When it comes to the Big Three of exercise - cardiovascular, strength training and flexibility - it's pretty clear which one can get overlooked. After all, while we prize cardiovascular and strength training for their role in helping us lose weight, build muscle and get fit, the benefits of flexibility training are less immediately alluring.
However, as the population ages, more of us are learning to appreciate the rewards of stretching. Staying limber can offset age-related stiffness, improve athletic performance, and optimize functional movement in daily life. Research shows that flexibility training can develop and maintain range of motion and may help prevent and treat injury. In fact, the American College of Sports Medicine has added flexibility training to its general exercise recommendations, advising that stretching exercises for the major muscle groups be performed two to three days per week.
How can you include an effective flexibility workout in your fitness program? Here are some guidelines:
Think in Terms of Serious Flexibility Training, Not Just Brief Stretching.
Squeezing in one or two quick stretches before or after a workout is better than nothing, but this approach will yield limited results. What's more, generic stretches may not be effective for your particular body. The more time and attention you give to your flexibility training, the more benefits you'll experience. A qualified chiropractor, personal trainer, physical therapist or health professional can design a functional flexibility program specifically for you.
Consider Your Activities.
Are you a golfer? Do you ski, run or play tennis? Do your daily home or work routines include bending, lifting or sitting for long periods? Functional flexibility improves the stability and mobility of the whole person in his or her specific environment. An individualized stretching program is best to improve both stability (the ability to maintain ideal body alignment during all activities) and mobility (the ability to use full, normal range of motion).
Pay Special Attention to Tight Areas.
Often the shoulder, chest, hamstrings and hips are particularly tight, but you may hold tension in other areas, depending on your history of injuries and the existing imbalances in your muscle groups. Unless you tailor your flexibility training to your strengths and weaknesses, you may stretch already overstretched muscles and miss areas that need training.