By Dan Gordon, Illustrations by David Pohl
Published Jul 1, 2011 8:00 AM
Stretching exercises are a low-cost way to soothe what ails us, yet most of us don't even know where to start. Now a Bruin "integrated fitness" expert offers tips on the why, when and how of stretching for everyone from the sedentary to the athletic.
Movement is medicine. In 15 years as a fitness instructor, Amanda Jane Avis ’96, former dance major and member of the Bruin Dance Team, now running her own integrated fitness studio, Santa Monica-based Mala Motion, has turned this simple three-word declaration into her mantra. And by movement, she doesn’t necessarily mean running a marathon or lifting your weight in iron. By movement, Avis is referring to simple stretching exercises.
While most of us associate stretching with athletic activity, Avis contends that its usefulness extends beyond the workout venue. When incorporated into our daily routine, she asserts, this “movement medicine” can serve as a low-cost panacea for much of what ails us, from aches and pains to stress.
"Stretching is so important for promoting blood flow," Avis says. "It increases flexibility and range of motion, which decreases the risk of injury. Stretching also increases the ability of the body to release tension and relax."
Avis is struck by the fact that clients who are in their 80s are far more limber, thanks to regular stretching, than many of her 30-something peers. She is constantly approached by people who, having worked their entire adult lives at a desk job in an office, complain that something isn’t right with their body.
“They’ll tell me, ‘I don’t know what I did last weekend when I played golf,’ ” Avis says. “Well, it probably wasn’t golf; it was a lifetime of sitting.”
Still, it is never too late to begin countering the unnatural effects of a sedentary life. Avis offers a few simple suggestions for the fit and the wannabe-fit alike.
Make It Routine
There are times when stretching is critical — before and after a workout, for example. But given its importance for healthy living beyond athletics, Avis argues for making stretching part of your everyday life. Twice a day, for 5-10 minutes each time, can suffice. “I tell people they can make this part of an activity they would do anyway — [for example,] while brushing your teeth, just fold forward,” Avis says.
Going In Reverse
One of the first goals of stretching is to reverse the negative effects incurred by gravity through the course of the day. For people who spend the vast majority of their time in a seated position, that means relieving the burden on the pelvis and the spine.
A simple antidote: Stand upright, let your head fall forward, reach your arms to the floor and let gravity take over.
Another solution is the Figure 4 stretch: From a seated position, cross one ankle over the other knee and allow the knee to open toward the floor to stretch the hip and the buttocks muscles.
Want a third? Try a chest opener: Stand tall, put your hands behind your back, lace your fingers, pull your shoulders back, engage your abdominal muscles and look upward to open the chest and roll back the shoulders. “We tend to hunch and use the front of our bodies all day, and the chest opener reverses that,” Avis explains.
Any stretching exercise that involves the spine and neck will help to release tension. If you’re buried under a heavy workload, take short breaks to hang forward or open your chest.
“People are surprised at how much of a difference just 30 seconds of that can make,” Avis says.
On the Field
Certain stretches are particularly helpful for preventing injury and enhancing athletic performance. To work the hamstrings, Avis recommends standing tall and placing the heel of the foot on a chair with the leg extended, hips even. Soften the knees, lean the spine forward and then allow your head to drop, increasing the stretch. The more you flex your foot, the more stretch you get in the calf and hamstrings.
Also try the lunging hip flexor stretch: Place your hands against a wall at hip height, step one foot back and the other forward even with the knee, then bend that knee while keeping the back leg straight. This stretches the hip and the inner thigh and hamstring. For a quadriceps stretch, let the knee drop to the floor without touching it.
There are well-conditioned athletes and then there are weekend warriors who jump into the game after extended periods of inactivity. For the latter, try gentle spinal twists — lie on the back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor, arms in a T position with the palms facing up, and then let the knees twist to one side while looking to the other.
What Not to Do
Stretching can keep the body limber and reduce the risk of injury — but when not done properly, it can also cause injury. One of the most common mistakes is to stretch before the muscles are warm.
Avis recommends light jogging, running in place, gentle jumps or jumping jacks to get the heart rate going before starting any stretches. Don’t bounce during the routine, and don’t hold your breath; breathing can help to deepen the stretch. Make sure you’re not in a confining space, and don’t push the stretch — go to the edge and stay there.
“If it doesn’t feel good anymore, that could mean you’re pulling the connective tissue and when that is compromised, you can compromise the joint,” Avis says. “Stretch the muscles, not the ligaments.”
When the Body Says No
In general, listen to your body and don’t push when it’s telling you to stop. But that doesn’t necessarily hold true for those who are just getting going.
“At first the feeling can be so foreign that people will equate the unfamiliarity with pain and shy away from it,” says Avis. “It’s a Catch-22 — if you don’t do it, it’s hard to start. But if you have a positive experience with it, soon you relish in the movement and your body begins to tell you it needs it.”
For people who have sat all day at work, often the last thing they want to do when it’s time to head home is something physical.
“I get it,” Avis says. “But I promise, the more the body moves, the better it will feel.”