During exams, don’t get stiff and hunched with a back aching for the bed. Instead, stretch. Stretching gives you lengthened muscles, better posture, more coordination, more flexibility. And stretching (like all exercise) fires up your prefrontal cortex—the brain’s thinking center.
I had a great range of stretch as a child—but not as an adult. My run down elementary school managed to secure an elite gymnastics coach. The coach started a gymnastics club, which I excitedly joined. But, to my despair, I got placed in the low performing group—the group with an often-absent leader.
But I grit my teeth and learned how to do one-handed cartwheels and round-offs. I could do flips off vaults. I could almost do the splits, too. That is, until my teammate snuck behind me and pushed me into full split form. Not a safe way to stretch! But I mastered the splits that day.
And then I went to a provincial tournament, winning firsts after firsts. My name got placed on the school’s top 20 gymnasts list. When the coach, in front of an assembly of kids, asked me how I won, I gave the truth: I competed against the worst group of gymnasts. They couldn’t somersault off vaults or do headstands off beams. Kindergarteners could have fared better.
The coach left the school that year. Mom offered to send me and my little sister to gymnastics school. But my little sister’s skills edged beyond mine. That younger sibling phenomenon is discussed in K. Anders Ericsson’s book on peak performance. So, shyly, I opted out of lessons.
I continued to do one-handed cartwheels until high school. But today, I barely touch my toes. So, I’m now psyching myself to add hour-long yoga stints twice a week. One day I’ll gain the stretch of a ballerina. And, okay, maybe I’ll end up a fifty-year old ballerina. Just saying.
But, better yet, you might end up a fifty-year old ballerina, too. Jessica Matthews teaches us to stretch in her book Stretching to Stay Young: Simple Workouts to Keep You Flexible, Energized, & Pain-Free:
- You might even become an eighty-year old ballerina: “Regardless of your age, lifestyle, physical condition, or current level of flexibility, you can tailor stretches to meet your personal needs and goals” (location 147, 7%).
- Here are signs you need to stretch: “Poor posture, improper form when performing everyday tasks, repetitive movements, and spending long periods of time seated commonly lead to tight and tense muscles” (location 165, 8%).
- Stretching makes you happier and healthier: “When your range of motion is restricted by tight, stiff muscles, this not only negatively affects how you move when exercising and when going about your everyday activities, but it also affects how you feel physically and mentally” (location 191, 10%).
- Stretching makes you powerful: “A four-week, vigorous stretching warm-up program increased the agility, power, muscular strength, and endurance of athletes” (location 182, 9%).
- So, how often should you stretch? “The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends performing flexibility-based exercises at least two or three days per week, with daily stretching being the most effective” (location 261, 13%).
- Stretching as often as two days a week will give benefits in less than a month: “You may … experience short-term benefits immediately following your exercises and also after as few as 7 to 10 sessions in an intensive program, or as quickly as three to four weeks of stretching at least twice per week” (location 207, 10%).
- And how should you safely stretch? “You should hold … stretches to the point of mild tension or slight discomfort to enhance your joint’s range of motion, but never to the point where you feel pain” (location 261, 13%).
- Lastly, hold stretches for 15 to 60 seconds: “Hold that stretch for 15 to 30 seconds per repetition …. Holding … stretches for a little longer, 30 to 60 seconds per repetition, may offer you greater benefits” (location 228, 11%).
- But don’t count down 15 second stretches; instead, keep count with breaths: “Hold each … stretch for at least 15 seconds by counting five slow and controlled breaths during each stretch repetition” (location 312, 16%).
If you’re young, and can stretch well, you have a shot at dancing the Alberta Ballet. But you might prefer hot yoga. I dabbled in yoga years ago. To my delight, my yoga DVD induced sleeps. But slumber time’s no time for tying ballet slippers.
Just don’t eat at the noodle stand next door to the hot yoga studio. The hot body odor ebbs through the walls and gives sweet and sour chicken a mouth-puckering zest.