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How stretching works for (and against) your body

Hopefully last week’s blog got you thinking about areas in your body that may not be moving through their full range of motion (ROM) on a daily basis, or maybe a specific joint that just doesn’t move like it used to and needs some focus work.  Regardless, when we talk about regaining or maintaining ROM in the body, we instinctively know that “stretching” is what we ‘should’ be doing, if we just had, or- maybe more truthfully- made,  the time.

                Let’s be honest here: unless you spent your childhood as a gymnast, dancer, or have more recently fallen in love with a slow yoga practice, stretching is boring.  It’s the kind of thing we were forced to do in P.E. as kids, and as soon as you had the choice to ditch the warm-up, you probably did.  Until you experience an injury from beginning an activity with ‘cold’ muscles, there just really isn’t the incentive.  I’d like to make the argument, now, that we’ve been taught to think about stretching in the wrong way- and changing the way we view our flexibility, can, in turn, change our experience of it, and *maybe* even make stretching interesting.

I’ll break the science down into myth vs. fact:

MYTH:  Stretching a muscle makes it longer, and strengthening a muscle makes it shorter.

FACT:  Kind of. Our muscles are a certain length.  They can elongate, and contract, but just because you feel a ‘stretch,’ does not necessarily, nor usually, mean the muscle has reached its maximum length.  Elongation happens when our muscles are relaxed, and contraction happens when our nervous system send a signal to our muscle filaments to slide together.  Strengthening a muscle will lead to greater muscle tone, but in and of itself, has no bearing on the potential length of that muscle (or its flexibility.)

MYTH: Our muscles are like rubber bands.

FACT:  Our muscles do have a property called “elasticity” which is where the rubber band metaphor arises.  When we stretch, our muscle fibers naturally slide back to a resting state (depending on our individual muscle tone and other factors.)  However, this is not an “automatic” snap back mechanism, but rather controlled by our nervous system.

MYTH: When we feel a stretch, it is a sign that our muscles are being challenged and we should go deeper to gain more benefit.

FACT:  The “stretch” sensation we feel is actually a signal from our nervous system that we have moved our body into a potentially dangerous position.  When we do not move our limbs in certain ways for years, it doesn’t matter if they can anatomically move in a certain way safely, because we have essentially trained our brains over time that because we have not moved this way, this is not a safe way to move.  Furthermore, when our brains send the stretch (read: danger!) signal, they respond by contracting the muscle more to protect it.  So- going deeper?  Probably not very helpful.

                Another caveat of overstretching: when we stretch a muscle, we aren’t just stretching our muscle fibers – we are moving connective tissues and ligaments as well, which do not have the same amount of elasticity.  The main job of ligaments (bone to bone connections) are to stabilize our joints, and when taken past their small stretch point, will lengthen permanently.  This is called “laxity,” and lax ligaments cannot secure our joints as well, leading to injury.  When the connective tissue surrounding our muscles, fascia, is overstretched, it cannot support muscle tissue as well, and over time will leave muscles prone to tears and injury.

                Bottom line: our brains are in charge.   Shifting our focus from forcing our bodies, to listening to the signals our brains are sending us, can significantly improve our flexibility in a healthy, safe way.  When it comes to any stretching or self-care activity, this means working with, and not against, our stretch tolerance.  Just as we have taught our bodies what is a safe movement over many months or years, we can steadily train ourselves into new, healthy movements over time, too.

                To me, this means recommending to clients to make their range of motion exercises and/or stretches part of a daily routine; do them throughout the day in small segments to find balance in your body, versus devoting a few days a week to a longer, intense session. Experiment with how far your body can comfortably go each day, and take that movement to its “edge” (the point where you feel the sensation of stretch without associated pain.)

One of my favorite examples of a stretch you can easily add into your day is a doorway stretch (we all have doorways!)  Anytime you are entering a room, or talking to someone in another room, you have an opportunity to balance out the forward position your chest and shoulders are in all day while driving, sitting at a computer, cooking, etc.   Simply hold onto the sides of the doorway, and lean forward until you feel the stretch; play around with the height of your arms relative to your shoulders, as well as straight or bent elbows, and find what feels best for you.

                A great complement to daily movement is massage therapy!  Look out for my next blog post on the benefits of massage to a healthy range of motion, with a special segment on Thai Yoga Massage.

Haley Sullivan, NC Licensed Massage Therapist #12309

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