Flexibility: key to better health

Ever notice that your body literally takes on the language of stress? We talk in terms of ourselves or others' attitudes being inflexible, rigid, hard. We use terms like ''we're hard pressed,'' or she's ''straight-laced,'' or he's ''not going to bend or move.'' Add this mental body of thoughts to our day-to-day living of chronic repetitive overuse, unresolved old injury, chronic illness or medication use and you have the making of a physical body that is stiff, sore and tired -- and easily injured. Continued stress -- mental or physical, positive or negative -- creates tension in the body. Muscles become tighter and tighter and eventually other things begin to go wrong.

Yogis have known for centuries that the key to good health is flexibility -- stretching. The soft flowing exercises known as hatha yoga and tai chi were designed to free the body, as well as the mind, of stress and stiffness. Chiropractors, as well, believe that the key to youth and good health is a flexible spine. Besides adjustments, they may suggest gentle stretching exercises to improve flexibility. Trained massage therapists work with the soft tissue, stretching to gain length and flexibility in the muscles, tendons and ligaments. Different methods, yet they all work to bring higher levels of wellness.

If you have embarked upon a new exercise program as of late, good for you! But, if you are not using some stretching techniques as a warm up you may be doing more damage than you know. Flexibility is the key to all movement; simply defined as mobilization, freedom to move, or technically, the range of motion available in a joint or group of joints. You wouldn't run a race horse around the track full steam without first walking or allowing his muscles to warm up, so why would you?

Warming up and stretching increases the delivery of nutrients to the muscles creating a more oxygen-rich environment. The more oxygen available, the more vital and healthy we become. The opposite is ischemia, or lack of oxygen, causing spasm and pain from restricted blood flow. This, in turn, causes the feeling of tight overworked muscles leading to increased metabolic waste (lactic acid) and soreness -- sometimes for days.

While flexibility is the key to all movement, balanced physical fitness requires a blending of three basic components: flexibility, aerobic conditioning and strength training. Equally important is the balance of nutrition, stress management, rest, work and play. A few more words about nutrition, you wouldn't give a race horse a jolt of caffeine first thing in the morning and expect him to perform at his best. What we put into our bodies can dramatically add to or decrease flexibility.

The benefits of stretching and flexibility include:

1. Increased range of motion for increased ease in daily living

2. Relieves muscle-joint soreness by increasing circulation

3. Promotes relaxation and reduces physical/ emotional stress

4. Increases muscle/tendon elasticity which helps prevent injury/re-injury

5. Improves musculotendinous contractility, thus increasing strength potential and endurance

Along with balanced nutrition, the need for water is absolutely critical. The human body is composed of 70% water. Water helps the body perform almost all of its complex chemical functions including the removal of metabolic wastes produced from exercise.

Your physical therapist, massage therapist, chiropractor, or exercise trainer can help develop a program of stretching for you that will help increase your flexibility. It may take continued persistent stretching to increase your flexibility but the rewards are many including an increased quality of living.

Till next time, Rebecca.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online February 6, 2001

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