Thursday, June 28, 2012

The joy of stretching


Like most girls, I first started stretching in gym class. I remember my gym teacher saying "It's important to stay flexible," and although I didn't know why, I dutifully stretched. As I was a fan of gymnastics and ballet during junior high and high school, I did a lot of stretching in association with those pursuits as well. Fast forward to college and beyond, and my stretching almost completely fell to the wayside.

I didn't notice too much of a difference because I wasn't particularly athletic and my primary form of exercise was walking. But I was losing range of motion little by little and sometimes experiencing muscle pain. By the time I was in my late 40s, I was stiff and found it difficult to bend down and to twist my head back. When I stretched my arm back to get something behind me I would sometimes pull a muscle. As I was also 40-plus pounds overweight, I basically felt like a sluggish lump. I attributed my fatigue, aching muscles, and limited range of motion to the natural process of getting older.

What I didn't realize was that more than getting older, my lack of flexibility and aching muscles were caused by disuse. I wasn't moving very much all day long. Primarily I sat at my desk for hours and did a bit of walking here and there. Back then, I didn't understand how weak and stiff muscles, ligaments and tendons can become unless they are challenged on a regular basis. (I get that now after studying anatomy and exercise physiology to become a personal trainer.)

I began stretching a bit more as well doing resistance and cardio exercises several years ago after I started on a healthy lifestyle and weight loss program. That helped some. But it wasn't until I started taking yoga that I really began to methodically stretch my entire body from my fingers to my toes. At first I was seriously stiff and had the least range of motion of anyone taking the class, but I kept with it.

Over time, my tendons and ligaments loosened up as my muscles became stronger. I regained the strength and flexibility I had in my 30s. Let me tell you right now, as I have said before, life is better when you're fit and flexible. Recently during a flamenco show I attended, one of the dancers came to our table and asked me if I wanted to get up and learn how. Without thinking I jumped up and jumped right into it, shaking it with the best of them. Pretty good for 52.

To continue drinking from this fountain of youth, I continue to work out, including stretching, consistently. Although I no longer attend a formal yoga class, I have incorporated yoga stretches into my workout routine and do some gentle stretching every morning before I get out of bed. Stretching makes me feel so good, I do it now not because I have to but because I want to. Just as I can't imagine not brushing my teeth every day, I can't imagine not stretching.

Attending yoga classes isn't the only way to add more stretching to your exercise regimen, but it's a simple and effective one. An excellent book on stretching for do-it-yourselfers is "Stretching" by Bob Anderson. It's thoroughly illustrated and includes stretches targeting various sports and activities.