Stretching is an exercise that comes naturally and feels good. Just watch your dog, cat or baby as it wakes up to confirm how instinctive it is.
This is the 13th installment in a new WorkWell series, Healthy Living Basics for Everyone. The sanely paced plan helps you with nutrition, exercise and lifestyle and includes a mental component that helps clarify goals and identify what might hold you back.
There are many types of stretching. Here are several that are generally safe for most folks, though they have wide applications that are not appropriate for everyone. For example, most of us would injure ourselves trying Krounchasana, a yoga pose that’s an “active” stretch, but we’d be just fine with a simple “active” quadricep stretch, as in the example below.
You create “agonist/antagonist” relationships between muscles or muscle groups: Agonist muscles contract while antagonist muscles relax and stretch. This usually happens around a joint. For example, if you flex (or bend) your knee, your hamstrings (agonist) contract and your quadriceps (antagonist) oppose them by stretching. Lots of yoga poses involve active stretching.
You move parts of your body (not necessarily a particular muscle or muscle group), and once your muscles lengthen, you contract them, activating joints, tendons and ligaments as well. You’re smoothly moving toward the limits of your ranges of motion: swinging your arms or practicing walking lunges, for example.
You create a shape with your body to stretch a certain muscle or group of muscles, and then relax and hold that shape with the help of an external force: another person, another part of your body or an object. An example of this is lying on your back with your heels resting on a wall to stretch your hamstrings.
You stretch a muscle or group of muscles to the farthest point(s), and then hold that stretched position for a limited period of time.
Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation
Generally, you stretch a muscle or muscle groups, then contract them, and finally relax them. You might follow that same process or a variation of it again. There are several kinds of PNF stretching, so this one can get complicated.
The bottom line
You don’t have to bog yourself down in the nitty-gritty of stretch-types, especially if you’re new to exercise or stretching. Your best bet is to stretch, passively or actively, in a way that feels good — no more than a 3 or 4 on a 1-10 scale of intensity. And bear in mind stretching should never hurt.
Many simple stretches can be done in all kinds of locations and by almost anyone. “Stretching is great because it’s easily accessible,” says Taylor Eubank, a health & wellbeing consultant with Unum and a certified exercise physiologist with the American College of Sports Medicine. “It’s portable.”
For example, you could stretch your quadriceps and hip flexors while sitting on a park bench. Your office and home have lots of tools you can use, too.
“I like to stretch out my shoulders, which get tight just from typing all day and holding my hands up at my keyboard,” Eubank says. “I have a cabinet I put my hands against and lean my body away from.”
Hundreds of stretches are available to you. Get creative about finding them.
Journalist Mitra Malek regularly creates content for wellness-focused outlets, including Yoga Journal, where she was an editor. Learn more at www.mitramalek.com.