On Stretching

As a dancer, I can feel my body getting stiffer and less flexible within days of going without stretching. For most individuals it isn’t necessary to be able to touch your nose to your knees with your legs stretched out, so why is stretching so important?

While studying exercise physiology, I have begun to notice that there is a strange lack of consensus for or against stretching. As for preventing injuries and improving athletic performance, the research is conflicting. And although stretching can certainly help to increase and maintain range of motion over time, and this is becomes extremely beneficial as we age in terms of our functional ability to do activities of daily living, there is not a lot of research on what type of stretching works best.

Active or dynamic stretching is most often encouraged. Yoga would fall into this category. This type of movement encourages the lengthening of one muscle or muscle group while activating it’s antagonist. It incorporates slow movement throughout the entire range of movement. For example, lowering into a runner’s lunge will stretch out your hip flexor while challenging the quadriceps for stability and the hamstring of the opposite leg for support.

Static stretching is probably what most people think of when they hear stretching. This would involve the isolation of certain muscle and holding at the end point of that stretch for an extended length of time. For example,  lifting your elbow over your head and using your other hand to pull it toward the opposite side is a static stretch for your triceps.

Setting up for ballistic stretching can be similar to either dynamic and static but the idea would be to “bounce” into the stretch near the end point of that range of motion. One example would be reaching your arm overhead and leaning to the opposite side into a lateral flexion. This side stretch which lengthens the obliques and intercostal muscles of the elongated side is often repeated at the end point, and was popular in aerobic style classes.

There is also  passive stretching which requires a prop or a partner. This type of stretching necessitates for complete relaxation of the joint and surrounding muscles.  In yoga, the use of a strap to help stretch the hamstrings, while lying on your back, can be very helpful for people whose leg cannot exceed a 90 degree angle.

In my opinion, these are all valuable methods of stretching. Figuring out what works best for you will probably require some trial and error. Dance training utilizes all of these techniques, and incorporating a little of each into a routine will probably get you the best results.  And of course it will depend on what your end goal might be; maintaining hip and hamstring flexibility might be a priority if you want to be able to reach down and tie your shoes. For older populations, maintaining shoulder range of motion becomes helpful for activities such as dressing. One thing is for certain with flexibility and range of motion, if you aren’t “going there” today, you can’t expect to be able to be there tomorrow. In other words, if you don’t use it you lose it.

What I like about movement classes, is the fluidity you can achieve while stretching. This would be considered dynamic stretching but it doesn’t have to be uncomfortable or pushing toward the maximum stretch. Finding the range of motion in your rib cage and hips can just be about motion, and finding an ease in the joint. Tai Chi is a good example of this, and there have been multiple studies of why this is good for the joints and overall health. The body holds a lot of stress from our day to day lives and practicing some kind of movement technique helps you become more aware of what your body is doing and allowing your self to consciously let that tension go.   Personally I believe this is something we can all gain from, whether you are an athlete or just an individual wanting to become more active and stay in good shape as you age.

If you are not afraid of looking a little goofy, trying a movement improvisation based on circles and spirals in all of your joints might tell you a lot about your movement capacity.

If you aren’t into dancing around in your living room, here is a series of stretches you could do at work that might not attract too much attention.

1. For the front of the chest and shoulders: (great for posture) Find a door jam. Place your hands at shoulder height on either side of the door frame and allow yourself to fall forward opening up in your chest. Keep your core engaged for support and if you can keep your heels down you’ll get a bit of calf stretch as well.

2. For the glutes and lower back: (great for those of us who sit a lot) Sitting in a chair, put one ankle over the opposite knee and round forward into the stretch. Take a nice deep breath and try to relax in your hip socket. Repeat with the other leg.

3. For the neck (great to release tension): Sit up tall in your chair, drop your shoulders down, lift slightly in the sternum to open the chest. Lower your chin toward your chest hold for a few breaths and then begin circling your head. Imagine drawing a circle with the top of your head and be careful not to drop your head completely to the back. Repeat the circling in the other direction.

