Stretching: top benefits and popular techniques

Since the mid-1990s, there's been a shift from high-impact exercise to equally effective, gentler disciplines that don't punish the body. Some features of these stretching methods (like yoga, Pilates and tai chi) are simplicity, quickness, and versatility.

Here's how stretching can do more for you than just get you ready for more intense exercise.

Stretching: top benefits and popular techniques

Warning!

If you're pregnant, or have suffered a spinal or neck injury, it's advisable to seek professional advice before doing any rigorous stretching.

The benefits of stretching

Stretching relaxes the body and tunes the mind. It's essential for everyone to maintain easy movement, but it's particularly important for people who sit at a desk most of the day. Stretching is known to:

  • Increase the body's range of motion.
  • Develop body awareness, making you alert to any subtle changes in performance, which helps to prevent injury.
  • Help avoid or alleviate back, shoulder and neck problems.
  • Reduce effort and muscle tension in everyday actions.
  • Build endurance and strength.
  • Increase physical and mental confidence.
  • Promote circulation.
  • Help control breathing, which leads to greater relaxation.
  • Make aerobic exercise easier, because flexible muscles are less likely to be strained.

Top tip

If you are sedentary for much of the day, try sitting on an exercise ball. It will make you sit up straight. Plus, after (or during) work you can use it for stretching exercises.

Types of stretching therapies

There are quite a few stretching routines and techniques that you can choose from. Here's a glimpse at just a few:

  • Alexander Technique: an Australian invented this method in the 1890s. It's aim is to release tension, particularly in the head and neck to help to restore the body's capacity for ease. Overall, this technique's  aim is to allow the body to reach its full potential.
  • Bikram Yoga: developed in India, yoga merges physical and mental exercises. Bikram is a newer form of the practice that benefits blood circulation, improves cardiovascular conditioning and increases perspiration to improve detoxification. Bikram yoga classes are conducted in rooms heated to 37˚C (98˚F) to increase muscle and tissue elasticity and reduce the risk of injury. However, exercising in such extreme heat does carry health risks, so consult with your doctor before starting this method.
  • Feldenkrais Method: developed in the 1940s, Feldenkrais is a practical discipline to help develop awareness of body movement. The aim is to recognize any tensions and focus on small, precise movements to correct them. Feldenkrais is usually taught one-on-one, or in small classes.
  • Hatha Yoga: Hatha is the most popular type of yoga among Westerners. Techniques in this discipline use asana (poses) and pranayama (breath) to gently control the mind and senses without strain.
  • Iyengar Yoga: Similar to Hatha, Iyengar uses props such as belts to help bring the body into the correct positions. There's also a focus on holding the poses for a length of time.
  • Pilates: Joseph Pilates Invented this stretching method in the early 20th century. It combines Eastern and Western movements, gymnastic and yogic principles, mind and body. Pilates exercises are designed to oxygenate, then stretch, strengthen and finally re-stretch a particular muscle group.
  • Tai Chi: Mind, body and spirit are all integrated in this Chinese discipline. Many older people practice its graceful forms as a way of staying healthy and vital. Tai chi can especially benefit those with arthritis since the exercises strengthen and improve flexibility and range of motion without pain.

Keep these various disciplines and this information on stretching in mind to help you decide if a stretching regimen is right for you.

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