Our whole lives we’ve been told it is important to stretch before exercising. Stretching properly helps prevent injuries and facilitates better performance by increasing blood flow to the joints and muscles. It turns out making stretching a part of your daily routine does more than just support a healthy lifestyle however. It could actually save your life.
Heart Disease Prevention
Can you bend over and touch your toes? If not, you might want to practice doing this more. A study published in the American Journal of Physiology indicates that, among people 40 years and older, the ability to bend over in a sitting position and touch your toes might be correlated with the risk for heart attack or stroke. Inability to perform this simple task could mean that your arteries have lost flexibility and become stiff and rigid.
Researchers in the study found that trunk flexibility predicted artery stiffness in middle age and older participants. Systolic blood pressure (the peak pressure that occurs as the heart contracts) was higher in people with poor flexibility than in the high-flexibility group.
How can stretching help prevent heart disease? Healthy arteries are flexible and elastic, which keeps blood pressure normal. Age-related stiffening of the arteries (arteriosclerosis) is a precursor of the loss of arterial integrity, which leads to high blood pressure, a propensity to develop blood clots, and possibly stroke or heart attack. In Yoga and Ayurveda, we understand that muscles (including the tiny muscles of the arteries) are made flexible by collagen and elastin, production of which is stimulated through stretching. Ayurveda also teaches that food and herbs that deliver the sweet and salty tastes can help soften and soothe tissues along with proper exercise.
While exercise in general can help prevent type 2 diabetes and high glucose levels (hyperglycemia), stretching before you exercise may reap even greater rewards. A 2011 study of adults who had type 2 diabetes or were pre-diabetic found that those who stretched for 40 minutes after drinking a sugary beverage had lower blood sugar levels than those who did “mock stretching” (assuming the same positions without actually stretching their muscles). Additionally, stretching releases tension, which can help prevent type 2 diabetes.
Improved Balance and Fall Prevention
Stretching builds balance. Forty-two college students were tested in another study to see whether stretching would impact how long they could stay on a contraption called a stabilometer. The students who stretched for 30 minutes beforehand were able to balance longer than those who sat quietly before they hopped aboard.
Researchers think stretching helped with fine-muscle coordination, enabling participants to make small balance adjustments. Good balance is an essential skill set, especially when people age, helping to prevent falls and resulting injuries.
If you have already incorporated stretching into your workout routine, good for you. If you haven’t, here’s a couple of things to remember:
• Warm up before over-stretching. Stretching when the muscles are cold can tear them, increasing pain. According to Prevention.com, “dynamic stretching is recommended before a workout to increase body temperature and increase joint flexibility, while static stretches are better at the end of a workout for a cool-down.”
• Don’t bounce when stretching. Move to the point right before you start to feel pain and hold, breathing deeply, allowing your muscles to naturally expand as they relax.
• Never compare yourself to others or push yourself to the point of pain while stretching. Listen to your body. With a consistent practice you will improve. If you bounce and/or stretch too far too fast, your muscles will create scar tissue, making them more rigid. Be patient with yourself. Stretching is not a competitive sport.
• Even if you cannot exercise for some reason, find ways to incorporate stretching into your daily routine. Take one or two stretch breaks touching your toes or reaching for the ceiling and twisting from side to side throughout the day. Go gently, but try to experience a full range of motion. A quick stretch break, if done properly, will give you a burst of relaxation and energy far better than a cup of coffee.
• If you have never exercised or stretched before, I recommend consulting a good physical trainer who can help prevent injuries. Yoga, Pilates and Tai Chi are great practices for someone wishing to increase flexibility in a healthy way.
• Lastly, as people tend to lose flexibility as they age, particularly if they have not practiced stretching regularly, know that Ayurveda has wonderful daily routines to help create more softness and fluidity in the body. Consult Positively Ayurvedic or another certified practitioner to help you expand your yoga practice or go deeper into your exercise routine. You will gain tools that will help build flexibility and keep you flexible (and healthy) the rest of your life.
The sole purpose of this article is to provide information about the tradition of Ayurveda. This information is not intended for use in the diagnosis, treatment, cure or prevention of any disease. If you have an acute or chronic health concern, please consult a trained health professional who can fully assess your needs and address them effectively. If you are seeking the advice of a trained ayurvedic expert, call or email Karen Callahan at info@positivelyayurvedic.