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Loosen up: Fitness pros offer whys and hows of stretching

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Alex Fox, left, Amanda Dunnavant, center, and Ann Ryan participate in a stretching and meditation class in Dallas.

The annoying thing about stretching is it can't be recorded or bragged about. Not by miles biked. Not by yards swum. Not by the pace of a run. Not by pounds lifted.

So in this world of Fitbits and Apple watches and various apps that keep track of your every move and tell others what you've done ... Well, what's the point?

"Purely," says Rachel Fox, owner of The Refuge Meditation, a yoga studio in Dallas, "it's getting volumes of oxygen into the body."

That way, she says, "muscles and bones can have the most nourishment and thus reduce stress, lower blood pressure and heart rate, and increase the ability to be mobile and stable in everyday activities."

By increasing our range of motion, experts say, we're better protected from injuries.

Fox's studio offers "stretching + yoga" classes four times a week. Other yoga studios also offer such stretching classes, but stretching and strengthening are an inherent part of yoga. Look especially for the word "yin" in a class name, Fox says. In restorative yoga, poses are held for a longer time and thus involve deeper stretching.

"The nice thing about stretching is that it covers all ages," says franchise owner Lynell D'Sylva. Athletes of all types benefit, of course. So do many other people such as those who are healing after surgery, or who just feel tight after being inactive for a long period of time.

Stretching, says D'Sylva, a registered nurse who worked in pharmaceutical marketing, "falls between rehabilitation and fitness. It's considered the wellness base."

Stretching and meditation

From left, Jordan Fox, Tori Whitehead, Jennifer Brandon Elliott and Mary Gonsiorek participate in a stretching and meditation class at the Refuge Meditation in Dallas.

So in the interest of all things wellness, we posed some questions to stretching gurus. Before you read their answers, though, we offer this caveat: There's no one-stretch-fits-all when it comes to stretching; an assessment by a professional can help determine what's right for you. Just remember to breathe, use common sense and stop if it hurts.

Who needs to stretch?

"Everybody probably has at least one body segment that could use some mobility work," simple movement that would include stretching, says Jason Wishin, a physical therapist in Dallas.

Those who especially need it? People who sit for long periods of time in one position. Truck drivers, for instance, or those who sit at a desk for hours on end.

What's one basic I need to know about stretching?

Breathe, stresses Marius Maianu, an exercise physiologist. "Proper breathing will help improve mobility and flexibility when working on improving your range of motion."

Don't hold your breath, in other words: "Breathing resets everything. It helps engage the muscles."

How important is stretching before exercising?

That depends on what you mean by "stretching," says Maianu, who has conducted more than 10,000 treadmill tests with clients over 20 years. If you mean "movement," which he prefers, then it's a good idea to warm up your muscles. The best way? Simulate the action you'll be doing during a workout with what are called "dynamic stretches."

For example, if you're a runner, jog in place, adding high-knee jogging. Also do kickbacks, letting your feet touch your bottom as you move, he says. You can also use a foam roller to warm the muscles you're about to use, he says. That will "increase blood flow to your muscles and create better mobility, helping with recovery and improving performance."

Swimmers might make big circles with their arms to simulate the strokes they'll be practicing.

"Go through the full motion under a controlled aspect to get the muscles fired up," Wishin says. "A light jog to increase blood flow would raise the core temperature just to the degree where they'd have increased mobility and pliability, which makes them less likely to have an injury."


From left, Andrew Falcinelli, Alex Fox, Amanda Dunnavant and Ann Ryan participate in a stretching and meditation class in Dallas.

What you don't want to do are static stretches: those where you hold a pose for 30 seconds to a minute, and you certainly don't want to bounce. If you're going to do those, save them (without the bounces) for post-workout, he says. They're good for returning blood flow to the body. But, he adds, research hasn't shown static stretches to do much to prevent injuries.

"Instead of holding one pose," he says, "slowly get into it, trying to get a little deeper."

Why don't many people like to stretch?

Some people are hesitant because "they think they have to push to pain to see results," Wishin says. "They say it hurts, didn't help and that they don't have time."

Plus, everyone wants a quick fix these days, he says. "By having it be over a prolonged period, people don't stick to it, and they won't see quick results."

How long should I stretch?

Ten to 15 minutes will fully warm everything up pre-workout, Wishin says. "It takes a little longer to increase blood flow if you exercise first thing in the morning or after sitting all day."

Post-workout, Maianu says full body stretches can be done in mere minutes.

D'Sylva says she spends the same amount of time stretching — about an hour — as she does working out.

"Stretching makes the muscles more pliable," she says. "Think of a rubber band that hasn't been stretched in a while. Pull it and it snaps, as opposed to one that has been worked and stays pliant and buoyant."

In general, though, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends adults do flexibility exercises at least twice a week. Hold each stretch for 10 to 30 seconds; repeat each two to four times.

Women, by the way, tend to be more flexible than men, Maianu says, because they have less muscle mass.

What are some basic stretches I should do?

Ashley Travis, a stretching advocate who includes stretching in the barre and aquatics classes she teaches, especially likes a hip opener called the "Standing Figure 4."

"Cross an ankle over the opposite thigh and sit back to open the bent leg hip," she says. "Breathe deeply and hold. Repeat on the other side." Being near a chair or counter to hold onto is helpful if your balance is unsteady, she says.

Wishin, the physical therapist, offers another for hip flexors: Kneel with one foot behind you on the floor, the opposite knee bent with that foot flat. Squeezing your glutes, shift your weight forward, feeling a stretch in the front of the hip and thigh on the back leg. Hold for five seconds as you breathe. Relax your glutes. Repeat five to 10 times on that side, then switch legs and repeat on the other side.

Terri Arends, a group fitness director, recommends a neck stretch. "So many folks are tight in the neck area," she says, "and this can be done whether you're seated or standing."

Here's one from Tilt your right ear toward your right shoulder, gently using your right hand to pull from the top of your head. Hold for 10 seconds. Release; repeat three times, then switch sides.

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