As we near the end of our series on diet and exercise, let us take a look at an often overlooked and misunderstood component of exercise – flexibility. We’ve talked about aerobic exercise and resistance training, but flexibility is the all-important third leg of the stool.
A lot of recent controversy surrounds how and when to stretch. To understand how to become more flexible, we must understand how we became inflexible. In a word, the answer is “activity”. As children, we were much more flexible. Over years of use, our muscles shorten from activity. On a smaller scale, when we exercise, our muscles tighten. Therefore, stretching is best performed at the end of an exercise routine. In fact, stretching prior to exercise or sports can increase the risk of injury by extending range of motion to an injury-prone extreme.
“But wait,” you say; “I get stiff from inactivity.” Most of this type of stiffness occurs in the joints, although muscles can also become stiff from inactivity. This short-term inflexibility is best addressed prior to an exercise routine, but using dynamic rather than static stretching. As the name implies, dynamic stretching involves repeated joint movement prior to exercise. Swinging each leg a dozen times before running would be an example of dynamic stretching. We will discuss these techniques in more detail next month.
Stretching has a lot of parallels to doing the dishes. You clean your pots and pans in preparation for the next meal. Likewise, you should stretch your muscles in preparation for your next workout. As another advantage, your muscles stretch better when they are warm. Over time, your overall flexibility will slowly improve. Fortunately, you will regain flexibility quicker than you lost it.