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Focus On Flexibility

Who should be stretching, when, how often and why?

If there’s one thing we could all do to be more fit it would be stretching. It’s quick, it’s easy and it doesn’t take a lot of time – but it produces wide-ranging physical benefits and can have a positive effect on your overall well-being.

“Every individual no matter their age should be stretching,” said Kathy Moore, director of rehabilitative services at CalvertHealth Medical Center, “but it’s really important as you get older. If you’re not maintaining your flexibility, it affects your balance and eventually your ability to do the bending, reaching or stooping needed for daily tasks like putting on your shoes or picking up something off the floor.”

Maintaining Your Flexibility

Moore recommends at least 10-20 minutes of stretching four times a week. Focus on the major muscle groups: upper body (arms, shoulders and neck), back and lower body (thighs, calves and ankles). Then, depending on how you spend your day, give extra attention to problem-prone areas – like your lower back and shoulders if you work at a desk or hamstrings and arms if you do a lot of lifting.

But she stresses the importance of warming up first. “Take 5-10 minutes to ride a stationary bike or walk – this gets the blood and oxygen flowing to your muscles – and then stretch.”

Why Flexibility is So Important

“If you don’t stay flexible and work on your stretching,” said Moore, “then the connective tissue adaptively shortens. Stretching prevents stiffness and discomfort in the joints and helps you stay agile throughout life.”

She went on to add, “It also helps decrease your chance of pulling a muscle as stretching warms and increases the elasticity of the muscle.” So, how flexible do you need to be? Moore advises: “You need to be flexible enough to decrease the chance of injuring yourself and to be able to maintain your daily routine.”

The Impact on Your Body

“The value of flexibility cannot be emphasized enough,” said Moore. “It promotes circulation. It reduces soreness, improves your energy and state of mind and it leads to greater range of motion. Those are just some of the positive effects.”

Moore said flexibility plays an important role in preventing injuries, too. “During physical activity, muscles are constantly contracting and are prone to develop excessive tightness,” she explained. “So, stretching helps to decrease tightness in the key muscles like your low back, your hip flexors and your calves. Those are the muscles that allow you to reach the floor and put your shoes on.”

Additionally, it helps improve posture and balance. “Stretching can help with fine muscle coordination, which helps with balance,” she said. “Those fine muscles have to help coordinate with each other. And tight muscles like your low back and neck can cause spasms, which affects your posture.”

According to Moore, flexibility puts your body in the right position to strength train. “For example, tight hamstrings and lower back muscles prevent you from doing a squat properly, which in turn prevents you from getting stronger in your legs.”

Stretching is also a good way to unwind, said Moore. “It lowers your blood pressure. It helps your blood circulation after exercising, relieves tight muscles and it promotes deep breathing, which is relaxing for your body.”

Taking Preventive Action

For those with balance issues, taking steps to prevent falls is a major concern. Moore suggests talking to your primary care provider to determine if a balance assessment is needed. She said this is offered through CalvertHealth Outpatient Rehabilitation, (CHOR) which has locations in Dunkirk, Prince Frederick and Solomons.

“First of all, you have to figure out the reason for the balance issue,” she said. “Is it tightness or is it certain muscle groups that need to be worked on? Then, we gradually start to increase the challenge so the person is doing more.” The goal is to improve overall safety during daily activities and prevent future falls.

She added, “We can also help people who have experienced a decline in their daily activities. That’s a huge specialty of our occupational therapists. They look at what is getting in the way of your full mobility, and if need be, teach modifications for anybody with a chronic condition like arthritis or Parkinson’s.”
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