Sunday, June 10, 2018

Stretching, Yoga & Their Effects on Health

Some of the most common misconceptions in fitness science come from the topic of stretching, muscle flexibility and what we "feel" when we move.  Unlike some of the less-consequential points of confusion, this is one aspect that you definitely want to fully understand in order to maximize the benefits of your health and wellness program.

First, it's important to understand why stretching should even take place at all, so here is a brief overview:

Every muscle has a healthy "resting length", which is simply the length that it should be when you're not particularly using it. 

This length, and the amount of tension it has, needs to be close to what is optimal for holding your body together.  If the muscle has become too short or too long, then that will affect its role in your musculoskeletal system. 

An easy example is when the biceps brachii muscle (front of the arm) is too short (too tight).  When too short, this muscle group actually pulls the lower arm UP when it should not. 

This disrupts your posture and ages the elbow, and because it moves that lower arm to being in front of you when you're standing or walking, we now have additional stressors on the low back and other muscles.  This changes the distribution of the forces you create when you move, which is unnatural to the body.

That example sounds pretty harmless, and sometimes won't have tremendous health consequences in and of itself.  But, imagine that small example taking place with most of your muscles - especially those throughout the spine.  It becomes easy to see that if the spine, arms and legs are all incapable of keeping their normal position, that tension aches, cramps and nerve pain all become more likely as the years pass.  Nerves often become narrowed or hardened when movement and posture are not close to the optimal, healthy levels that each body truly wants. For these reasons and more, tight muscles need to be loosened up and hypermobile, overly-loose muscles should get added tension so they can also be returned to a healthy status.

So, how does all of this relate to a PPT fitness or Yoga program?

Your Perfect Personal Trainer is making decisions as to which muscles need more tension, and which need less.  And of course, we're also making decisions as to just how much change is needed, and what's of high priority vs what is of lower priority.  Since many PPT clients only actually end up meeting with their assigned professional for fewer than three hours per week (factoring a client's sick days, vacations, etc), we generally need to keep our stretching time to just the high-priority needs.

Are there muscles that should not be stretched?

Absolutely.  For example, many Yoga classes spend a high percentage of time stretching muscles that are already too flexible for some people and that are, therefore, causing postural and muscular problems.  If the muscle is too loose to do its job for the body, then that aspect of Yoga is harmful, not helpful.  The same goes for many personal trainers out there - they're stretching muscles that don't need it while sometimes ignoring the muscles that do.  This is why the right education and intervention is so important to the long-term well-being and success of our clients.

How does PPT know which muscles need it and which do not?

Postural alignment shows us which muscles are pulling too much on a bone and which muscles are not pulling enough.  Spinal misalignments and pelvic tilts tell us a lot.  We use them as indicators as to where we need to change muscle tension levels.  We advise that clients contact our Client Services Department to discuss more in-depth and to ensure that their programs involve only the best decision-making.  Client input is te key to more sustained health outcomes.

So, what's the take-away when it comes to stretching and Yoga?

It's most important to understand that stretches should be performed if a muscle is too tight and tense, and not just because it is there.  The stretches should also be held for at least 30 seconds and generally to an uncomfortable point that is not quite painful.  Just "feeling" that a stretch is happening won't release much tension or improve health outcomes for the long-term, so we encourage that each stretch is performed to where it reaches mild discomfort.

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