We all love to hate it.
(Except of course those of us who sincerely do love it and do it frequently and voluntarily; those who glide about the world softly and gracefully, as if floating on puffy clouds of limber fascia…their Adonis-like joints taunting us with the extent of their full range of motion…)
No, This post isn’t for them.
This post is for those us of who can barely roll out of bed in the morning without worrying that we’re going to throw out our backs.
It’s for those of us that trudge along with our humped necks, crocked hips and rickety knees, praying to all that is holy that we don’t slip on the ice and full on rip an arm out of it’s socket.
It’s for those of us who know we should stretch but don’t.
Which, for what it’s worth, is the vast majority of the population.
We are the Tight Asses, and we cower away, wallowing in our voluntary discomfort.
We know we should stretch. But we don’t. And, most importantly, we aren’t exactly sure why we don’t.
As a Behaviour Change Specialist, I have some theories on this and they ultimately boil down to two things: 1) we lack a fundamental understanding of the the role of stretching in our health routine, and 2) we feel ill-equipped to engage in effective stretching. (There’s also 3: A lot of us find stretching legitimately boring, but I’ll get to that later). In this post, I’m going to try to address these points as efficiently as I can, giving you a bit of a primer on stretching as I do it.
But before you move on, here’s what you need to know- this post isn’t about “how” to physically perform stretching movements. Seriously, that post has been written so many times by so many different people that I literally can’t even…Here, check this post out for starters: How to stretch. If you google, you’ll find thousands more just like it.
If you want pictures and examples, there are literally hundreds of thousands to choose from and they all basically say the same thing. My absolute fave guide is this one: The Stretching Guide because it gives you tons of awesome information about each muscle group while showcasing the stretches. It’s pretty great. If you’re a nerd and into that stuff. Which I am.
I also don’t want to spend too much time talking about the physiological “why” of stretching. I suspect that most readers already know that we stretch out muscles to relieve feelings of tightness, to increase range of motion, and to generally feel more comfortable and limber in our body.
Most of us probably also know that a regular stretching routine can increase your overall flexibility, improve your ability to perform physical activities, increase blood flow to the muscles/tissues, decrease your risk of injuries, enhance your coordination, and has even been clinically shown to decrease stress levels and improve mental health.
Again, we know stretching is good for us. But we still don’t do it.
I want to talk about that ‘why’. And for that, we need to establish a few facts:
1) A body’s flexibility is considered to be one of the fundamental pillars of it’s physical fitness, along with muscular strength, muscular endurance, cardiopulmonary capacity, balance/stability and body composition.
2) The modern day definition of a person’s physical fitness “refers to the ability of your body systems to work together efficiently to allow you to be healthy and perform activities of daily living.” You can imagine that it’s a pretty big deal.
3) While everyone will tell you that the goal of engaging in fitness training is to achieve a better state of physical fitness, a significant portion of the ‘health industry’ places a disproportionate amount of emphasis on the last component: “body composition”, or how much fat you have on your body.
4) There is an underlying belief that thinner bodies are more physically fit than fatter bodies. This is not backed by evidence. A person’s body size is a poor predictor of their total body strength, cardiopulmonary fitness, stability and flexibility. In fact, a person’s body size at best is only an effective predictor of their body composition which, again, is only one component of fitness and not even the most important one at that. (Aerobic capacity wins that prize, being the greatest predictor of mortality.)
So, to summarize: We want to get physically fit, but our entire culture has defined physically fit as being physically thin.
We work out to lose weight.
Stretching is a terrible way of losing weight.
No, really. It is. There is virtually no calorie burn in the average stretch session, nor is it a particularly effective way to put on lean muscle mass, which can increase your metabolic rate and allow you to burn more calories throughout the day.
So we don’t see it as being ‘valuable’. Because it doesn’t get us ‘results.’
Not unless the results we want is to be able to hold an extremely complex pose in front of our camera phone, while muttering ‘filter this, bitches’ through our smiling teeth.
#instagram. #ImSoZen #GAH #lightingfail
Now some people will try to argue with me, to tell me how many calories they burned in “hot yoga”. But the fact is that, for the most part, it’s the heat that burned those calories. Yoga, on average, is equivalent to approximately 3.2 METs, roughly the same amount of energy expenditure as a casual walk. That’s not an opinion. It’s science. (And I’ll come back to write more about METs soon.)
But the fact that people will focus on what a great burn they get from yoga is kind of my point. Even stretching professionals focus on all the wrong things when it comes to stretching. What they really should say is: “Yeah, I don’t really do yoga for the weight loss…I do it because it makes me feel fantastic, allows me to live with less pain, and is a really important component of being healthy and fit.”
(Note: If your stretching/yoga professional is actually one of the people who would say that, hug them, thank them, and never leave their side.)
Our disdain for stretching is shockingly bizarre when you consider how easy it is, how good it feels and how quickly we can feel the effects of it. But when I think back to virtually all my clients who have confessed that they don’t stretch, despite having made the time for strength or cardio training, it almost always comes back to ‘I don’t have time’- which we all know is code for it’s not important for me right now.
And a big part of why that is is because we, as a fitness industry, have failed our clients drastically by placing virtually all emphasis on the physical gains (the body’s appearance) and virtually no emphasis on the physiological ones (the body’s ability to function).
