The human body was not designed to sit, yet some days it seems like that's all we do. Sit in class, sit at work, sit on the bus… all this sitting and existing in a limiting position is detrimental to the body and our health.
As a young adult and college student, I've reintroduced stretching into my daily life, and it's now vital to my mental and physical wellbeing. Sitting in class all day gives me aches, and I've discovered that stretching provides balance to both my body and my mind. I look at stretching the same way I look at exercise in general- it’s a celebration of what our bodies can do and how they can move! When thinking of physical health, flexibility may take a backseat to things like cardio or strength training. However, promoting range of motion and practicing flexibility should be an important part of any workout, as it can prevent injury and strain.
Benefits of Stretching
Even outside of an exercise routine, stretching provides a number of benefits:
Increases your range of motion and flexibility
While range of motion deals with movement around the joints throughout your body, flexibility refers to both joint mobility and muscle movement. Stretching promotes both a healthy range of motion and flexibility! Flexibility is especially important for injury prevention. Neglecting to stretch reduces mobility and causes pain in the body, as it leads to tension on your tendons. Aside from injury prevention, stretching now can lead to a lifetime of benefits. Working on range of motion and flexibility now can help you stay more flexible and maintain both mobility and balance across the lifespan.
Helps maintain balance
Stretching provides balance to your life in more ways than one. First, in the form of muscle balance: stretching a muscle that is opposite one that feels tight can ease pain, as the muscles in your body are often “paired” with another that provides counterbalance. It is also beneficial in terms of balancing the body and the mind: stretching strengthens muscles, which are required for maintaining body balance across the lifespan, and importantly allows for a time of relaxation and calm.
Stretching can encourage better posture, which is vital as good posture allows for a healthy spine and promotes muscle strength throughout the chest, core, and back. In turn, these promote optimal lung capacity and better circulation as well as protect against back pain. Good posture provides beneficial dividends across the lifespan, while poor posture, on the other hand, has several long term effects such as back and body pain, fatigue, and poor balance. Bad posture also leads to unnatural pressure on the abdomen, which negatively affects digestion, and on the heart and lungs, which leads to poor respiratory function.
Increases circulation of blood and lymph
Good circulation is vital to a person's health. As blood circulates, it delivers oxygen and nutrients to the body's cells and takes away waste products. Further, good circulation protects all your organs (e.g., heart, brain, liver, etc) and your skeletal muscles and tissues. It also promotes strength and reduces soreness, and is especially important in colder months. It is very important to perform dynamic, rather than static, stretches in the winter. This will increase your blood flow, which has a warming effect. Poor circulation, on the other hand, increases the risk of a wide range of symptoms like numbness or swelling in the extremities and should be avoided. Stretching is a key way to combat poor circulation and its negative effects, but especially the poor circulation that comes with diabetes (which disproportionately affects black individuals).
Creates a space for listening to your body
What feels right? What feels wrong? Ask yourself where you feel discomfort or pain. If listening to your body alerts you to a potential problem area, consider talking to your health care provider. For example: you may be stretching before bed one night and notice that one movement causes a sharp pain in your lower spine. Say you’ve been feeling back pain for some time now- this discomfort felt as you take time to listen to your body could be a sign that it’s time to talk to your provider about potential causes or treatments. Stretching also allows time to listen to more than just the physical. How are you feeling mentally? Assess where you are holding stress or tension in your body or mind, and listen to your emotions.
Allows for a time for mindfulness, relaxation, and routine
Mindfulness is the practice of living and thinking in the now. You can read more about mindfulness in the CC Speaks blog post What Exactly is Mindfulness, Anyway? or learn about the benefits here. Additionally, implementing a bedtime stretching routine is a great way to put you at peace and prepares you for a good night's sleep.
It’s clear that stretching is a valuable exercise. However, it can be difficult to take that first step and figure out how to make it a part of your life. This entry is the first in a series on stretching- check back on CC Speaks to read on how to implement stretching in your daily or weekly routine through yoga.