The truth about stretching!

Robin Nelson

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Everyone knows that one person who is so impressively flexible, it’s almost unbelievable. Have you ever wondered how they got so stretchy? Or how that intense flexibility is going to affect them when they’re old and gray? Stretching has a lot of impacts on our bodies, and most of them are beneficial! It relieves tension, prevent injuries, and helps agility as you age. 

Splits. Just saying that word is painful to many people. So how does it make sense that people are able to slide into the splits with no problem whatsoever? Many people, I included, believe that stretching is just making your muscles longer. Surprisingly, this is not true. When we stretch, our bodies create a reaction in the nervous system. Stretching our muscles hurts because our nervous system is telling us:

“Ok I don’t like that. You’re going to get hurt if we keep pushing.” not because we are adding large amounts of length to our muscles. Basically, your body is warning you that you are going into unknown territory. When we continually stretch, we are training our nervous system to stop feeling that pain. You become tolerant to it. This is how people become flexible! By unknowingly ignoring pain over a long period of time. This is also why babies and young children are very flexible.

Their nervous systems haven’t finished developing a “range of motion blueprint” as the article Does Stretching Increase Flexibility? (Ghose) puts it. Interestingly enough, this also means that a person under full anesthesia will have a full range of motion. Which means that when under anesthesia, we can stretch to our body’s fullest extent because the anesthesia stops your nervous system from feeling the pain and interfering.  

Understanding how stretching works still doesn’t explain why people like to do it so much. For people who are athletic, such as dancers, gymnasts, or other sports players, stretching is a very important aspect of their lives. When you must use your muscles in intense physical activity every day, your muscles become tense and sore quite often. Stretching releases this tension and keeps the body’s range of motion functioning at its best. When your body can use its full range of motion to its advantage, you perform better in whatever sport it is you do. Not only that, but you are also less likely to become injured. Think about it, if you get sore from practice, it’s never equal on both sides of your body or in all the same places. Your body is imbalanced, and you are more prone to injury. Imbalanced muscles try to overcompensate by using muscles around them to try to act normal. This just leads to injury instead of normal functions. When you stretch and relieve the soreness, pain, or imbalance, you help your muscles and prevent injury! 

Besides all the great short-term benefits of stretching, there are a few notable long-term ones as well! When somebody consistently stretches safely, it effects their whole body over time by improving posture. How does posture help your whole body you might ask? It’s simple. Everything that keeps you alive is connected by your spinal cord, which is also the place where your posture happens. On top of your spinal cord is your head, or your brain, which is connected to every single system in your body through nerves in your spine! Your rib cage, which holds many vital organs, is also connected to your spine. Therefore, when we stretch continuously and improve posture, we straighten out our rib cage, organs, and bodily systems. Overall, your body will function better, and you’ll be healthier! Having better posture as you age will make living more comfortable, and because of this stretching also benefits us as we age. Did you know that after you turn 40 your muscles start to lose mass and mobility extremely fast? I don’t know about you, but when I’m older I don’t want to always feel tired and in pain because of this. To counter this loss, stretching into old age will let your body keep its muscle mass and range of motion. You’ll stay healthy and spry far into your life. 

Now seeing that one super flexible friend with their legs bending in crazy ways makes a little more sense. When anyone stretches, it happens in the nervous system and over time brings many benefits. Injuries are prevented, balance is restored, and we become healthier as a whole. Stretching doesn’t seem so strange once you know how it works and what it does for you! 

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