In this article, our amazing Pilates Instructor at Eden Health Retreat Fiona Smith explains the multitude of benefits that you can reap from stretching and shares five gentle stretches that you can do from home or in the office.
The modern world limits us in our natural motion; we no longer move as much as our ancestors. Our daily movement repertoire is no longer inherent for our species. For example, office work requires us to sit in a forced, cramped position for continual hours of immobility. As a result of poor posture, repetitive movement patterns and long periods seated, muscles become contracted. When muscles become chronically tight and tense, the opposing muscles become weak and place enormous strain on the joints and structure of the body.
Athletes can also be unbalanced when participating in their chosen sports. Take for example a cyclist – their body is typically hunched over the handlebars for most of the ride. This places the lumbar spine in a state of flexion – not dissimilar to sitting at a desk. The hip flexors also become quite tight. And, as above at a desk, also the neck and shoulders.
Regular stretching in a balanced manner decreases this unnatural pull on the joints, allowing the body to move more freely and effectively in all directions. Aside from keeping us mobile, some of the many benefits that stretching can provide include:
- Decreased pain and stiffness in the body
- Improved range of motion
- Reduced risk of injury
- Enhanced blood flow and circulation
- Reduced wear and tear on the joints
- Better posture
- Reduced mental tension and – with breathing techniques – decreased anxiety and depression
Types of stretching
If you’re new to stretching, there’s more to it than simply being able to touch your toes! There are several stretching techniques that are appropriate for different goals and situations, and knowing which technique is best for you is important to achieve our desired outcome.
Static stretching is the most common form of stretching, describing a stretch that is held in a challenging but comfortable position for a period of time – usually 10 – 30 seconds. It’s considered both safe and effective for improving flexibility.
A stretch that is performed by moving through a challenging but comfortable range of motion repeatedly – usually 10 or more times. Dynamic stretching is a preferred method for athletes and sports enthusiasts before an activity as it benefits their functional range of motion and mobility in their chosen sport or activity.
Passive stretching is very similar to static stretching but using the aid of some sort of outside assistance such as a strap or another person.
Active stretching is once again similar to the static and passive techniques, however, this style involves using the opposing muscle to hold the stretch. For example, contracting the quadriceps muscles to lengthen the hamstring muscles.
Also known as hold/relax, PNF stretching involves putting a muscle into a stretched position, holding for a few seconds, then contracting the muscle without moving for a few seconds, then relaxing into the stretch again, coming deeper into the stretch.
It’s important to understand what the fascia is before discussing this type of muscle release. Fascia is the tough connective tissue surrounding every cell of the body from head to toe like a three-dimensional spiderweb. Before realizing what the role of the fascia was, it was thought that our skin, muscles and bones were responsible for keeping us upright. In reality, the fascia is doing most of the work.
Injury, trauma, inflammation and poor posture can cause the fascial system to tighten, putting pressure on nerves, muscles, blood vessels, bones, organs and the brain. This can result in a wide variety of symptoms including pain, restriction of movement and structural misalignment, impairing both daily function and athletic performance.
We can use a foam roller to release the fascia, helping to ease problematic areas of pain and dysfunction. Foam rolling should be ideally done before static or dynamic stretching to improve the tissues’ ability to lengthen during stretching activities. However, it can be used at any time before or after activity. Slowly roll the targeted area until the most tender spot is found, then try and hold and relax for 30-60 seconds.
Stretching through Pilates
Though Pilates is most commonly considered to be an exercise focusing on strengthening the core, it also incorporates a combination of all the stretching techniques mentioned above through various movement patterns. We move through dynamic movement patterns incorporating both passive and active stretching and strengthening of the muscles. Both PNF and static stretches are also practised.
Pilates focuses on working the body on all planes. For example, flexion and extension (forward and backward movement), lateral movements (side to side), and rotational/twisting movements.
But if going to the gym or a Pilates studio doesn’t suit you, simply taking the time to stand and stretch your arms above your head and performing some gentle movements to mobilize your body can also be beneficial. It doesn’t need to be a particular program – just moving out of the posture you spend most of your time in, breathing and moving your joints through their range.
5 Stretches to perform at home or in the office
Start by trying these five exercises below. These are safe and suitable for anyone to do, no matter your current level of flexibility.
- Neck Stretch: Look side to side, then up and down.
2. Spine Mobility (Cat/Cow): Position yourself on your hands and knees. Round your spine into flexion, pulling in your abdominals and pointing your forehead down towards the pubic bone. Then extend your spine into extension, arching your back and lifting your head towards the ceiling.
3. Hamstring Stretch: Lie faceup on the floor and pull one leg towards your chest, keeping both legs straight. If this is too much, use a strap or band to hold your leg up.
4. Lying Cross Over: Lie on your back with your knees bent and the soles of your feet on the floor. Rotate your knees from side to side like windshield wipers. Perform this motion continuously or hold each side for 10-30 seconds.
5. Hip Flexor Stretch: Stand in a lunge position. Tuck your pelvis and reach the same side arm to the ceiling.
Try to spend 10 minutes every day moving and stretching. Always check with a health professional if you have an injury to make sure the stretch is right for you. Warm up your muscles before stretching by using a foam roller, taking a short walk, or performing some dynamic stretches such as hugging your knees to your chest, kicking your heels to your bottom, or jogging on the spot.
When stretching, don’t force it – only hold to a point of mild discomfort.
Remember to breathe. Happy stretching!
I have been a Pilates instructor for approximately 15 years, having qualifications in both Floor (mat and small apparatus) and Studio (large apparatus, Reformer, Cadillac/Trapeze, Chair and so on).
I grew up in Perth near the beach. This is where we spent most of our time as kids, but ballet was my passion. Due to sport and ballet, I had a back injury that resulted in surgery, halting these activities for some time.
I discovered Pilates when I moved to London during the 80s and loved it. I was able to move again. Unfortunately, I didn’t return to ballet, but I was able to perform (without pain) almost all other activities. There has been no turning back!
Strength, mobility, stretch have been my lifesaver.
I run my own small Pilates studio in Burleigh. I also teach at Eden Health Retreat where I have been teaching for nearly 10 years. Teaching at Eden is one of my favourite places: from entering through the gate and enjoying the magnificent scenery, to the fabulous room we get to exercise in, to all the lovely people I have met over the years. I teach two group classes a week and also take one on one private classes on reformer.