So why should you stretch? For the exact same reasons you should do strength, cardio and stability work- because you have the right to exist in a body that is as functional, comfortable and healthy as possible. And flexibility is a big part of your health.
Because taking 10 minutes off your 60 mins work out to focus on flexibility is actually a really wise way to train your body and have a balanced approach to your fitness routine.
Because being flexible will improve your quality of life, in some cases, instantaneously.
Aren’t these good enough reasons? And if not, shouldn’t we be asking ourselves “why not”? What are we looking for out of our training session if it isn’t a healthier body and an improved quality of life?
I suspect that most of us would eventually round our way back to the same theme: improved body composition. And that’s something we need to start really examining on a social level, because it is a disordered, imbalanced and unhealthy way of approaching the human body.
Let me state this clearly, and loudly for those in the back: STRETCHING IS AS IMPORTANT TO YOUR HEALTH AS ANY OF THE OTHER PILLARS OF FITNESS. IF YOUR TRAINING PROGRAM DOESN’T INCLUDE STRETCHING, YOU ARE MISSING FUNDAMENTAL COMPONENTS OF PHYSICAL FITNESS AND HEALTH.
Phew. I feel better. Sometimes I just need to #ZitaRage in All-Caps.
Now, on to point #2, which I promise is shorter than point #1: We feel ill-equipped to stretch properly. I get this. I really do. A big part of the reason why is because everyone tells you to do it but, again, our health professionals put virtually no emphasis on it and therefore don’t equip you to do it well.
So here are the basics, according to the Canadian Society For Exercise Physiology:
Frequency: You should stretch 2-7 times per week
Intensity: To the range of motion of a joint, never pushing past the point of pain. (Though discomfort may be applicable for some groups and training goals.)
Time: Hold a stretch for 10-30s, and even up to 60s, 2 to 4 times PER MUSCLE GROUP! (If you are thinking “Wow, that seems way longer than I usually hold them”, then you’re probably right. Don’t rush it- make sure you get all your Mississippis in.)
Type: At least 1 exercise per major muscle group, ideally after a general warm up (roughly 5 minutes, just to get the blood moving)
Now, if you’re brand new to stretching, you’re going to gravitate towards the lower end of the recommendations. If you’re an elite level athlete, you’ll probably hit the higher end (and take on some advanced techniques such as Ballistic stretching or PNF stretching). But for the most part, these stretching recommendations can be met in 5 to 15 minutes of focused work.
Which is probably less than the time it took you to read up to here
(#zitanovel #sorry #notsorry)
Now I know what you’re thinking: “Zita! I don’t feel equipped yet. You just spent a whole post telling me that flexibility is super duper important! I want to make sure that I do it right!”
Two things: I hear you. Sometimes it’s better to have someone guide you through it while you get the hang of it. Marsha and I will be hosting some free stretching pop ups in October at the studio and we will make sure to film some of them so that you can see some familiar faces while you do them.
But, again, tons of awesome people have put together really great videos to get you started. Personally, I am always a huge fan of FitnessBlender.com. This stretching routine is a FREE 15 minute, total body stretch that meets all the requirements and will have you feeling fantastic!
OR you can start really simply by asking yourself “what part of my body feels uncomfortable right now, and what kind of movements make that body part feel more comfortable?”
Feel tight in the neck? Try tilting your head to the side and holding it there for 30s. i’m serious. Do it right now. Count to 30. I’m waiting…
Good. Now, switch sides and do it again.
Feel a little better? Cool. That’s one.
Chest feels a little tight, like you’ve been sitting at a computer all day? Stretch your arms out to the side, thumbs up, and squeeze your shoulder blades together.
Hold that for another 30s or so.
Feels good, right? Awesome. Two down.
Let’s flip that around now. Just because your chest feels tight doesn’t mean your back isn’t too! Bring your arms forward, interlock your fingers, drop your head and round your back.
And, 30 second hold…
That one is my personal favourite. I have a super tight back. And just like, 3 major muscle groups down.
Finally, let’s deal with those muscles we always seem to forget about but that need a good stretch after a long day of typing: our forearms! Straightening your arm, and flexing your wrist so that your hand is in a “STOP” position, gently use your other hand to guide the fingers and palms back until you feel tension. Hold it there….30s seconds.
Awesome. Now, other hand. 30s.
Look at that- you haven’t even had to stand up yet! Just do those 4 again, It’s not your whole body, but it’s better than none of your body and it’s enough to get you started.
It’s simple right. So there’s no real reason not to do it?
Oh wait- I remember now. I had a third point.
A lot of people find stretching boring.
I’m one of those people. I get it, I really do. But then again, I find a lot of things boring. Doing laundry, washing my floors, going through paperwork, helping my kids with homework…
Life is full of boring things that we do anyway because we have to.
Now, you don’t “have to” do any of this. Your body, your rules. But it’s probably a good idea if you want to have as high a quality of life as possible.
So, do what you gotta do to make it not suck. Turn up the music. Watch some Netflix. Put your phone on speaker and do it with a friend. Or even hit up a yoga or stretch class and make an experience out of it.
But remember, the most boring things in life are often the most important.
Adulting is the worst. But the results of adulting are the best.
It’s an evil paradox. You should reflect on it some more…while doing your stretches.