A stretched body is a strong, supple, flexible body. In the past stretching was the Cinderella of the fitness scene, something to race through before and after a workout. But nowadays stretching is an art in its own right with the smartest clubs offering special stretch classes, often combining elements from yoga therapy and Pilates, alongside more standard stretches.
Why stretch? The list is as long as your (nicely stretched) arm. Stretching releases stress, so it’s an absolute must if you spend days cramped behind a desk or a car – or if your days are simply full of petty irritations. It’s a brilliant way to wind down after a tough day or whenever you find yourself feeling tired and wired. A good stretch helps the body to throw out toxins by increasing oxygenation and stimulating lymphatic drainage so it’s a vital part of any detox program. Go further and make stretching a regular part of your life and you’ll find your posture and balance improves and you will be far less likely to suffer neck, shoulder and back pain. Headaches and bad digestion may also become a thing of the past. If you still need a carrot, ponder this: a well-stretched body looks great: lean and elegant (stretching literally elongates muscle and connective tissue). If you religiously stretch before and after exercise or sports, you’re far less likely to suffer from injuries and if you suffer from (or are concerned about) osteoporosis, get stretching! Dr Miriam Nelson, author of Strong Women, Strong Bones (Piatkus) says: “Stretching helps reduce back pain from osteoporosis, as well as other aches and pains. Stretch as often as you can: it’s a real revitaliser.”
There are just no excuses for not stretching. You don’t need any special equipment and you don’t have to go to a special class – you can stretch just as well at home, in your own time and space. And absolutely anybody can do it. Yes, some people are naturally more supple but everyone (however stiff and unyielding their muscles) can learn to bend. This is one case where practice really does make perfect. If you stretch for twenty minutes three times a week you will notice an improvement in your flexibility within a few weeks – and after six weeks you will be reaching a good few inches than when you started.
Stretching is usually safe for everyone. However if you suffer from a bad back or joint problems you should seek professional advice before stretching.
HOME STRETCH CLASS
Before you do any stretching, make sure your muscles are warm. Go for a five or ten minute walk, building slowly up to a brisk pace, swinging your arms smoothly. Alternatively you could use the warm up section from any good aerobic video – or simply put on some music and dance for a while. Follow the guidelines below and you’re all set.
THE GOLDEN RULES OF GOOD STRETCHING
1. Never stretch cold muscles: always do a warm up first.
2. Make sure you relax your body while you stretch: in particular consciously relax the area you are stretching.
3. Check you are in the right position – improper stretching can do more harm than good.
4. Once in position, hold the stretch without straining for around 30 seconds. If your muscles shake or wobble, you’re stretching too far.
5. Never “bounce” the stretch – it can tear your muscles, tendons or ligaments. Get into position and stay there. After 30 seconds you may be able to take the stretch slightly further which is fine – just don’t pop in and out of the stretch.
6. You can repeat each stretch three times. Each time you will probably find you can reach further.
7. Keep breathing while you stretch – your muscles need the oxygen!
8. If you feel any discomfort or pain, stop. Pain means you’re damaging tissue.
9. Take it slowly. It’s not a race.
10. Ideally stretch at least three times a week.
INNER THIGH STRETCH: this reduces stiffness in the ankle, knee and hip joints. It also stretches and tones the inner thigh muscles and improves circulation in the pelvic area.
1. Sit comfortably with your shoulders relaxed and your spine straight.
2. Slowly bring your feet together, so your soles are touching and your knees are wide apart. Don’t worry if they are way up in the air.
3. Clasp your hands around your feet and bring your feet in as close as you can to your body.
4. Now place your hands on your knees and gently push them downwards until you feel a firm stretch. Hold.
LYING BACK-OF-THIGH STRETCH: this lengthens the muscles at the back of the thigh (the hamstrings). It helps to prevent stiffness in the hips, legs, spine and lower back.
1. Lie on your back with both knees bent and both feet flat on the floor.
2. Bend your right leg up towards your chest. Hold your hands under the knee to support it.
3. Now slowly and gently straighten the leg upwards and towards your body, easing your hands up to the calf (if comfortable). Keep your hips firmly on the floor and keep your neck and shoulders relaxed. Hold and breathe normally.
4. After 30 seconds, you may feel you can stretch a little further. If not, gently lower the leg.
5. Repeat on the other leg.
CHEST STRETCH: this reduces the build-up of tension in the shoulders and upper back so it’s ideal if you spend a lot of time hunched over a computer.
