The benefits of stretching

Until a few years ago, stretching was only a complement to other sports. Many used to do stretching exercises at the end of training for a few minutes, without understanding its exact purpose. Today it has become an autonomous physical activity, fundamental for the maintenance of a loose and relaxed state of flexibility and body mobility.
Let's discover how this activity was born, which allows our body to stay young and elastic or, in some cases, to rejuvenate its movements. How long can we live in the fluency and freedom of daily movements and in the correctness of postures. Finally, we will discover how natural and easy it is to practice anywhere and what the different types are.

Instinctive stretching born with man

Stretching is an English term which is used in sports to indicate a set of exercises aimed at improving muscle. But isn't stretching the body the most natural and unconscious gesture we make as soon as we wake up? Isn't it almost the body that asks us? That elongation is nothing more than a slight stretching.  In fact, it serves to boost the flow of blood to the muscles (and brain), to mitigate muscle stiffness and promote the awakening and awareness of your body.
Observing the same movement in the animals made one think that it was an instinctive and natural attitude. Somehow necessary for living beings. This may have led over time to conscious applications of stretching to human movements. And at the birth of disciplines such as Yoga, Pilates, Antigravity that make stretching a fundamental component in their practice.

Where does stretching come from?

Many associate the origin of stretching with the United States, especially because Bob Anderson, a former American runner and writer, is often cited as his "inventor". Stretching certainly came to Europe from America several decades ago, in the wake of aerobic gymnastics and the culture of leisure and body care. In fact, the origins, as far as Italy is concerned, are linked to the book written by Bob Anderson which is considered as the Bible of stretching.
Most of the books written later are made up of and draw on that book to the full. But stretching is of oriental origin and is closely connected to the holistic approach of well-being, typical of oriental philosophies that tend to consider mind and body as an indissolubly linked whole. In any case, you just need to go to Bangkok to find statues, over 2000 years old, showing people doing stretching exercises.
The most common types of stretching
Initially, ballistic stretching was very popular, involving uncontrolled swing of the limbs or bust. Since it has been shown that this methodology was harmful and counterproductive, it is no longer practised.
Dynamic stretching that provides the same type of movements but carried out in a controlled way. This method is recommended in sports programs where movements are expected at high speeds, because it affects the elasticity of muscles and tendons. The agonist muscle contracts quickly and tends to lengthen the antagonist muscle (the muscle that we want to lengthen). Thus, rebound movements are made with a certain speed.

Static stretching. The best known stretching system is based on yoga and, with its positions and way of breathing, bases its practice on muscle stretching exercises. It consists in taking a certain position, which is different for each muscle or group of muscles. Then keep it for a few seconds (usually 15 to 30) to relax the muscle concerned. All this is done slowly so as not to stimulate the stretch reflex in the antagonist muscles.

Isometric stretching, the most sophisticated form, divided into several components (PNF, CRAC, CRS) which is only feasible after adequate preparation.

How to keep your joints young

Have you ever felt tied, rigid, limited in movement, inflexible in bending down or picking up something from the ground? Or train for a sport without getting the most out of it? Or feel tired limbs after hours spent sitting? Well, if the answer is yes, we should not be alarmed, but we should assess the room for improvement available. And start working to exploit it all.

The way people move is their autobiography. Gerry Spence

Our body speaks about us, tells us how we treat it and how much we care about its well-being. It can tell of a life aimed at wellness or neglect and a limited motor mobility. Much depends on us. If not solicited and exercised, the body is forced, with the passage of time, to movements less and less loose and broad, to more sudden tiredness and the use of greater effort in all daily activities. The reduced muscular elasticity, the reduced capacity of coordination, the decrease of energy, the wear of the joints, in fact predispose the body to a faster aging. They must be combated with the aim of promoting the rejuvenation of the entire locomotor system.

Stretching involving muscles, tendons, bones and joints promotes a global improvement in movement. But also better joint lubrication, thus counteracting the aging of the cartilage and thus arthrosis. In fact, stretching keeps the joints "young", slowing down the calcification of connective tissue. The stretching function is to stress the connective tissue (tendons, bands, etc.) present in the contractile structure, in addition to muscle fibers. The connective tissue is extensible (it can be lengthened), but if it is not regularly stressed with exercise, in a short time it loses this essential characteristic and ages.

Stretching means flexibility, articulation and extension
When talking about stretching, it is also necessary to refer to joint mobility (also known as: articulation, flexibility, extensibility, etc.). This is the ability to perform large movements and at the most the physiological extension allowed by the joints. So here are the benefits, and not just the flexibility, that this activity offers to those who practice it:

      • at the musculoskeletal level, stretching increases the elasticity of muscles and tendons, with an overall improvement in the ability to move;
      • is an excellent form of prevention of muscle contractures. In some cases it reduces the feeling of fatigue and can prevent muscle and joint trauma;
      • stretching exercises also help to decrease blood pressure by promoting circulation;
      • stretching also reduces muscle tension and heart rate, so you can relax in one word. The important thing is to take comfortable postures, in which to breathe in a natural way. Good oxygenation will restore the balance of physiological functions and muscle tone, and therefore, will attenuate any state of tension in the body.

When taking incorrect positions for a long time, the contracted muscles start to shorten. Once back in the natural position, the shortened muscles put up resistance and hinder the normal realignment of the bone segments. By making your back, pelvis and leg muscles more flexible, you can more easily regain your correct posture and maintain it effortlessly.

When, where and who can practice it?

Stretching can be done anytime, anywhere and by anyone. If you train, stretching can be done as a pre-exercise warm-up and as a post-workout cooldown.  In the first case, the muscle prepares to move from rest to activity thanks to the thermal-metabolic effect of stretching. In the second, stretching will allow a return to the initial conditions of flexibility, because it will reduce muscle tone.
An important element is the environment in which you train: stretching usually involves a series of postures that are performed on the ground. Therefore, the floor must not be cold and it is advisable to use a carpet so that the surface to be extended is relatively comfortable. The environment should also not be noisy, because this does not contribute to relaxation.
Given that flexibility can only be achieved through awareness of one's own movement, the first step is control of the gesture. Therefore, it is important to be aware of a certain movement while it is taking place, avoiding acting automatically. In fact, the possibility of stretching the muscles is determined by the nervous system and its tolerance to a certain extension radius. If we take into account the messages of the nervous system, the benefits will be many and natural. However, we are talking about a sweet and basically simple activity that anyone can practice. Maybe without confronting others because this would probably lead to an altered perception of the pain threshold.

Rules for stretching correctly

Surely the best results are achievable if pursued with perseverance and commitment. But it is also true that the progressive improvement of muscle flexibility, as you train, is a very motivating element. Thanks to stretching, it is possible to find the correct posture, express the full potential of the competitive muscles and free the body from stress and tension. And consequently perceive a body that is visibly rejuvenated.
Some practical tips when you are preparing to practice this activity are:

          • identify the muscle group to be stretched, look for a comfortable but effective position which, once reached, should be maintained for 15 to 30 seconds;
          • that the elongation must not exceed the threshold of pain;
          • before stretching, it is important that the muscle is warm. It would therefore seem more appropriate to dedicate oneself to stretching at the end of your workout, to help your body relax after your work session. But some authors suggest cold stretching to increase its effectiveness (especially at the connective tissue level);
          • wear comfortable clothing, which allows very wide movements and without hindering breathing.

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