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Stretching and Fitness: Why, when and How

In the old days, athletes were encouraged to stretch before beginning any type of exercise. If you stood on a high school track field at the start of practice, you’d see runners and sprinters stretching their muscles by bouncing the muscle up and down.

These days, however, most serious athletes and fitness experts realize that stretching a cold muscle is akin to stretching a cold piece of chewing gum – it snaps rather then stretches.

Like chewing gum, your muscles need to be warm to be pliable enough to stretch. Stretching a cold muscle increases your chance of injury and may decrease any subsequent athletic performance. So here’s a basic guide to stretching:

Why
Stretching increases the flexibility of your muscles, which can help boost athletic performance and lower your risk of injury. Stretching increases the range of motion your muscles, joints and tendons can move. Because of this, you’re less likely to injure yourself when you engage in physical activity. Moreover, tired and tight muscles perform poorly when forced into motion. Stretching, however, strengthens your muscles so they don’t tire as easily, and keeps them limber and loose. As a result, your athletic performance – whether you’re a runner, swimmer, weight-lifter or cyclist – is likely to improve if you stretch regularly.

When
In the past, athletes stretched before they started training. But these days, health and fitness experts realize that it’s important to stretch warm muscles. In general, spend about five to ten minutes – or longer, if necessary – engaging in light exercise to warm up your muscles. Examples include walking, light jogging, or some easy effort on the elliptical machine. The amount of time you need to spend warming up depends on the activity you were doing prior to exercise. If you workout first thing in the morning, you probably need to a spend a few extra minutes warming up as compared to exercising right after cleaning the house. Some athletes even wait until mid-way through their workout to stretch. You can also stretch after your workout, as long as your muscles are still warm. Pick the best time for you and your fitness performance.

How
In general, for most sports, static stretching is the style of stretching that’s least likely to lead to injury. This means moving into the stretch and holding the position without bouncing, twisting or turning. In the past, the bouncing stretch was viewed as the best style. But these days, experts caution against that style of stretch because it can lead to overextension for some people. However, certain types of athletes – such as martial artists – who rely on explosive movement may benefit from the occasional bouncing stretch.

Stretching is a vital component of any exercise program, and you should always incorporate some type of flexibility workout into your regular fitness routine.

Consult your physician before beginning any exercise program. If you’re unsure of the technique used in stretching, have a professional or experienced fitness pro demonstrate the stretches so you can avoid potential injury.

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If you feel that you have a health problem, you should seek the advice of your Physician or health care Practitioner.

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