by Tracey Roizman, DC
Wouldn’t life be a lot simpler if we could go inside our bodies and tune them up or change the oil the way we do to maintain our cars? While we can’t flush out our engines the same way we can with our cars, it is quite possible, however, to adopt some very simple lifestyle practices which will help keep the fluids clean and all of the systems functioning smoothly. Being healthy starts from the outside in, and to the trained observer your outer structure is a precise reflection of your internal functioning. Thomas Edison once stated, “The medicine of the future will be directed toward the care and maintenance of the human frame.” Edison recognized that the interrelatedness between the structure of the body and its function is a fundamental aspect of health. In this article we will focus on one component of a simple, healthy lifestyle: stretching.
Stretching benefits the human frame tremendously. Stretching releases stress and tension, promotes relaxation and increased sense of well being, provides greater range of motion, improves muscle tone and function, improves circulation and organ function, prevents occupational and sports injuries, rehabilitates existing injuries, quickens reflexes and response time, and improves athletic performance. Whew, that’s quite a list! So, how does such a simple activity, done in as little as fifteen minutes a day, provide so much benefit to the body? Here’s how:
When properly stretched, muscles have better nerve supply, better circulation and therefore better oxygenation and nutritional status than unstretched, tense and neglected muscles. At the places where the muscles attach to the bones there are nerve receptors, which provide feedback information to the brain as to what each individual muscle is up to. Stretching activates these receptors, causing them to send some input to the brain and therefore the brain is forced to be aware of and pay close attention to them. Or, to use a computer analogy, the stretching muscle is brought up on the brain’s active screen. This is very important, since the activities and responsibilities of the brain are enormous and quite complex and it is convenient for it to ignore one thing in order to take care of something else that might be demanding more attention. And we all know about that in the scheme of our lives, don’t we?
Activating the nerve receptors and making the body more aware of where all of its parts are leads to improved coordination, quicker reflexes, better performance in athletic endeavors, and most importantly, decreased susceptibility to slip and fall accidents, twisted knees and ankles, frozen shoulders, and the back “going out”. Moving the body gently throughout its various ranges of motion also helps to improve circulation to the internal organs, acting as a sort of internal massage. This translates to improved function of these organs.
Aside from its physical benefits, stretching acts to release mental and emotional stresses. Simply put, we can’t hold stress in our bodies if we don’t give it a place to stay. Our bodies store stress in many ways, but most commonly as muscle tension. The muscles develop a habit of remaining tense and tight from the postures, which we habitually keep them in. We sit in a car, we sit at a desk, or we sit at a table, on the sofa, etc. This fairly accurately describes the normal physical activities of most of us throughout our average day. By taking a few minutes to stretch the muscles and take them out of their normal contracted positions we are essentially retraining the nervous system, showing it a different way to behave. By gently taking the muscles into relaxation we are also getting them to release their various accumulated tensions. This is, in part, why certain forms of body work, such as massage, yoga and stretching, chiropractic adjustments, deep breathing techniques and other similar practices are so useful for relieving stress.
How long does it take to effectively stretch a muscle? Not long. A few seconds or up to 30 seconds depending on which authority you read, with a slow gentle sustained method being preferable at all times to a rapid callisthenic style. If you hold a stretch for too long, or it you stretch a muscle too aggressively, the muscle will react by contracting to protect itself from tearing, and the beneficial effects are lost. This is an area where over zealousness, impatience, or aggressiveness will be hazardous.
Now that you know the why’s of stretching and are prepared to begin, let’s talk about turning intentions into actions. Try this: start out by doing a simple hamstring stretch each morning. The hamstring is the muscle at the back of your thigh. Do this and no more, every morning without fail before you start your day. Take a shoulder width stance with your feet, keep your back straight and bend forward hinging at the hips. Depending on your individual flexibility you might reach comfortably to rest your hands on your thighs or lower legs or you may want to support your upper body by holding onto the back of a chair. While in the stretch breathe deeply in and out a few times, allowing your upper body to rise slightly with the inhalation and sink back down as you exhale. This will feel wonderful and take away some of that morning stiffness.
After doing this for a few days or a couple of weeks the rest of your body might begin to take an interest in also doing a little bit of stretching. At this point you nave several choices. You can buy a book or a video, or you can attend a stretch or yoga class to learn a range of safe and effective stretches for the entire body. Whichever you choose, it is most important to be mindful of proper technique so as to derive the greatest benefit. And remember that while you are becoming more flexible your general health and wellness are also stretching to new levels.