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The Right Moves

Training Enough? Stretch Yourself

November 05, 2001|KAREN VOIGHT

Stretching is an often overlooked part of maintaining our health and fitness. Lots of people make a point to do the proper combination of strength training and aerobic work, but leave out stretching exercises. I've heard every excuse from "I don't have the time," and "It's so boring" to "stretching hurts too much."

Well, everyone can benefit from stretching. It doesn't matter how old you are or what kind of shape you're in. It's true that some people can stretch more easily than others. Women are often more flexible than men; children are more flexible than adults.

But the fact remains: Done regularly, stretching will improve your flexibility, allowing you to move more easily. If you lift weights or play any type of sports, stretching exercises will complement your performance and reduce your chance of injury.

The reason? If you elongate muscle fibers, they contract and tighten more vigorously and are less likely to be torn or strained. For those who spend long hours seated at a desk, hunched over a computer or studying in awkward positions, stretching realigns your body and relieves low back pain and neck and shoulder tension.

Best of all, consistent stretching combats the effects of aging. As we get older, the tissues around our joints begin to thicken. If we don't stretch regularly, these tissues will stiffen and harden, making everyday movements more difficult.

Ideally we should stretch 10 to 15 minutes a day--but three times a week is a minimum. You'll find it can relax you mentally as well as physically. I've put together a series of soothing stretches, which we photographed in the peaceful setting of Joshua Tree National Park, to add to your fitness program. Each month we'll focus on a different stretch, and I'll give you tips on getting the most out of the time you spend stretching.

Whenever you stretch, choose a warm place free from distractions. Your clothes should be loose or stretchy, and generally your feet should be bare. Work on a padded surface such as a carpeted area or a nonslip mat. The best time to stretch is after a 10-minute warmup or after your workout. Your muscles will be more pliable when they are warm. If you have a medical disorder or a back problem, check with your doctor first.

Front Body Stretches

Use these two moves to stretch the entire front of your body. Hold each position for 10 to 20 seconds, and as you work your way into better shape, try maintaining the stretch for 30 seconds or longer. During the stretch, keep breathing and stay calm and focused.

* Lie on your back with your arms alongside your body and your knees bent. Move your heels toward your buttocks until your ankles are directly below your knees and your feet are hip-width apart. On an exhale, gently roll your hips off the floor, pointing your tailbone toward the backs of your knees. Make sure your knees don't flare outward by keeping them hip-width apart. Continue to lift your pelvis as you interlace your fingers behind you and press your arms against the floor. Concentrate on keeping your feet flat as you contract the muscles between your shoulder blades to open and lift your chest.

* For a more intense stretch, sit upright on the floor with your legs extended forward. Place your palms on the floor 6 to 12 inches behind your hips, fingers pointing toward your feet. Bend your knees slightly, placing the soles of your feet on the floor. Next, lift your entire body off the floor. Straighten your arms and legs, keeping your toes reaching toward the floor.

Be sensitive to your body's natural level of flexibility. Too often, people get frustrated because improvement seems slow. If you keep at it, however, and do not neglect your cardio and strength training, your body will respond by becoming both strong and supple.

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Joan Voight, a San Francisco-based journalist, contributed to this column.

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Karen Voight is a Los Angeles fitness expert whose latest videos are "Pure and Simple Stretches" and "YogaSculpt." She can be reached at kvoightla@aol.com. Her column runs the first Monday of the month.

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