In part 1 of this series on Stretching; the three benefits you may not know, we discussed how stretching helps the lymph system do its job to help your immune system function. This makes stretching one of the best ways to reduce the effects of sitting for too long. In part 2, we reviewed the fascia system and it’s effect on your whole body and your mind. Stretching then becomes a way to help your body feel less stiff while improving whole person health. In this last part, let’s take a look at how the effects of stretching on your nervous system can lead to more comfort, less pain and more freedom of movement.
The nervous system is what controls muscles. When a muscle is tight, it is your nervous system trying to protect your muscles from tearing. A muscle spasm is when your nervous system has to take extreme measures to protect a muscle that is holding a lot of tension. The spasm happens to prevent it from tearing. That spasm is not the result of that one movement, but rather the accumulation of tightness over time. The movement that resulted in a spasm was the final straw, so to speak. Regular stretching helps to keep that tightness from accumulating.
When you stretch regularly, you are helping your nervous system build up tolerance of movements, so it is less “hyper-protective” of the muscles.
The way to get this benefit though goes against the way you may have been taught to stretch in the past. The word stretching implies you are stretching a muscle like a piece of cloth, and the more you pull the more the muscle will relax. Because the nervous system is in a large part what is ‘allowing’ the muscle to ‘stretch’ or not, pulling harder means your nervous system needs to go into that ‘hyper-alert’ mode to protect the muscle from injury.
We now know that starting with a gentle stretch and only going into a light to moderate stretch sensation is more likely to result in relaxing a muscle. Stretching to a point of pain or discomfort can have the opposite effect of what you are trying to do by stretching.
This means, paying attention to how you feel when you are stretching, and listening to your body is the way to get the most from stretching. When you do a stretch mindlessly, quickly or forcefully, you lower the quality of the stretch and thus waste your time. Rethink stretching as a way to help your body restore and recharge so it becomes a way to reduce the stress in your mind that is held in your body. Sprinkle your day with stretch breaks to avoid that accumulation, and you raise the quality of your movement breaks while gaining more freedom of movement in daily life.
Keep Moving, Be Well,