It’s as common a morning routine as brushing your teeth, combing your hair and getting that first cup of coffee is to do some stretching, like touching our toes, the way we learned when we were kids. Stretching is a more common exercise for dancers and athletes, as well, who use complex stretching routines to prepare for extreme physical activity.
The only problem is that it’s hurting us, and we really need to stop.
That’s the opinion of mind and body fitness expert Anat Baniel, author of Move Into Life: The Nine Essentials for Lifelong Vitality , who believes that stretching is an activity that is contrary to the health and longevity of our muscles.
“Muscles aren’t meant to be stretched like that,” she said. “Muscles are meant to contract and relax. Stretching them puts stress on them, and rips muscle fibers, forcing them to constantly repair themselves after each time you stretch. Your body’s movement shouldn’t cause repeated damage. It should be more harmonious, and flow naturally.”
Baniel still believes in the ritual of touching one’s toes, but has devised a method of stretching that actually increases flexibility and motion without damaging your muscles.
“Many of us have tried to touch our toes while standing, just to discover – again and again – how out of reach they are for us,” Baniel said. “My method introduces just a few variations that should make a noticeable difference.”
- Stand up, spread your feet comfortably, gently bend down, and let your hands move toward your feet. Notice how far you go, with forcing, and come back to standing.
- Stand, spread your legs comfortably, bend your knees a little, and put your right hand just above your right knee, on your thighs. Put your left hand just above your left knee. Then lean on you legs with the weight of your upper body resting on your hands. Begin to round you back and at the same time pull your belly in and look down at your belly. Then gently arch your back, push your belly out, lift your head, and look up. Go back and forth like this four or five times.
- Come back to standing and simply bend forward and take your hands down toward your feet. Is there some change already?
- Stand with your feet spread, your knees bent a little, and this time lean with both hands on your left leg, just above the knee as before. Very gently and slowly round your back and look down, then arch your back, free the belly muscles – push them out – and look up. Go back and forth four or five times. Then stand and rest for a moment. Feel how you stand.
- Stand with your knees a bit bent and spread, and this time lean with both hands on your right knee. Very gently and slowly round your back and look down, then arch your back, free your belly muscles – push the belly out – and look up, Go back and forth four or five times.
- Stand up with your feet spread comfortably and simply bend down and feel if you can bend more easily and father than before.
Baniel now suggests you check to see if your toes are closer to your hands.
“They should be, because the variations provided by this exercise supplied your brain the information it needed to figure out how to let go of tight muscles and tendons,” she said. “You were able to quickly and safely accomplish much more than you might have accomplished by ‘stretching.’”
Born in Israel, Anat Baniel, MA, lives and works in San Rafael, California and has established an international reputation as one of the world's leading authorities in finding ways to access the brain to overcome pain and limitation, increase vitality and help children with special needs make the impossible possible.