The Benefits of Stretching

A short history of stretching and its benefits

Stretching is a form of physical exercise in which specific muscles (or muscle groups) are deliberately elongated, often by moving the origin and insertion of the same muscle further apart. The purpose of stretching is to improve the muscles’ elasticity.

Stretching is an important part of every warm-up as it prepares the muscles and gets the blood running to prime the body for impending action. Stretching is as beneficial for an average person as it is for an athlete. With age our physical activity level decreases, our joints stiffen and our muscles tighten. Regular stretching not only helps increase flexibility and range of motion but also improves one’s posture.

Stretching is instinctive

We stretch when we wake up, and when we feel tired. Stretching helps to push the pooled blood into circulation, thus increasing the volume of blood pumped out with each heartbeat. This means more blood and more energy and more healing power to the muscles.

History of stretching:

The history of stretching can be traced as far back as the time of the ancient Greeks, who used stretching exercises as part of the training routine for their athletes and military personnel, as well as for general health maintenance. Hippocrates and Galen, the two great contributors to the field of medicine, explored the therapeutic advantages of stretching.

In 1874, Dr. Andrew Taylor (US) introduced the science of osteopathy. Osteopathic treatment utilises passive stretching of the soft tissues to restore normal structure and function. Later on, stretching found another therapeutic use when, in 1895, chiropractic was established, based on the hypothesis that every problem originates from misalignment of the vertebrae that restricts the flow of energy from the brain.

The physiology of stretching:

Before going into detail about the benefits of stretching, a little insight into the physiology of stretching would be helpful.

What happens when we stretch?

As a muscle is stretched the muscle fibres elongate. Once the muscle fibres elongate to their maximum limit, further stretching forces the collagen fibres in the surrounding connective tissue to align themselves along the line of force. This helps to realign the disorganised fibres and is the basis behind the rehabilitation of scar tissue.

When the muscle is stretched, stretch receptors, the specialized nerve endings present in the muscles and tendons, send signals to the brain initiating “the stretch reflex”, a protective reflex to counter the increase in muscle length by causing it to contract. The more sudden the stretching, the stronger the stretch reflex is. This reflex maintains muscle tone and reduces the risk of injury.

When the muscle is held in a stretched position for a long time, the nerves get accustomed to the new length and this diminishes the stretch reflex, allowing for greater lengthening of the muscle.

Benefits of stretching before exercise

Stretching is considered a great aid to health, with many advantages achievable with persistence and regular effort.

Improved body flexibility:

Whether you are an athlete or a dancer, you need a flexible body to perform better in the field. This can be achieved by properly warming up before starting your routine.

Even everyday movements such as climbing upstairs, bending down to pick something up or running after your child become easier and less tiring with regular stretching.

Improved circulation – improved energy and healing capacity:

Stretching improves circulation to the muscles. Blood has multiple functions: it provides energy to the muscles, it reduces the build-up of wastes that lead to muscle fatigue and, at the same time, it has healing power to repair any damaged tissue. More blood to the tissues means improved performance and rapid healing.

Enhanced range of joint movement:

Stretching opens up your joints and improves their range of motion. This increases your mobility and helps to maintain the balance of the body.

Reduced risk of injury:

Warm-up exercises help to prepare your body for an upcoming event. Instead of jerking up to motion, stretching increases the momentum in a controlled fashion.

Better posture

Tense muscles affect the posture, leading to aches and pains. A poor posture also disturbs the normal functioning of the internal organs. Regular stretching prevents stiffness and tightening of the muscles and helps to keep the torso well aligned.

The importance of stretching should not be overlooked. Starting any activity or sport with an unprepared body not only affects performance but increases the risk of injury as well.