Services at Southeast Georgia Health System. He says that he is such a proponent of stretching that these days his kids will call him with a detailed description of their aches and ailments, so he can prescribe the proper stretching regimen.

A good stretching program should not take a back seat to exercise .

Woman Doing Yoga by a Lake

In its most basic form, yoga is an exercise program that utilizes stretching to enhance balance, symmetry, flexibility and overall strength. ( Hopefully this definition is satisfactory for the professional yogis, so they don’t tie me up in the pretzel pose.) There are multiple benefits of stretching, including:

  • Improved joint range of motion
  • Improved performance in physical activities
  • Decreased risk of injuries
  • Increased muscle effectiveness
  • Reduced muscle soreness after exercise

Before plunging into stretching, make sure you know how to do it safely and effectively. While stretching can be performed anytime and anywhere, proper technique is important. Stretching incorrectly can actually do more harm than good.

Here are a few basic tips on proper stretching:

  • Static stretching should never be used as a warm up . There area really two types of stretching: dynamic stretching (like light walking) and static stretching (like touching your toes). You may hurt yourself if you statically stretch cold muscles. Instead, stretching before exercise should consist of light jogging, biking or elliptical for five to ten minutes. Another way to perform a dynamic warm-up consists of movements similar to your sport or physical activity at a low level then gradually increasing the intensity.
  • Symmetry is important. Very few of us need to have the flexibility of a gymnast. Instead, focus on striving toward equal flexibility side to side. Flexibility that is not symmetric may lead to injury since the more flexible side may have to compensate for the tight side.
  • Make stretches sports specific. I know this is common sense, but the joints and muscles that we use the most are the ones that get tight. Therefore, focus on stretching those joints and muscle groups used most in your sport or activity. For example, soccer players are vulnerable to hamstring and hip flexor strains, so stretches focusing on those muscle groups are extremely important for their sport.
  • Hold your stretch. Breathe normally and hold each stretch for 30 to 60 seconds.
  • Don’t aim for pain. Expect to feel tension when you stretch but not pain. If it hurts, just back off a little.
  • Keep up with your stretching. Although it can be time consuming , you can achieve the most benefit utilizing dynamic stretching before exercise and a static stretching program as a cool down after exercise. Skipping regular stretching will decrease the potential benefits of increased flexibility and range of motion that may increase the risk of injury.

Outdoor Yoga Silhouettes of Two Women Hopefully after reading through these guidelines, you will want to start incorporating a solid stretching program into your exercise routine. There are some good websites that go beyond the scope of this blog that discuss different types of stretching for specific muscle groups, joints and musculoskeletal issues. One of my favorites is www.stretching-exercises-guide.com. This website allows you to focus on different areas of the body and gives detailed instructions on proper stretching. Keep in mind that stretching is not the panacea for an overuse injury.

So next time you see me on an elliptical trainer reading a Saltwater Sportsman with a Big Gulp in the cup holder and Twinkie wrappers scattered all over the ground, remember, I’m just warming up.