I think for many people, “stretching” seems like something you do before or after exercise…or maybe when you first wake up in the morning, before you get out of bed! But I encourage my students to think about stretching or “flexibility training,” as something important on its own. Why are talents like touching your toes or interlacing your fingers behind your back important markers of good health? “Increased flexibility may reduce your risk of injury and make everyday activities easier,” says Sheri Colberg, PhD, a professor of exercise science at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, and co-author of the new book The Diabetes Breakthrough.
According to Colberg, the body operates on the principle of “use it or lose it” with strength as well as range of motion. “Just as an under-used muscle may start to lose function and strength,” she says, “when you begin to bend, twist, reach and stretch less, it becomes more difficult. As your flexibility shrinks it may be harder to reach into an overhead compartment on a plane, pick up something you’ve dropped or lean into the backseat of your car.”
Unfortunately, just about all of us get less flexible as we age. But, for those living with diabetes, stiff joints and loss of range of motion may be even more pronounced. “People living with diabetes often experience a lack of motion relating to glucose,” says Colberg. The cause may be glycation of the joint surfaces, which happens when glucose in the body binds to and becomes a part of the collagen structures around a joint, making it “more sticky” and less flexible. Says Colberg, “I’ve seen that people with diabetes seem more prone to overuse injuries and more susceptible to inflammation injuries; some of that may be due to joint structures being less flexible.” People with diabetes are also at risk for frozen shoulder, frozen hip, and trigger finger, which can be caused in part by a lack of range of motion. (Understand more about frozen shoulder here.)
In order to maintain or increase your flexibility, Colberg suggests stretching regularly; if you can’t manage to stretch daily, stretch at least weekly to keep your joints and muscles as limber as possible. She also recommends exercising, after speaking with your doctor, to help maintain flexibility gains.
The National Institute on Aging offers a few simple suggestions before getting started on a stretching routine:
– Talk with your diabetes care team before you begin.
– Always warm up before stretching exercises. Stretching can increase flexibility but does not improve endurance or strength. If you do endurance or strength exercises, it is a good idea to stretch afterwards. If you are doing only stretching exercises, warm up with a few minutes of easy walking first. Stretching your muscles before they are warmed up may result in injury.
– Always remember to breathe normally while holding a stretch.
– Stretching may feel slightly uncomfortable; for example, a mild pulling feeling is normal.
– You are stretching too far if you feel sharp or stabbing pain, or joint pain – while doing the stretch or even the next day. Reduce the stretch so that it doesn’t hurt.
– Never “bounce” into a stretch. Make slow, steady movements instead. Jerking into position can cause muscles to tighten, possibly causing injury.
– Avoid “locking” your joints. Straighten your arms and legs when you stretch them, but don’t hold them tightly in a straight position. Your joints should always be slightly bent while stretching.
So what exactly counts as a stretch? “Anything that uses the full range of motion of a particular joint is usually going to be effective,” says Colberg. “Stretching can be static, where you hold a stretch for 15 to 30 seconds at the point of discomfort but not pain. And it can also be dynamic, such as yoga, tai chi and martial arts practice, which count as balance training, resistance training and flexibility training all at once.” Learn more about getting started with yoga here.
Here are four joints Colberg recommends targeting when you stretch. Talk with your health care provider before trying these stretches.
Hand circles can improve wrist flexibility and so can actively stretching the joint: Extend one arm front, palm facing away. Pull back on the fingers for 15 seconds to stretch the underside of the wrist. Then point your fingers down and pull back on them, stretching the top of the wrist.
Arm circles or otherwise extending the arms fully in all directions can help you maintain flexibility in the shoulders and chest. You can always use props. For instance, you might stand in a doorframe with one arm extended then lean forward, stretching your chest.
Leg circles, toe touches, quadriceps stretches, runners lunges, and straddle stretches are all ways to get the hip joint to open to its full range of motion, so are yoga poses such as triangle, pyramid pose and warrior 1 and 2. A resistance band, yoga strap or towel may help you pull your legs closer in some stretches.
Colberg believes that inflexibility in the ankles is often part of what leads to falls. She recommends doing ankle circles to help with flexibility and strength at the same time. You can also stand on a pillow and practice rolling the ankles in and out and also transferring your weight from your heels to your toes and back.
Colberg is also a fan of stretching the spine. Talk to your healthcare provider before trying this stretching, especially if you’ve had hip or back surgery. Reach down for your toes; when you’re done stretching the backs of your legs slowly roll up through your spine.
Stretching can be a wonderful way to start – or end – your day!
Jessica Cassity is a health reporter for SELF, Fitness, and Shape magazines, and the author of Better Each Day: 365 Expert Tips for a Healthier, Happier You. She is a Portland-based Pilates and yoga teacher and blogs at thehappyandhealthyblog.com. Cassity is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor and interviewee, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.
© 2014 The DX: The Diabetes Experience