If you were to take a poll asking people, ‘Do you stretch daily?’ Most people would probably say no, or ‘When I lean over to pick the remote off the floor, does that count?’  Sadly, the answer is no. Purposeful stretching isn’t something that the average person does, whether they exercise or not. However, stretching can be vitally important as we age, not only for flexibility, but also for maintaining healthy joints.  It’s not very glamorous, and depending upon your flexibility to start with, it can be painful. Who would do that willingly?  In my Pilates teaching, I always incorporate stretching into the session. Pilates is all about length, so the more stretching the merrier, I say. Personally, I aim to stretch for thirty minutes to one hour daily.  That’s a lot, but as a fitness professional I find that my muscles need it after a long day of teaching.  In addition to the added flexibility and range of motion in your joints, you increase circulation and blood flow, decrease muscle tension and increase muscle coordination. These are all really good things. There are differing opinions on when it is best to stretch, so I would advise you to do your research on this as an injury from over or improper stretching can be just as painful as getting injured while actively exercising. My practice has been to stretch after a workout, but not immediately and not when my body is cold. If it is a day where I’m not working out, I never stretch right when I wake up. I also try not to stretch before bed because the increased circulation and blood flow can actually increase energy. Though sometimes, it’s the only available time I have. If that is the case for you, don’t shy away from it, but maybe lessen the amount of time you stretch at bedtime.

One of the other awesome things about stretching; is that it doesn’t involve any monetary investment. Imagine that!  Something that is beneficial for our bodies and health that is totally free! Though a resistance band and foam roller are excellent and inexpensive props to aid and enhance your stretching experience.  There are simple, yet really effective stretches that can be done sitting at your desk (hip, neck, chest and shoulder stretches are just a few), on the floor in front of the television or standing in line at your coffee shop. Once you get into the habit of stretching you might find yourself doing little stretches throughout your daily travels without even realizing it. People may give you odd looks, but who cares?! You can touch your heel to your bottom and they can’t! Start with easy uncomplicated stretches at first and ease into it. Sit on the floor with the legs outstretched (or slightly bent for really tight hamstrings), sit up tall and roll your torso forward leading with the crown of the head and reach for your toes with your fingers. Remember to keep your shoulders pulled away from your ears and your abdominals engaged. Having proper form while stretching is just as important as proper form when exercising, so make sure you know how to perform the stretch before you do it. A quick Internet search will reveal a multitude of books, photos and videos on stretching. Once in a stretch, go only as far as your body allows and breathe deeply in and out. Every time you breathe try to relax your muscles more (never hold or clench the muscles) and see if you stretch a little further but don’t ‘push’ it. Do this slowly and only if it feels right. Forcing your self to lean forward and touch your toes is probably not going to do you any good. You will get there eventually. As with anything practice makes perfect, so stretch away. Your muscles and your joints will thank you!

-Jessica Kuiken


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