The Basics: Stretch Your Fitness Limits

In the quest for fitness, don't overlook flexibility

By Barbara Russi Sarnataro
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD

We all know that aerobic exercise, strength training, and nutrition are three components of a balanced fitness regime. But there's another, just as important, component that's often overlooked: stretching.

"It's the one area that is completely being neglected," says Michael Anthony George, a personal trainer to celebrities including Reese Witherspoon and Christian Slater.

Why is flexibility -- the ability to move joints and muscles through their full range of motion ­ so important?

First off, staying flexible means avoiding injury and pain. Without stretching, tendons, ligaments and muscles will shorten, causing damage over time, says George, owner of Integrated Motivational Fitness.

"If a certain muscle group is weak, stiff, or tight, the body will actually hijack peripheral muscles to aid in that movement," he says. "Over time, these muscles can become injured."

For example, if someone is reaching into the car to pick up groceries and is not strong enough in the abdominals, arms, and legs, "they are going to use their back. If the motion can't come from where it needs to come from, it'll come from somewhere else," says exercise physiologist Robyn Stuhr, administrative director with the Women's Sports Medicine Center at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.

Aliesa George (no relation to Michael Anthony George), owner of Centerworks Pilates in Wichita, Kan., sees the benefits of improved flexibility in her clients on a daily basis. Staying flexible, she says:

  • Counters the shortening that occurs when muscles are repeatedly used -- as in exercise or a repetitive daily activity -- and keeps muscles elastic
  • Increases the range of motion in joints
  • Decreases joint pain and stress
  • Improves balance, stability, and circulation
  • Aids athletic performance, relaxation, and posture

In fact, Michael George says poor posture is the No. 1 problem he sees. He uses the term "collapsed thoracic syndrome" to describe the rounded and raised shoulders and tight necks often caused by slumping over a computer monitor for hours at a time,

"It happens gradually and we don't even notice," he says. "One day we look in the mirror and find our shoulders are a little rounded."

Good posture, he says, "prevents injury, speeds recovery, and improves physical appearance." But of all its benefits, a better appearance is the one he stresses to his clients. "People are concerned about body image," he says. "They don't care about injuries until they have them. Out of sight, out of mind."

In a sense, stretching can also help you stay young. "As most people get older, they experience gradual losses in flexibility, partially due to aging and partially due to lack of activity and exercise," Stuhr says.

This not only affects your workouts, but it can also affect the ability to perform daily tasks, like reaching to put away groceries or turning your head to look behind you while driving. The good news is that no matter what your age, you can improve your flexibility and with it, your quality of life.

"It's never too late to increase flexibility," says Aliesa George. "It just takes regular practice."

Stretching and Exercise

Though some studies have concluded otherwise, the fitness experts interviewed for this article say they believe that doing aerobic or strength-training exercise without stretching does increase the risk of injury.


"People tend to do too much. They...complete an hour class when they probably only should have done about 15 minutes."

Many of the studies have focused on young, active, fit individuals, and haven't looked at different populations, such as middle-aged or older, or sedentary people, Stuhr says.

And as a Pilates teacher, Aliesa George knows what tight muscles do to her clients.

"A high percentage, if not all, of injuries I see ... are definitely flexibility related or muscle-imbalance related, which is in part due to having muscles that are too strong or too inflexible."

Naturally, she says Pilates is a great way to improve flexibility: "With the emphasis on bending the spine in all directions -- flexion, extension, and rotation -- improvements in total body flexibility happen quickly."

And because of Pilates' emphasis on proper body alignment, its benefits carry over to other activities, "helping you practice using correct muscles during other workouts and throughout the rest of your day," she says.