Jewish World Review May 20, 2003 / 18 Iyar, 5763

BODYLESSONS: Flexibility can improve quality of life

By Judi Sheppard Missett | Fitness professionals tout the benefits of stretching for injury prevention and increasing or maintaining range of motion for athletic performance, but stretching is often overlooked as a means to improving quality of life.

Many of the aches and pains attributed to old age are more accurately associated with decreased range of motion, and there is a domino effect as flexibility slips away. Certain muscles become overused as others are underused, which eventually leads to some level ofdiscomfort.

Several things affect muscle flexibility and joint range of motion: the elasticity and length of our muscles and tendons; our joint structure; our individual fitness levels; even our psychological states -- when we are tense, our muscles tighten.

In addition to preserving and enhancing our range of motion, stretching stimulates blood flow to the muscles and is a great stress reliever.

The public is beginning to pick up on the powers of stretching as evidenced by the growing popularity of yoga, Pilates, tai chi and similar disciplines. These approaches promote the concept of dynamic stretching, in which the body is moved through a range of positions that enhance both flexibility and strength. The movement patterns found in each often include rotation mixed with diagonal, forward and backward motion.

Dynamic stretching mimics everyday movements more closely than static stretching. (During static stretches individuals hold a single position that targets a specific muscle.) By linking movements together, dynamic stretching forces the muscles to work in unison -- sometimes lengthening, sometimes providing stability and support. The end result is still improved range of motion, but you enhance muscle strength in the process.

Experts are still debating the best time to stretch, but all agree that post-workout stretches are best for improving flexibility. Your muscles are more receptive and pliable when your body temperature is elevated. The jury is still out on whether it is beneficial to stretchbefore a workout. If you want to stretch without doing an aerobic or strength-training workout first, do 10 minutes of gentle warm up movements before you begin.

Ideally, stretching exercises should be done at least two times per week. You can get the most from your efforts by following these tips:

-- Combine dynamic and static stretches that work all the major muscle groups, but make sure any motion is smooth and fluid -- no bouncing!

-- Hold positions for 20 to 60 seconds and breathe deeply.

-- Stretch to the point of mild tension, never to the point of pain.

To learn more about stretching and get a well-rounded flexibility workout, take a class or purchase an exercise video or DVD (such as our ``Stretch by Jazzercise'').

You can start with the following partner stretch for the quadriceps muscle, which runs down the front of your thigh. This stretch is great after a strength training or cardio workout, as your quads are active in most of the exercises and fitness activities we do. If you don't have a workout partner, you can use a wall, chair, tree, or other stable surface for balance.

Stand facing your partner, with your feet together and your knees and toes pointing forward. Place one hand on each other's shoulder. Using the opposite foot, bend your knee and lift your foot up behind you. Reach your free arm back and hold onto your ankle as shown. Keep yourknees lined up as close together as possible, and bend your supporting leg slightly for balance. Pull your abdominal muscles in for support, and breathe naturally as you stretch for 20 to 60 seconds.

To increase the stretch, tighten your abdominals even more and press yourshoelaces gently into your hand -- pushing your foot away rather than pulling it in closer. Repeat the stretch on the other leg.

Judi Sheppard Missett is CEO of Jazzercise Inc., an international aerobic-dance instruction company. Comment by clicking here.


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