4. For the hip flexors (great for the front of the hip and the lower back): From standing, take a big step forward into a small lunge. Tilt your pelvis back trying to open up the front of the hip. Make sure your front knee is tracking over your foot and doesn’t go past your toe putting extra pressure on your knee. Stretch your back leg long and reach your heel toward the floor. If you are feeling strong here, you can raise the same arm as your back leg up over your head and lift up and over to the opposite side into a small lateral stretch. This will enhance the stretch of the hip flexor and test your balance.

5. For your obliques (great for the spine and core stability): Stand up with your feet together. Clasp your fingers together and rotate your arms so that your palms are facing away from your body. Raise your arms above your head and slowly reach up and over to the right side. Imagine lengthening the left side while keeping the hips stable and your weight evenly dispersed on both feet. On your next inhale slowly lift back up to standing before starting on the opposite side. Careful to only go as far as you can control, this stretch requires quite a bit of core strength if you are doing it correctly!

Take deep breaths during your stretches and if you start to feel pain back away. Some stretches are more uncomfortable than others but you should never feel sharp pain, this may be a sign that you are stretching too far.

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Keeping Fit on Vacation

Vacations and traveling can be refreshing and energizing but they can also leave us feeling a bit heavier upon return home. My dad used to tell me, “there are no calories on Holidays” and like so many others I take advantage of times with friends and family or on vacation as times to splurge and not think about eating “right” and just enjoying a good meal and a dessert. And there is nothing wrong with that! The last thing I would recommend is to go on a trip and not experience the food! But vacationing is not an excuse to be less active either….

On most of my vacations I do a lot of walking without thinking about it. Walking is great, and can mean the difference of 1.3 more years of healthy life in terms of cardiovascular disease if you are walking just 30 minutes a day. (according to a 2005 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine)

Living in New York City, I can easily walk 30 minutes a day when I include my commute to work and running errands in my neighborhood. If you live in a more suburban community getting those minutes in might have to be a bit more proactive when you drive everywhere you need to go. But exploring new cities, it should be easy to get in that burst of activity each day- but that might not be enough if you are also eating slightly more- or more richly than normal.

Unless you are at an all amenities included hotel, chances are you are without a gym. Here is when knowing how to get a good work out without relying on machines is most beneficial. Pilates and Yoga are both great to utilize in these types of situations. And getting creative with squats, lounges, and planks can give you a full body workout with limited space and equipment.

I found this article on a ten minute plank work out by Tina Haupert on Health Magazine’s Website. I tried it over the weekend and my abs and arms were definitely sore the next day. It’s incredibly intense and not suitable for beginners to plank workouts but it is telling just how little you need to work up a sweat. A modified version of this workout would be to add in moments in downward dog and child’s pose to rest.

Extra time stretching can also be a great addition to vacation time workouts. Stretching can be very relaxing and much needed after long periods of time sitting (travelling). Long trips on a plane or a car can be terrible for circulation. Try to stand up for a minute every hour or so, and making sure you rotate your ankles, stretch the calves and legs and doing a few straight leg press ups onto your toes can increase blood flow and prevent cramps.

Nurturing our Practice

This past weekend I had the opportunity to meet up with my lovely friend esther. She is an amazing yoga teacher and is studying thai massage as well. For quite some time now, we’ve been swapping sessions with each other whenever we get the chance. We actually met at the Ohio State University’s dance program, I was in undergrad and she was getting her Masters, and then we reconnected here in New York.

It does not surprise me that so many dancers begin to turn to other forms of movement and teaching. The connection with the body and movement rarely just leaves someone after they’ve spent years training in a studio and performing and creating and experimenting. Even if that person decides their dancing days are over, they often find something else to fill that void. While I still love to dance, and jump at any opportunity that arises for me to play around in the studio, I’m glad that I’ve found a way to connect with this unique knowledge that I’ve gained after fifteen years of traditional dance training and to bring that into each class I teach.

“Swaps”, as we call them, are such a nurturing way of giving back and continuing the education. Esther has been giving me private yoga and meditation sessions and I’ve been training her with Pilates techniques. While the two forms are drastically different in style and philosophy we surprise ourselves with the underlying connections and often pause during our sessions to discuss possibilities about anatomy and why each practice approaches specific movements with slight differences. It keeps our own practices fresh and makes us think about why we do what we were taught to do, or if maybe we should think about doing things differently. No matter what we decide, it’s the conversation that keeps us on our toes.