So, you’re combatting mid-life aches and stiffness with some healthy exercise. Maybe running, tennis? Or perhaps you are doing some yoga and/or Pilates?
They say you should stretch after exercise. Some people say you should stretch before exercise too. Lots of people talk about stretching as being part of yoga.
It feels pretty good, too.
Beforehand, you maybe need a bit of enlivening, and your stretch gives you a nice extra awareness of your body before you start – just as a stretch can have that effect when you first get out of bed.
And afterwards, when you muscles may well have tightened up with all that exertion, your stretch gives a feeling of release and calming-down.
And you know that they say you should stretch gently, but you get a much stronger sensation if you go just that teeny bit further – and you can’t believe that that’s bad for you. It feels so good!
And anyway, you need to keep your flexibility up there with that of your friends, or with that of the person on the next mat…
Nothing like a bit of competition to spur us all on!
Stretching feels good, but how good is it?
The trouble with stretching is that it provokes the “stretch reflex”.
The stretch reflex is a very important protective mechanism for our muscles. When the fibres in our muscles are pulled apart, as they are when we stretch, they send a nerve signal to our spinal column, which immediately sends one back to the muscle to contract against that pulling apart, to protect against the risk of the muscle being torn. This mechanism by-passes – or, strictly, never gets as far as – the brain, is extremely quick, and is completely involuntary. In other words, it’s a reflex, and there’s no stopping it.
So, when you stretch after exercise, it may feel good, but your muscles are actually being stimulated to tighten, rather than to free up.
Of course, we often feel freer after stretching, but this comes from having stretched our ligaments, not our muscles. And our ligaments take a long time to recover from being stretched.
But if stretching is a bad idea, but muscles have tightened after exercise (or stress!), what can be done?
The answer to this question becomes clear with a bit more knowledge about how our muscles work.
When we contract a muscle, this happens as a result of a nerve signal sent from the brain (or, in the case of the stretch reflex, from the spinal column) to the muscle. The muscle responds to this signal by shortening.
But there is no equivalent de-contraction signal available for the brain to send. The choice is either ‘contract’ or ‘do nothing’. The physiological names for these messages are ‘excitatory’ and ‘inhibitory’.
Fortunately, when a muscle receives an inhibitory, ‘do nothing’, message, it will have a tendency to de-contract (i.e. lengthen, or free up).
So when we bend our arm at the elbow, our biceps receives a ‘contract’ (excitatory) signal from the brain; and the triceps, on the back of the upper arm, receives a ‘do nothing’ (inhibitory) message. And when we straighten the arm from its bent position, the opposite happens.
Sadly, many of us are really good at sending ourselves excitatory signals to contract our muscles, and less good at sending inhibitory signals to ease them off again. And stretching has a tendency only to reinforce this pattern, through the stretch reflex.
The alternative to stretching
From all this, it follows that what we can do is practice the inhibitory messages, so that our muscles have the opportunity to lengthen and regain elasticity.
We can practise this type of inhibition at any moment of our lives, but in the after-exercise setting where we started this article, you could try adopting the usual position for a stretch, and then instead of stretching in your usual way, bring the thought of ‘doing nothing’ or ‘allowing to lengthen’ to mind in respect of the muscles you would otherwise have stretched – and make sure you don’t try to force it to happen.
This will for sure take a little longer, and you may not move as far as you would if you ‘stretched’ the muscles. But you will in this way avoid the stretch reflex, preserve your ligaments, and help your muscles to remain flexible, elastic, and strong.
And try working with inhibitory messages at other times too. You can even try counter-intuitive things like sending inhibitory ‘do nothing’ messages to your hips and ankles as you walk down the street – you may be surprised what happens!
Once you’ve established a climate of inhibitory, un-excited messages to your muscles, a brief, gentle stretch will feel better than ever, and give a lively ‘zing’ to your muscles. But you’ll need to practice, and feel the effects of, the inhibitory messages first.
Over to you
Do let me know what you find with these ‘do nothing’ messages in the Comments below. You’re sure to find something if you try it – even if only that you haven’t quite found the mental wave-length to make a difference. Even that can be a useful discovery – there are lots of other ways to tackle it if you need them!
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I shall look forward to hearing from you.
Stretch! – monkeybusiness/depositphotos.com
Biceps contracts – pixelchaos/depositphotos.com