Flexibility is the ability to move the joints and muscles through a normal range of motion, and it's an important fitness measure; in fact, it's one of the five health-related components of physical fitness, along with muscular strength, muscle endurance, cardiorespiratory endurance and body composition. Here are just a few of the health benefits attributable to a regular flexibility and stretching program: increased circulation, improved posture, better coordination and stress relief.
According to the Mayo Clinic, there are six essential guidelines to keep in mind when stretching, modified by Dr. Tang:
Warm up first. You're more likely to pull a muscle when it's cold. Start off with five minutes of walking, light limb movement or a favorite low-intensity exercise.
Hold each stretch for 10 seconds, remembering to breathe. Simply put, it takes time to stretch tissues safely. Go too fast and you could be in for trouble in the form of a muscle or tendon tear. For most muscle groups, a 10 times for 10 seconds stretch is adequate.
Don't bounce. Speaking of muscle tears, bouncing during a stretch can cause microtears in the muscle, leaving scar tissue as the muscle heals, which will only make the muscle tighter and more prone to future pain and inflexibility.
Avoid pain. You shouldn't feel sharp pain during a stretch. You should feel a medium ache, however. If you do, you've gone too far and need to back off and hold the stretch in a pain-free position.
Stretch both sides. Joint range of motion needs to be as equal as possible on both sides of the body; after all, if only half the body is flexible, the other half can still cause problems.
Stretch before and after exercise. Stretch them lightly before a workout and then more thoroughly after your workout. Stretching before activity improves flexibility and reduces injury risk; stretching after exercise relaxes tired muscles and reduces muscle soreness and stiffness.
Here are a few sample stretches (again courtesy of the Mayo Clinic) you can start doing right away:
The Neck Stretch: Bend your head forward and slightly to the right to stretch the left side of your neck. With your right hand, gently pull your head downward, stretching the back left side of your neck. Hold for 10 times for 10 seconds and repeat on the opposite side.
The Shoulder Stretch: Bring your left arm across the body and hold it with your right arm above or below the elbow. Hold 10 times for 10 seconds, switch arms and repeat. To stretch the internal rotators of the shoulder (important if you participate in tennis, golf or other overhead/throwing/swinging sports), hold a rolled-up towel vertically with both hands. One hand should hold the top of the towel and the other hand should hold the bottom of the towel. Now gently pull the towel toward the ceiling with your top hand, stretching the shoulder on your opposite arm. Hold for 10 times for 10 seconds, switch top hand and repeat.
The Hamstring Stretch: Lie on the floor near the outer corner of a wall or door frame. With your left heel resting against the wall and your left knee bent slightly, straighten your left leg until you feel a stretch along the back of your left thigh. Hold the stretch 10 reps for 10 seconds switch legs and repeat.