Flexibility: How Stretching Can Improve Your Overall Health

In order to maintain or improve your physical condition, you will need to include several different types of exercise to address the three main components of overall fitness: cardiovascular health, flexibility and strength. Although most people who work out do some form of cardiovascular and strength training, too many neglect the third component- flexibility. Flexibility is extremely important to overall health, and it is achieved through stretching.

According to the Mayo Clinic's publication, "Focus on Flexibility", proper stretching has many health benefits, including the following:

•    Increases flexibility and range of motion.  Important for balance and maintaining mobility as an older adult. Increased flexibility also helps to prevent injury to joints and muscles.
•    Improved circulation.  Helps to keep muscles warm and speeds recovery after an injury.
•    Promotes better posture.  This keeps muscles from getting tight, minimizing everyday aches and pains.

While it is important for everyone to incorporate stretching into his or her fitness regimen, it is also vital to use proper technique when stretching. Incorrect technique will be ineffective and, worse; can lead to injuries such as pulled muscles, strains or sprains. Following are some recommendations for a safe and effective stretching routine:

•    Be sure to target the muscle groups that you use the most. If you are stretching before a workout, concentrate on the muscles that you will be using for that activity. Also give special attention to muscles that you use extensively in your day-to-day life.
•    Do not ‘bounce’ while you are stretching. Get into a comfortable stretch and then stay with it. Bouncing can cause the stretched muscle to contract, resulting in a pulled muscle or even a tear.
•    Be sure that you are stretching your muscles, and not your joints. You should feel the stretch across the length of the muscles, but joints should never be overextended.
•    Stop if you feel pain.
A good stretch may feel slightly intense, but it should never be painful. Pain is a sign that you have pushed a stretch too far and are in danger of injuring the tissue.

It is a good idea to stretch at the end of a workout, when your muscles are warm and limber, and stretching will be most effective. You may also consider trying yoga or Pilates, as both are great for developing muscle flexibility and strength, and will provide some welcome variety to your fitness routine.

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