When it comes to exercise, most people think of aerobic exercise and resistance training, but they might forget the importance of stretching. Stretching not only makes the body more flexible and joints smoother, but it can also lower blood pressure, relieve pain, and bring many other benefits. Read on to learn about the well-researched benefits of stretching, and the “right-angle” stretch our expert recommends.
4 Benefits of Flexibility
In the world of sports, where retirement at the age of 30 is not uncommon, Japanese ski jumper Noriaki Kasai, known as a “winter Olympic legend,” won a silver medal at the Sochi Winter Olympics at the age of 41. As for his sports achievements, Kasai mentioned in his book “Keeping the Best Shape from Age 40” that he pays attention to flexibility, and that especially for those who are over 40, the most important priority for body maintenance is to enhance flexibility.
Why is flexibility so important? Spinal mechanics expert Yun-Lung Cheng pointed out that people with poor flexibility are prone to shoulder and neck pain, lower back pain, plantar fasciitis, and other myofascial pains. Having normal flexibility has four major benefits, for joints, fasciae, the body, and mind.
Reducing Joint Degeneration and Making Joints Healthier
Joint discomfort and arthritis are most directly related to poor flexibility.
In the past, people thought that arthritis was caused by weight and pressure on joints, including the knee and hip joints. However, inflammation of the joints in the fingers, wrists, and shoulders is mostly related to lack of mobility and loss of flexibility.
In particular, many people become less active as they get older, making their joints less mobile and causing pressure on the cartilage when they move.
Therefore, stretching and improving flexibility can keep a good range of mobility for the joints, so that they do not squeeze the cartilage when moving, which reduces wear and tear on the joints and makes them healthier.
Making the Fasciae Smooth and Preventing Myofascial Pains
Many people have shoulder and neck pain and low back pain. According to Cheng, fascial fibrosis and fascial densification can both cause the fascia to become less flexible and cause pain.
- Fascial fibrosis: The thickness of the fascia increases due to fibrosis, making it less flexible and difficult to stretch.
- Fascial densification: The space between layers of the fascia is opened by the degenerated and viscous macromolecular hyaluronic acid.
Under normal circumstances, the hyaluronic acid between the layers of fascia should be small molecule hyaluronic acid, which is full of water. However, when a person is constantly sedentary, the hyaluronic acid, which originally resembles a “lotion” will instead have a “chewing gum” texture and become stuffed between the layers of fascia, causing soreness.
Cheng pointed out that proper stretching allows the muscular fasciae of the whole body to become smooth, instead of being tight and stiff during activities.
Calming the Body and Mind, and Lowering Blood Pressure
People with poor flexibility may have smaller chest expansions and shorter breaths than average, resulting in thoracic respiration, which in turn makes them prone to tension, tenseness, shoulder and neck pain, and headaches.
Some yoga practices and traditional Chinese health preservation exercises, such as eight trigrams boxing, have stretching movements, and many of them require holding certain positions for a relatively long period of time, about 30 seconds or more. This static stretching makes the parasympathetic nerves receive a relaxation signal, allowing the body to truly relax. Many people who practice yoga will have their body and mind calmed and stress relieved because of the slow relaxation.
In addition, static stretching also has the physiological effects of lowering blood pressure and heart rate, and improving peripheral circulation.
A meta-analysis from Japan found that stretching reduced arterial stiffness, heart rate, and diastolic blood pressure in middle-aged and elderly people, and improved vascular endothelial function.
In another study, a group of men and women with high-normal blood pressure or stage 1 hypertension (i.e. 130/85 mmHg to 159/99 mmHg) and an average age of 61.6 years were subjected to eight weeks of stretching or walking exercises. It was discovered that after eight weeks, stretching lowered their blood pressure more than brisk walking.
There are a large number of sensory receptors within the fascia. People with poor flexibility usually have inelastic and unhealthy fasciae, which indirectly leads to greater sensitivity to pain signals. People with a stiff body are more likely to feel chronic pain signals than people with normal flexibility.
Cheng said that whether it is yoga or traditional Chinese health preservation exercises, the effect of relaxing the back and relieving pain is similar to that of painkillers. Therefore, it is popular in the West to relieve back pain through stretching.
Stretching is a ‘Natural Painkiller’
Many studies have proven that stretching can relieve pain and even reduce dependence on pain medication. In a study published many years ago in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 94 percent of its 244 participants with myofascial pain who did stretching exercises found immediate pain relief, and 63 percent found ongoing pain relief.
In a U.S. study, patients who suffered from chronic myofascial pain did one year of stretching. It was discovered that 84.4 percent of the participants reduced their total opioid dose for pain relief, and 34.4 percent of them completely discontinued opioid use.
Another study, although not related to myofascial pain, demonstrated that stretching was as effective as painkillers. Researchers divided some female students with menstrual pain into two groups: one group stretched and the other group took painkillers. It was found that stretching was as effective as painkillers in treating primary dysmenorrhea and that the effect of stretching on menstrual pain relief increased over time.
Right-angle Full-body Stretching Prevents Hunchback and Relieves Shoulder and Neck Pain
Poor flexibility is not only detrimental to the health of joints and fasciae, but it can also cause a poor sense of balance and an older appearance. This is because the tension in the fasciae of the shoulders and neck extends to the head and becomes a powerful force that pulls the face downward, causing wrinkles to form.
Therefore, if you want to be healthy and age-defying, stretching is necessary. However, according to Cheng, it is not necessarily that the more flexible your body is, the better. If your body is overly “soft” and without strong muscle strength to stabilize the joints, there will also be back pain and other problems. Therefore, on average people only need to do simple stretching, so that their joints can perform normal activities.
When people are doing stretching exercises, it is recommended for them to be in a relaxed mood. From small stretches to large stretches, it’s good enough for our limbs to feel slightly tense during the stretching process, and we can stop before reaching the level of pain. We can also combine stretching with deep breathing. Slowly inhaling and exhaling (and the exhaling time can be a little longer) can induce a relaxation response.
Cheng recommended a “right-angle full-body stretching” exercise to us. Although its movements are simple, the exercise has two major benefits: Preventing a hunched back, and relieving shoulder and neck pain and other problems caused by kyphosis.
When doing this exercise, the shoulder blades will be pressed, making the back flat. This is a very comprehensive way to stretch the fascia from the soles of the feet, calves, thighs, hips, back, and scapulae.
- Hold the wall, the edge of a table, or the back of a stable chair.
- Slowly walk backwards, with your upper body leaning forward and your hips bending to 90 degrees. When you reach the limit of movement, stay in this position for 30 seconds to 1 minute. During the process, keep breathing deeply and imagining gently holding your hips as you extend backwards.
- Gently take a deep breath, then take a large step forward with a round back, preparing to gradually return to the original position.
- Return to the starting position.
Epoch Health articles are for informational purposes and are not a substitute for individualized medical advice. Please consult a trusted professional for personal medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment. Have a question? Email us at AskADoctor@epochtimes.nyc