Exercise can be divided into two broad categories: hard exercise and soft exercise.
Most people think that exercise and fitness are all about the first category, hard exercise. Hard exercise is where you sweat and stress and strain your body in an attempt to encourage it to make adaptations that will end up giving you greater strength, endurance, or aerobic fitness and make your body leaner and your muscles tighter.
This is fine as long as you do not overdo hard exercise and you listen to your body and exercise within your current fitness limits. You also need to balance this hard exercise with the second category of exercise, soft exercise.
Soft exercise has a different aim and a different approach. Its aims are to increase flexibility, mobility, and agility, to minimize injury, and to improve posture. You need to approach soft exercise by remaining relaxed and physically passive while maintaining mental alertness, rather than the gung ho stressing and straining of your body that occurs in hard exercise.
The aim of all exercise is to give you a greater ability to perform more work with less fatigue. The soft approach to increasing your ability to perform work without fatigue is to become more flexible and coordinated. A flexible person has a greater potential for mobility and agility, as a smooth movement will give greater efficiency, giving you more work output and less fatigue, for the same energy system input.
The way you get flexible, mobile, agile, and coordinated is by undertaking a regular stretching routine. Ideally, you should spend as much time in the soft art of stretching as you spend in the hard art of exercise.
You do not have to rely on dubious advice from poorly educated peers with a limited experience in soft exercise as there are systems for stretching that are thousands of years old. For example, yoga from India has a flexibility training system; T’ai Chi from China has a mobility training system; and for agility the Greeks have given us gymnastics and the Asian cultures have given us Martial Arts.
Caring and nurturing
Stretching is more than the sum of the definitions for flexibility, mobility, and agility. Stretching is also an attitude towards your body that is caring and nurturing, rather than a view of your body as a machine that will absorb whatever punishment was thrown at it without complaint for the whole of your life.
Stretching works on the neuro-muscular system (neuro = nerves and muscular-muscles), which is why it can improve coordination, balance, and posture. There are two parts to the nervous system. The “sympathetic” nervous system increases the rate of activity in your body, and the “parasympathetic” nervous system decreases the rate that things happen in your body. When you stretch, you are attempting to exercise the parasympathetic nervous system so you gain the benefit of having your whole body relax.
Stretching also works on the connective tissues of your body, rather than the muscle tissues and energy systems targetted by hard exercise. It keeps the connective tissues of your body more pliable and elastic, prevents the hardening of connective tissues through calcification, and assists in minimizing the long-term formation of scar tissue.
Five reasons to stretch
- AGE: As you get older, your whole body hardens (the process is called calcification, or the laying down of calcium in connective tissue); your muscles will atrophy (get smaller and weaker), and your whole body will have an increase in fibrosity (the dense irregular connective tissue that ultimately reduces freedom of movement).
- INJURIES: Chronic or traumatic injuries can lead to the formation of scar tissue, and calcification. Stretching will reduce your chances of injury in the first place, and increase your ability to recover from injuries.
- OVER-USE: Too much hard exercise may injure or wear the cartilage in your joints, or cause fibrosity in soft tissue, or cause delayed onset muscle soreness. All of these will ultimately reduce the flexibility of your body, making you more prone to injury and less efficient in your movements. Soft exercise will minimize this problem.
- UNDER-USE: Fitness is activity-specific, so being fit for one activity will not always mean you are fit for other activities. When you try a new activity or an activity you are haven’t tried for a while, spend time adapting to the new demands on your body before going all out.
- STRESS: Physical exercise is the most effective way of decreasing the effects of stress on your body, and the best form of exercise for stress management is soft exercise.
Your ultimate potential for flexibility does decrease with age, but most people never achieve their potential. The body becomes more calcified with age, but the amount of deterioration can be minimized through the use of correct stretching. People who stretch correctly will achieve large increases in flexibility, mobility, and agility over time.