The Power of Stretching

”Animals seem to know the benefits of stretching much better than we do. Watch any animal for more than a few minutes and they usually demonstrate some form of a stretch” – Bob Doto

Why Stretch?

There are several key factors which contribute to improving general physical fitness; building muscle strength, increasing endurance and improving flexibility. Stretching is an effective way to increase flexibility.

Flexibility describes the extent to which soft tissue can relax and yield to stress forces; by increasing elasticity of the muscles, tendons and ligaments, the body is able to perform more controlled movements and can help to prevent muscle injury.

Improving tissue elasticity is particularly important following an injury, where scar tissue is laid down between normal muscle fibres and limits the normal function of the muscle.

Stretching has also been shown to:-

  • Increase blood flow to muscles
  • Increase athletic performance
  • Increase joint range of motion
  • Relax the nervous system
  • Relieve stress

Muscles are made up of bundles of muscle fibres, which contract to create movement. They allow us to breathe, help to circulate blood, facilitate digestion. Muscles help to keep all our internal organs in place and stabilise the body when performing activities.

Stretching for pain relief

Gentle and progressive stretching relieves pressure on local nerves, thereby reducing pain and discomfort. Stretching is also beneficial for pain or soreness following exercise. Post exercise soreness is usually a result of muscle spasm, therefore, the key to relieving post exercise soreness is to decrease muscle spasm – which is where stretching comes in. How this works involves a lot of clever mechanisms within the muscle cells – too much detail for a brief blog

Stretching in rehabilitation

Restoring function after an injury involves exercises to increase endurance and flexibility. Flexibility is lost quickly when the body limits movement to protect the site of the injury and further when scar tissue forms

Stretching forelimb retraction muscles in the forelimb of a horse

Stretching for injury prevention

Muscle injuries can occur when heavy loads are placed on shortened, tight muscles so by stretching to improve flexibility we can hope to reduce the risk of injury

Stretching tips….

Timing stretches is important. Trying to stretch cold muscles can result in small tears in muscle fibres, therefore most stretches are best done after a warm up or following daily exercise.

Stretching should be enjoyable for both animal and handler and should be done in a relaxed and easy manner.

The idea of stretching is to guide the limb through a range of motion, hold briefly then return to its original position. It’s important not to pull the limb as overstretching can result in microscopic tears in muscles – the opposite of the goal of stretching!

Try and avoid ‘jerky or bouncy’ movement as the muscle is likely to respond by tightening to protect itself from overstretching

Try not to put pressure on the joints or use a joint to hold a limb and avoid twisting joints

Remember, stretching is progressive, don’t expect a huge movement on your first attempt, build up gradually and by using feel, when you reach a little resistance with the stretch hold and then see if you can go a little further.

A physiotherapy treatment can help identify the most appropriate stretches for each individual to help maintain the balance of their unique body and improve overall health and function.

I love seeing the response to the stretches and the feedback that my patients provide. So make the most of the winter by taking time to stretch – both you and your four legged friends!