Stretching is an essential component of many women's fitness and lifestyle regimes. Stretching is done to increase and maintain motion at the joints. It is rarely harmful, unless it is done in quick, ballistic motions. It should be a part of every woman's health maintenance and injury prevention program, as it reverses abnormal postures required in sports and in life activities that can cause pain and lead to tightness, weakness, and injury.

Maintaining normal motion prevents stiffness and subsequent weakness. In sports, full motion is necessary to achieve maximum power for most activities. There have been many studies done to evaluate the effects of stretching on preventing injuries, with some mixed results. Recent studies have suggested that stretching is not necessary immediately before competition; one study suggested that stretching before a speed event can actually slow you down, because muscles and ligaments may lose their "spring." Another study showed that the number of acute injuries (such as tears) sustained during athletic activities are similar whether stretching was done first or not. In regards to preventing pain and overuse injuries such as bursitis and tendinitis, however, stretching studies show positive effects. Stretching also has been found to increase strength gained during weight training.

Regular stretching after exercise will reduce muscle and ligament pain and soreness. Decreasing pain is essential to maintaining muscle and bone health, because pain is a sign of injury or weakness. Pain thereby limits full participation in training and performance. Stretching decreases the muscle spasms and tightness the body can develop after a hard workout. These spasms and tightness, if not reversed, can lead to weakness and decreased range of motion with ultimately poorer performance. Maintaining your full range of motion in muscles and joints allows the joint to function as it is designed without restrictions; this is crucial to sports that require large, powerful movements, including golf, softball, tennis, volleyball, and basketball.

Stretching is also an essential component of recovery from injury. The shoulder and knee joints are especially vulnerable to decreased motion after injury. Not using or moving the joint secondary to pain, swelling, or weakness can lead to a stiff, dysfunctional joint that is painful to move and difficult to recover from. This can reach a point of such tightness that the muscles become weak, causing a vicious cycle of pain, weakness, and limited motion, which can lead to further pain or overuse injuries in nearby or opposite joints as they try to make up for lost movement and strength.

Stretching the major muscle groups for at least 10 minutes a day, especially after exercise, is recommended for everyone. If you have an area that has been injured or is aching, more focused stretching to this area will prevent further pain, weakness, or injury. Effective stretching is done slowly. Breathing should be relaxed, and you should feel comfortable. Movements should be held with a gentle pull without pain. Stretching has its greatest benefit after working out, when the muscles and tendons are warm and more flexible.

Yoga is an excellent form of stretching, as it encourages maximum joint and muscle movement while also strengthening muscles as the positions are held. Yoga is generally very safe, although occasionally certain postures or styles of yoga (such as Kundalini, which includes quick, ballistic movements) can be too aggressive.

Benefits of Stretching After Exercise

  • Decreases risk of overuse injuries
  • Allows full strength throughout the full joint movement
  • Increases flexibility and motion
  • Increases performance
  • Improves posture

From The Active Woman's Health and Fitness Handbook by Nadya Swedan. Copyright © 2003 by Nadya Swedan. Used by arrangement with Perigee, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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