1. Stand with feet shoulder width apart, knees soft and shoulders relaxed. Your hands are hanging loosely by your sides.
2. Breathe in and raise your arms sideways to shoulder level (so you’re in a cross shape), palms facing the floor. Stretch out as far as possible and hold.
3. Breathe out and lower your arms, swinging them behind you. Clasp your fingers together behind your back and breathe normally.
4. Gently raise your arms as far as you can, keeping your arms straight. Hold as long as you feel comfortable, breathing normally.
5. If you don’t have any neck problems, you can let your head lean back, stretching out your neck. Feel the stretch across your chest and in your upper arms.
ALL-OVER BODY STRETCH: this stretch boosts circulation, promotes relaxation and helps to prevent the build-up of fatty deposits around the waist!
1. Gently lower yourself onto the floor and lie on your back. Your legs should be together with your knees and ankles touching. Breathe normally.
2. Breathe in and sweep your arms sideways and then overhead until they are stretched right up over your head with your hands on the floor.
3. Stretch your fingers as far up as possible and, at the same time, stretch your body and legs. Flex your toes so your heels are pushing into the ground. Hold, breathing normally.
4. Exhale and relax.
BACK STRETCH 1: this is a wonderful stretch for the spine, releasing pressure on the spinal nerves. It also helps to keep hip and shoulder joints flexible. NOTE: do not perform if you are pregnant or have liver, spleen or appendix problems or a hernia.
1. Sit down with your legs straight in front of you, sitting upright and breathing naturally. Tilt slightly forwards so you are resting on your tailbone, rather than slumping backwards.
2. Breathe in and raise your hands over your head.
3. Breathe out and gently bend forwards at the hip (rather than the waist), keeping your body in a straight line (don’t drop your head – keep it in line with your spine). Reach for your feet but don’t over-extend yourself.
4. When you have reached your comfortable limit, hold onto your legs (it could be your knees, ankles – eventually you will reach your feet). Hold and breathe normally.
5. Come out of this stretch slowly. Follow with Back Stretch 2.
BACK STRETCH 2: this is wonderful for the spine, and balances the previous exercise. It is also superb for stretching and strengthening the shoulder, elbow and wrist joints, keeping them flexible. You will also feel a stretch in your abdomen and this stretch can massage your internal organs and even ease constipation.
1. Roll over onto your tummy, keeping your body in one long straight line (check your knees and ankles are touching and your hips are firmly on the floor).
2. Make a diamond shape with your index fingers touching and your thumbs touching and lay your forehead on it (your elbows will be out to the side, like wings).
3. Breathe in and bring your head (in its diamond cradle) off the floor. Don’t overdo this: just go as far as feels comfortable and hold, breathing normally.
4. When you are ready to come down, breathe in to prepare, then breathe out and return to the floor.
A STRETCH BEYOND
If you want to take your stretching further think about the following:
• Most gyms and fitness centres have specific stretch and tone classes which offer an hour of deep stretching.
• Yoga is one of the most superb ways of stretching your body. The British Wheel of Yoga (www.bwy.org.uk) can put you in touch with a class.
• Pilates is also a superb stretch class: often recommended by GPs and physiotherapists for people with back pain, arthritis and stress. Try this exercise to get a feel for the work:
This simple exercise is a wake-up call to the feet! It increases suppleness in the toes (and is wonderful if you have arthritis) and also reaches the calf muscles in a way few exercises can.
1. Stand comfortably with your feet hip-width apart.
2. Lift alternately the toes of your right foot, then your left foot.
3. Once you have established this rhythm, alternate lifting toes and heels. So as you lift the toes of your right foot, you rise up on the toes of your left foot (so the heel is raised). Then you change sides, lifting up your left toes while rising up on your right toes. (It actually sounds more complicated in writing than in practice!).
4. Once you’ve got the hang of it, “prance” smoothly for about a minute.
Yes, you can pay someone to stretch you! These are the super-stretchers…
1. Thai massage: often called “lazy man’s yoga”. You lie fully-clothed on mat while the practitioner gently but firmly stretches your entire body.
2. Mezieres Method: an incredible system which literally “re-educates” your body by stretching it into its perfect form (needs a lot of commitment).
3. Feldenkrais Method: a gentle form of re-posturing in which your body is stretched into alignment.
4. Rolfing and Hellerwork: two forms of deep bodywork which untangle the connective tissue to liberate old aches and pains. You take a course of ten or eleven sessions.
A longer version of this feature first appeared in Woman & Home magazine