Recently, when I was discussing the importance of flexibility training with a client, she brought an article to my attention, which appeared in the Wall Street Journal on Jan. 16. The article, entitled "Why the 49ers Love to Stretch," discussed the team's decreased injury record since coach Jim Harbaugh took over two years ago. The reason for this improvement? Coach Harbaugh's implementation of a consistent stretching regimen has clearly made the difference. Apparently, most teams in the NFL don't devote much time to flexibility training, but focus more on weight lifting, agility, and sprints. The 49ers now regularly spend a lot of time stretching before engaging in any of those drills, and their statistics for missed games due to injuries are far lower than those of other teams.
As a trainer devoted to regular stretching during workouts, I was thrilled to read that the 49ers' workout format is similar to the workout format I use with my clients. In both scenarios, no one begins lifting weights until they have done a cardio warm up to get blood flow to the muscles. Then, stretching is always included at the end of the workout, and in some cases, during the workout.
So why is stretching so important? Is it really worth taking the extra time to stretch when it's hard enough to make time to exercise at all?
Stretching increases flexibility -- the degree to which muscles will lengthen. Increased flexibility allows for faster, more fluid movement, which decreases susceptibility to muscle strains and soft tissue injuries in general. In my practice, I've often seen people who have sustained common injuries simply due to the fact that they failed to take the time to warm up and stretch before and after a vigorous workout. That can be a difficult way to learn the importance of stretching.
Additional benefits of stretching include an increase of blood flow to the muscles, which provides nourishment and eliminates waste byproducts. Balance and coordination are improved by increasing flexibility, lowering the risk of falls. Lower back pain, often caused by inflexible hamstrings, hip and buttock muscles, is greatly improved by regular stretching of these muscles.
Here's a benefit I'll bet you didn't know about: Stretching can help improve cardiovascular health, too -- facilitating artery function and blood pressure. A study published in the American Journal of Physiology found that for people over 40, stiffness at the midsection reflects arteries that have begun to lose their elasticity as well. Elastic blood vessels help moderate blood pressure, so the study showed that those who could not at least reach to their toes in a sit and reach test were more likely to have higher systolic blood pressure. Am I getting your attention yet?
At this point, are you still willing to blow off the stretch component of your fitness regimen? I would hope not. Stretching for a few minutes at each workout seems like a small price to pay for better health. I mean, if the San Francisco 49ers -- one of this year's Super Bowl teams -- can make the commitment to improve flexibility, so can you!
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