Loosen Up
    New Outlook Magazine, Winter 2004
    by Matt Beam

    Matt Beam discovers how stretching regularly can help your body feel younger

    Bob Anderson was like many people when they first began stretching: he couldn’t touch his toes. Then through the 1970s, his wife, Jean, and a group of friends helped Bob develop an easier way to stretch. By 1980, Anderson was an expert in the field, publishing the instructive best-selling book, “Stretching”. Now, 25 years later, stretching has become more than just a way of warming up and cooling down for athletes—it’s a popular activity by itself. And while specialized stretching classes in yoga and Pilates are popping up across the country, people’s motivation for keeping flexible remains simple: it just feels good.
    Of course, there are other important reasons for lengthening your quads and loosening your deltoids. Says Dr. Sandy O’Brian Cousins, professor at the faculty of physical education and recreation at the University of Alberta, “Stretching helps with mobility, ease of movement and keeps you independent.” But Cousins isn’t talking about tying yourself into a Circe de Soliel knot; actually, “You don’t even need to be an athlete,” she says. A simple stretch of the major muscle groups does your body a world of good. According to Cousins, it lubricates the joints, reduces stiffness and soreness, and allows for a full range of motion. Stretching and other exercise also improve your circulation, reduce anxiety, and improve mental alertness. Best of all, stretching gives you almost immediate results.
    Just ask Dianne Cross, 64, owner of a fibre arts gallery, and a weaver and master spinner from Sidney, BC. While Cross admits that exercise isn’t the first thing that comes to her mind, she has devised her own ways of loosening up. While waiting for the shower water to heat up, Cross does “arm stretches in all directions” as well as knee bends, especially before gardening. She started this when she began having morning stiffness.
    Paul Richards, 70, knows something about morning stretches. The Toronto entrepreneur has been getting flexible since his mid teens. One of his first references was the Royal Canadian Arm Forces 5BX program from the 1950s, some of which, he admits, is totally discredited now. “The programme that I use has evolved and is ever-changing.” Since he suffered a herniated disc 11 years ago, Richards has kept up-to-date with the latest back stretches. Recently, he was amazed at how good he felt after a set of tennis.
    Richards is right to listen to what the experts say, even at the most basic level. For example, it is now understood that before stretching, it is important to do five to ten minutes of light activity to get the blood flowing and increase muscle temperature. “Your stretching will be more effective if you warm-up first,” agrees Marj Belot, a physiotherapist from Burnaby, B.C. According to Belot, when you are stretching during a warm-up, the idea is to lubricate the muscles and make sure everything is moving well. For the cooldown, you are returning your body to a resting state and trying to avoid soreness and pain. “People generally have specific muscles that tighten up. It’s good to focus on those.”
    Once you understand the basics, there’s no telling what you can do. Peggy Struve, 67, of Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, has been doing a seniors’ fitness class for five years now. “I can’t believe what good it has done me,” she says. “I used to go to my chiropractor four or five times a year, now maybe I go once.” The group started slowly, but Struve says they’ve “gone beyond simple stretching and aerobics to free weights and the stability ball.”
    Struve’s use of a Pilate’s stability ball brings her into the modern world of stretching. Unlike its stretching cousin, the ancient practice of Yoga, which focuses on flexibility and spirituality, Pilates concentrates on strengthening the core muscles in your trunk. But while stretching, like everything around us, has become more specialized, there’s no reason to feel overwhelmed. Beyond your body, there’s not much else you need to get started.
    As simple as stretching is, Dr. Cousins’ research indicates there is still some negative self-talk going on in our heads about stretching and exercise. One phrase that keeps popping up she says is “Why bother?” But Cousins is adamant in answering this question: “Bothering matters. Bothering is going to pay off.

Stretch Yourself
There are some important things to remember when stretching. Here is a top-10 list.

1. Warm-up: Do 5 to 10 minutes of light aerobic activity before stretching.
2. Don’t Rush: If you are in a hurry, you won’t do what’s necessary and you could injure yourself.
3. Be gentle: Get to the point where you can feel some tension but not pain.
4. Don’t bounce: Ease gently into each position.
5. Hold it: Each position should be held for 15 to 30 seconds.
6. Listen to your body: It will let you know what it can handle.
7. Breathe: Rhythmic, controlled breath is the ideal.
8. Do it daily: Physiotherapist Marj Belot says it’s the stretching in between activities that helps prevent injuries.
9. Cover the bases: Get to all the major muscle groups, plus the specific ones you are going to use that day.
10. Do it right: Before starting a stretching program, check with your doctor. You may also want to consult one of the recommended resources below.

Stretching ResourcesStretching 20th Anniversary Edition by Bob Anderson (Shelter publications, 2000)
50+ Yoga by Richard Rosen (Ulysses Press, 2004)
Pilates for Beginners by Kellina Stewart (HarperResource, 2001)
Moving to live video by the Canadian Public Health Association.
© Copyright 2005 New Outlook Magazine