Stretching Is Critical, the Goats Are Optional

 

Picture this scene: You’re lying on your back on a yoga mat, eyes closed, comfortable, stretching different parts of your body as a voice gently takes you through a guided relaxation exercise. Quiet music invoking gurgling streams and singing songbirds plays in the background and you are extremely calm and serene. Suddenly, you feel pressure as two small hooves press into your belly, and giggling, you open your eyes as the tiny white and brown goat starts nibbling at your socks. Focus is now lost, but who cares? The dwarf goat is adorable and, after all, it’s really why you came to this yoga studio – all concentration lost, you stretch out your hand to pet its head as it bleats and runs off to visit another mat.

So-called “goat yoga” is a hot fad these days in the yoga industry. The marriage of farms and yoga studios is relatively new over the past few years, but has spread rapidly across the country, with at least a dozen locations in Connecticut seeing the value – and attraction – in combining yoga and a petting zoo. But whatever the catalyst for exercise, stretching is a critical component in any physical regimen, so if seeking out comfort from goats or puppies or other cute cuddly creatures gets you moving in a healthy way, there’s no down side – other than cleaning up when the critters do their business!

Why We Need to Stretch

Proper stretching is highly recommended for protecting our joints and muscles. It’s normal to take our joints for granted, but consider how important they are: The joint is the connection between two bones. Joints and their surrounding structures allow us to bend our elbows and knees, wiggle our hips, bend our back, turn our head, and wave wiggle our fingers.

Smooth tissue called cartilage and synovium and a lubricant called synovial fluid cushion the joints so bones do not rub together. But increasing age, injury, or carrying too much weight can wear and tear cartilage. This can lead to a reaction that can damage joints and lead to arthritis, injuries, discomfort and pain.

Stretching can help improve flexibility and our range of motion. Better flexibility improves our performance in physical activities, decreases risk of injuries, helps joints move through their full range of motion, and enable muscles to work most effectively. Stretching also increases blood flow to the muscle.

It’s a good idea to see stretching as an important ritual before you start exercising, playing ball, running, dancing or whatever form of exercise or sport you enjoy. But stretching incorrectly can actually do more harm than good. The best way to care for your joints is to keep them and your muscles, ligaments, and bones strong and stable.

You may hurt yourself if you stretch cold muscles. Before stretching, warm up with light walking, jogging or biking at low intensity for five to 10 minutes. Even better, stretch after your workout when your muscles are warm.

Consider skipping stretching before an intense activity, such as sprinting or track and field activities. Some research suggests that pre-event stretching may actually decrease performance. Research has also shown that stretching immediately before an event weakens hamstring strength.

Instead of static stretching, try performing a “dynamic warmup.” A dynamic warm-up involves performing movements similar to those in your sport or physical activity at a low level, then gradually increasing the speed and intensity as you warm up.

Here are some related tips for good joint health and proper stretching:

  • Strive for symmetry. Everyone’s genetics for flexibility are different. Rather than striving for the flexibility of a dancer or gymnast, focus on having equal flexibility side to side (especially if you have a history of a previous injury). Flexibility that is not equal on both sides may be a risk factor for injury.
  • Focus on major muscle groups. Concentrate your stretches on major muscle groups such as your calves, thighs, hips, lower back, neck and shoulders. Make sure that you stretch both sides.
  • Don’t bounce. Stretch in a smooth movement, without bouncing. Bouncing as you stretch can injure your muscle and actually contribute to muscle tightness.
  • Hold your stretch. Breathe normally and hold each stretch for about 30 seconds; in problem areas, you may need to hold for around 60 seconds.
  • Don’t aim for pain. Expect to feel tension while you’re stretching, not pain. If it hurts, you’ve pushed too far. Back off to the point where you don’t feel any pain, then hold the stretch.
  • Make stretches sport specific. Evidence suggests that it’s helpful to do stretches involving the muscles used most in your sport or activity. If you play soccer, for instance, stretch your hamstrings as you’re more vulnerable to hamstring strains.
  • Keep up with your stretching. Stretching can be time-consuming. But you can achieve the most benefits by stretching regularly, at least two to three times a week. Skipping regular stretching means you risk losing the potential benefits. For instance, if stretching helped you increase your range of motion, your range of motion may decrease again if you stop stretching.
  • Bring movement into your stretching. Gentle movements, such as those in tai chi or yoga, can help you be more flexible in specific movements. These types of exercises can also help reduce falls in seniors.

Seek out professional counsel from a trainer or physical therapist for guidance on how best to stretch as part of your exercise routine. And remember to start off slowly and at a low intensity to get muscles used to the motion before gradually speeding up. No matter the sport or activity, preparing your joints and muscles for the activity to come is a wise move. And if yoga is your thing – and interacting with dwarf goats make you happy – go for it!


Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!