Physical activity is generally associated with a sense of enjoyment; whether it’s playing basketball at the local park or hitting a personal record at the gym, people look forward to getting out and being active.
Of all the ways that one can improve their physical well-being, however, stretching is arguably the least enjoyable.
Over the past four years, on many occasions, I have made the commitment to improve my flexibility. I convince myself that I’ll put aside time every day to stretch. The first several days are a breeze; I’ll find time to stretch after dinner or before my workout. But as we all know, our fast paced, modern-day culture is unforgiving, and the act of stretching falls to the bottom of the priority latter and consequently the commitment to improve flexibility fails.
I’ve always been able to stick to my workout plan, spending one hour in the gym almost every day, so why have I never been able to stick to a stretching routine? Simply put, it is because as a busy student and entrepreneur, I’ve never associated stretching with value, until now.
Sleep is something that I’ve always valued very much, as it’s the time where I allow my body and mind to recover, grow, and relax. After a long, stress filled day, a good night’s sleep is somewhat of a necessity. Last month, I was talking to a friend about the difficulties of going to sleep. After getting into bed, it usually takes me between twenty and thirty minutes to drift off into REM.
This is essentially a half an hour taken out of every day of my life that is wasted.
My friend explained that as most people spend their evenings winding down, their bodies can become very stiff from being in a sedentary environment. So as we finally lay down in our beds, it can be a challenge to simply relax. He explained that by stretching before bed, we can allow our minds to unwind while teaching our bodies to relax. I decided I would give it a whirl.
On the first of May, I spent fifteen minutes performing static stretches. It had been a while since I had actually set aside time to do so and therefore I was very inflexible. Nevertheless, since it was nighttime, I had nowhere to be and no more daily priorities to fulfill, so I could actually focus on putting my entire body at ease. After my stretching session as I climbed into bed, I was aware of how relaxed my body was and how clear my mind had become- I felt great. Sure enough, I fell asleep before I could flip my pillow over.
As the days went on, I started to look forward to my nighttime stretching sessions. I followed a simple, self-made routine, consisting of standing and sitting hamstring stretches, downward and upward facing dog, and groin stretches. Every night I followed this simple routine for ten to fifteen minutes before falling asleep in half that time. I also came to the realisation that something had changed between my current stretching routine and the ones that I attempted to follow in years past. I performed the same stretches, and wasn’t much more flexible, but now I was stretching with intent.
On my previous failed attempts to become more flexible, I stretched with the same intensity while performing the same movements, but I was rushed. I had things to do and places to be. I was focusing on whatever I had to do next in my day instead of on what I was doing in the moment, and therefore I was short-changing myself. Now when I stretch, I am relieved of any anxiety that I would have previously had, and as a result, I can stretch better, relax better, and sleep better.
Since starting my nightly routine around a month ago, I have greatly improved my flexibility which originally had been my main goal, and the overall physiological benefits have been robust. The relaxation I feel at night carries over to the following day, where I’m more at ease to perform previously stressful activities. The flexibility I have gained has carried over to my workouts, where I have a more pronounced range of motion.
I am not trying to claim that the act of stretching is a wonder drug, nor am I saying that superior flexibility has earth-shattering benefits, because it doesn’t. Static stretching does not have the injury prevention effects that we once believed (in the case of weight-lifters), and stretching in general leads to no improvement in muscle strength or endurance. Infact, a study in 2010 showed that performing static stretches as a warmup can actually impair strength, as well as running and jumping ability, in the proceeding workout (1). What it does do, however, is improve range of motion, enhance good posture, and in my opinion, promote general well-being.
I no longer stretch for the sole purpose of becoming more flexible, although it is a handy by-product. I stretch, and will continue to do so, for the time I can allow myself to unwind, for the ease at which I can go to sleep, and most importantly, for the enjoyment of doing so.
Image – Instagram : @samuleba