The Home Stretch

What is Active-Isolated Stretching?

This technique, developed at the University of Illinois years ago as a physical therapy technique, is now being promoted by Jim and Phil Wharton, who have worked with Olympic athletes. You isolate one muscle at a time and stretch it by contracting the opposite muscle. You hold the stretch for only one or two seconds and repeat it up to 10 times. In addition, you can use a rope, your hands or a partner to enhance the stretch.

Will Stretching Prevent Injury?

There is no hard evidence that it does. Runners who never stretch before running are no more prone to injury than those who stretch, according to some research. But, in theory, stretching should protect against injury, and many athletes believe it does. Whatever the answer, cold muscles are more likely to tear than warm ones. Warming up before stretching may prevent stretching injuries, and stretching itself may help prevent injuries while exercising. Stretching after exercising cannot head off muscle soreness if you've overdone things. However, it does promote flexibility and, as we've said, it feels good.

Does Stretching Have Mental Benefits?

It may benefit your mind as well as your body. When done in a slow and focused manner, an extended stretching routine is an excellent relaxation method and stress reducer (just as yoga and tai chi are.) Stretching can help tense people reduce anxiety and muscle tension, as well as lower blood pressure and breathing rate. A good stretching-and-breathing routine can be as effective as any other means of relaxation.

Warm Up First, Then Stretch

Stretching should always be preceded by a brief (5- to 10-minute) warm-up, such as jogging in place, moderately energetic walking, riding a stationary bicycle, or doing less-vigorous rehearsals of the sport or exercise you're about to perform. Warming up gradually increases your heart rate and blood flow and raises the temperature of muscles, ligaments, and tendons. Stretching while muscles are cold may injure muscles. Sudden exertion without a warm-up can lead to abnormal heart rate and blood flow and changes in blood pressure, which can be dangerous, especially for older exercisers.

Tips for Stretching

  • Stretch at least three times a week to maintain flexibility.
  • A session should last 10 to 20 minutes, with each static stretch held at least 10 seconds (working up to 20 to 30 seconds) and usually repeated about four times. Some trainers believe that stretches should be held for one to two minutes, but this is controversial.
  • Stretch before exercising or playing a sport to improve performance and perhaps prevent injury.
  • Besides a general stretch of major muscle groups, stretch the specific muscles required for your sport or activity.
  • Do not stretch until it hurts. If there's any pain, stop.
  • Don't bounce. Stretching should be gradual and relaxed.
  • Focus on the muscle groups you want to stretch.
  • Try to stretch opposing muscles in both your arms and legs. Include static stretches plus PNF or active-isolated stretching.
  • Don't hold your breath during a stretch.
  • Stretch after exercising to prevent muscles from tightening up.

Reprinted, courtesy of University of California Berkeley. For more articles and information, visit www.wellnessletter.com .

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