SOUND MIND, SOUND BODY: Stretches pay off now, later

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Flexibility training and stretching is one component of exercise that is often overlooked. Many injuries occur due to muscles being tight and stiff. Flexibility training allows athletes to achieve optimal performance, seniors to increase range of motion of joints and minds and muscles to rest and relax.

According to the American Council on Exercise, flexibility is, "the range of motion within a joint along the various planes of motion." Numerous factors can affect a joint's range of motion: genetics; tendon, muscle or joint elasticity; neuromuscular coordination; and strength of the opposing muscle group. Two common forms of stretching are static and dynamic stretching.

Static stretching is the actual "hold" of a stretch, and also includes static poses in yoga, or stretches held longer than several seconds. Dynamic flexibility involves movement through a range of motion with an emphasis on maintaining speed and force. Pilates, water classes and gymnastics are examples of exercises that use dynamic stretches.

As flexibility enhances so does the blood and nutrient supply to the joints. In addition, synovial fluid flows through the joint, which slows the degeneration. Synovial fluid is transparent, viscous lubricating fluid found in joint cavities, bursae and tendon sheaths.

Stretching elongates the musculotendinuous unit, muscle fibers and connective tissue which consists of tendons, ligaments and fascia. If you have ever taken a yoga class, the instructor may announce that flexibility comes with time, and that you should never stretch past a mild discomfort level. This is true whether you are engaged in dynamic or static stretching.

Stretching is most effective when body temperature increases at a minimum of one to three degrees. Warm muscles aid in relaxation as well as reduce the risk of injury or strain while stretching.

Athletes are recommended to perform dynamic stretching prior to training or competition.

This would include shoulder, neck, wrist and ankle rolls, hip rotations, spinal rotations and knee lifts. Static stretching should be completed at the completion of training or competition.

People should complete flexibility training at a minimum of two or three days per week to a position of mild discomfort. If incorporating static stretching, 10 to 30 seconds in the stretch can achieve results. It is important to stretch all major muscle groups, and sets can be repeated at least four times. All fitness levels and ages can incorporate stretching into a fitness program.

Elizabeth Kovar has been working in the fitness industry since 2006 with international experience in India and Australia. She has a master's degree in recreation and tourism and is a programs coordinator at the YMCA where she trains, instructs fitness classes and assists in marketing projects. She welcomes questions and comments and can be reached at ekovar@wwymca.org.

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