January 30, 2012 / 10:19 AM / 6 years ago

The flexible benefits of stretching

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Whether your workout routine involves running a marathon or playing a game of basketball, a sequence of stretching exercises is often the easiest thing to cut out of it.

That's a shame, experts say, because stretching can help you sharpen your performance, stave off injury, perk up your posture and even boost your mood.

"Essentially it's like trying to drive a car without first making sure all the tires are on it," said Los Angeles-based personal trainer Matt Berenc of the stretch-less routine. "Stretching is essentially preparing the body for movement."

Berenc, who manages trainers at Equinox, the U.S. national chain of fitness centers, said stretching is typically one of the simplest things to do and one of the first things people avoid.

"People value other parts of the workout above it. They say, 'I only have so much time, so I'll skip this'," he said, adding that if they took some time to focus on their stretch their workout would be better.

"If nothing else to create better movement throughout the body," he said.

In 2010 the American College of Sports Medicine issued guidelines recommending "a stretching exercise program of at least 10 minutes in duration involving the major muscle tendon groups of the body with four or more repetitions per muscle group performed on a minimum of two to three days per week" for most adults.

All stretches are not the same. A static stretch is essentially a stretch held in one position; dynamic stretching involves active movements.

"In static stretching you hold a position for a length of time," said Berenc, "like in a hamstring stretch where a client is lying on the back and you're holding the leg straight up to stretch the back of it."

A dynamic stretch involves active range of motion movements, such as arm circles or leg swings.

Berenc often starts by rolling a foam roller over different parts of the client's body to prepare their tissues for stretching. Then it depends on client needs.

"If hips are tight, I'll static stretch the hips," he said. "Then I'll get the clients up on their feet for a dynamic stretch to get into the full range of motion."

Deborah Plitt, a trainer with Life Fitness, the equipment manufacturer, said a dynamic warm-up, such as stepping or ankle circles, can increase range of motion before hopping on the treadmill or elliptical trainer.

"The goal before your workout is to lubricate the joints," said Plitt.

She is a firm believer in the post-workout stretch.

"Static stretches, held for 20 to 30 seconds increases increase blood flow to the muscles and improves flexibility," she said.

Jessica Matthews of the American Council on Exercise said while flexibility remains the main goal, stretching exercises can also help relieve stress and even improve posture.

"It's a great way to unwind," she said. "Most people don't associate that with stretching."

Matthews, an exercise physiologist, said to keep post-workout static stretches safe and effective, they should be held only to the point of tension-never to the point of pain.

Berenc said with stretching, as with any activity, to avoid injury, listen to your body.

"Sometimes you see people on the exercise floor trying to stretch and the expression on their faces is excruciating," he said. "Where you first start feeling the stretch is where you should stop."

Reporting by Dorene Internicola; editing by Patricia Reaney

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