Oh to be a cat. They’re independent, spend all day snoozing in the sun, and they’ve got the whole stretching thing down to a T.
They do it to get their blood flowing and muscles moving after periods of inactivity, so they’re ready to pounce on the next mouse they come across.
Although we’re not on the lookout for the next rodent, stretching is key for our health, and we need to do it more.
‘Stretching plays a crucial role in overall health, fitness and function, and it’s vital to keep muscles flexible, strong and healthy,’ says celebrity Pilates instructor Gaby Noble, who teaches stars such as Harry Styles, Sadie Frost and Jools Oliver.
Flexibility is key. ‘If your muscles aren’t flexible, the range of motion in your joints is reduced and your muscles become short and tight. This tightness can lead to aches, poor posture and balance, as well as difficulty with simple tasks, like household chores, getting out of bed and playing with your kids or grandchildren,’ explains Gaby, who owns Chalk Farm’s Classical Pilates Studio, Exhale Pilates London (exhalepilateslondon.com).
Plus, flexibility decreases as we age. Worried if you touch your toes you won’t come up? Us too! But the good news is you can boost it. If done regularly, Gaby says we’ll notice a change in four to six weeks.
Benefits of stretching exercises:
Stretching and looking after your muscles and joints will:
- Decrease stress
- Reduce aches, pains, stiffness and muscle soreness
- Improve blood flow and circulation
- Enhance range of motion
- Improve muscular function
- Reduce risk of injury and falling
- Improve overall health
- Minimise joint wear and tear
- Improve quality of life
Gaby’s dos and don’ts for stretching exercises
Stretch daily. Even if you only have a couple of minutes to spare, make sure you do something. It can easily be done while sitting in a chair at work, on the train or doing housework.
Stretch your spine when you wake up. Muscles and joints have rested through the night and need waking up to prepare for the day ahead.
Mix up your stretches. This will make sure you don’t overwork the same muscles.
Overstretch. Stretching the muscle until it burns means you’re stretching too far and frightening the fibres in the muscle, which can actually do more harm than good.
Skip stretching when exercising. It prevents injuries, reduces muscle soreness, and can help release built up tension.
Gaby shares her favourite five-minute stretching exercises:
Rotate your neck from left to right, drawing shoulders down away from your ears, while lengthening the crown of your head to the ceiling. Drop your head from side to side giving a 3-second hold to every move.
Lie on your back with knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Draw your knees into your chest and clasp your hands around them. Extend your left leg along the floor, keeping your right knee drawn in. Extend your right arm out at shoulder height, palm down. Shift your hips to the right and drop your right knee over to the left hand side of your body. Place your left hand on your right knee and turn your head to the right. Imagine you’re rinsing out a towel on every breath to deepen the stretch. Repeat on the other side.
Take your arm up and behind your back and place your hand on to your shoulder blade with your elbow lifted. Take your opposite hand to guide and lengthen your elbow towards your head. Deepen the stretch by drawing your shoulder blades together and lifting away from the side of your body.
Lie on your back. Keeping your feet on the floor with your knees bent, bring your right foot over your left knee, keeping your right knee out to the side. Bring your left knee up towards your chest, while keeping your right foot flexed, pressing into your left knee. Take deep breaths as you bring your knee further towards you on every exhale. Repeat on the other side.
Quad stretch/hip flexor stretch
Standing with your right hand on a wall (or a tree, if you’re outside), use your left hand to bring your left foot up behind you. Keeping your chest open, lengthen your left knee towards the ground, while the crown of your head is growing taller. Deepen the hip flexor/quad stretch by drawing your abdominals into your spine and refrain from arching your back. If a further stretch is required, slowly drop the opposite leg, while lengthening your body up and keeping your chest open.
WORDS: Natalia Lubomirski.