30th Anniversary Revised Edition
Today millions of people have discovered the benefits of movement. Everywhere you look they are out, running, cycling, skating, playing tennis, or swimming. What do they hope to accomplish? Why this relatively sudden interest in physical fitness?
Many recent studies have shown that active people lead fuller lives. They have more stamina, resist illness, and stay trim. They have more self-confidence, are less depressed, and often, even late in life, are still working energetically on new projects.
Medical research has shown that a great deal of ill health is directly related to lack of physical activity. Awareness of this fact, along with fuller knowledge of health care, is changing lifestyles. The current enthusiasm for movement is not a fad. We now realize that the only way to prevent the diseases of inactivity is to remain active not for a month, or a year, but for a lifetime.
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Our ancestors did not have the problems that go with a sedentary life; they had to work hard to survive. They stayed strong and healthy through continuous, vigorous outdoor work: chopping, digging, tilling, planting, hunting, and all their other daily activities. But with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, machines began to do the work once done by hand. As people became less active, they began to lose strength and the instinct for natural movement.
Machines have obviously made life easier, but they have also created serious problems. Instead of walking, we drive; rather than climb stairs, we use elevators; while once we were almost continuously active, we now spend much of our lives sitting. Computers have made us even more sedentary. Without daily physical exertion, our bodies become storehouses of unreleased tensions. With no natural outlets for our tensions, our muscles become weak and tight, and we lose touch with our physical nature, with life’s energies.
But times have changed. We have found that health is something we can control, that we can prevent poor health and disease. We are no longer content to sit and stagnate. Now we are moving, rediscovering the joys of an active, healthy life. What’s more, we can resume a more healthy and rewarding existence at any age.
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The body’s capacity for recovery is phenomenal. For example, a surgeon makes an incision, removes or corrects the problem, then sews you back up. At this point, the body takes over and heals itself. Nature finishes the surgeon’s job. All of us have this seemingly miraculous capacity for regaining health, whether it’s from something as drastic as surgery, or from poor physical condition caused by lack of activity and bad diet.
What does stretching have to do with all this? It is the important link between the sedentary life and the active life. It keeps the muscles supple, prepares you for movement, and helps you make the daily transition from inactivity to vigorous activity without undue strain. It is especially important if you run, cycle, play tennis, or engage in other strenuous exercises, because activities like these promote tightness and inflexibility. Stretching before and after you work out will keep you flexible and may prevent common injuries such as knee problems from running and sore shoulders or elbows from tennis.
With the tremendous number of people exercising now, the need for correct information is vital. Stretching is easy, but when it is done incorrectly, it can actually do more harm than good. For this reason it is essential to understand the right techniques.
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Over the past three decades I have worked with amateur and professional athletic teams and have participated in various sports medicine clinics throughout the country. I have been able to teach athletes that stretching is a simple, painless way of getting ready for movement. They have found it enjoyable and easy to do. And when they have stretched regularly and correctly, it has helped them avoid injuries and perform to the best of their abilities.
Stretching feels good when done correctly. You do not have to push limits or attempt to go further each day. It should not be a personal contest to see how far you can stretch. Stretching should be tailored to your particular muscular structure, flexibility, and varying tension levels. The key is regularity and relaxation. The object is to reduce muscular tension, thereby promoting freer movement not to concentrate on attaining extreme flexibility, which often leads to overstretching and injury.
We can learn a lot by observing animals. Watch a cat. It instinctively knows how to stretch. It does so spontaneously, never overstretching, continually and naturally tuning up muscles it will have to use.
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Stretching is not stressful. It is peaceful, relaxing, and noncompetitive. The subtle, invigorating feelings of stretching allow you to get in touch with your muscles. It is completely adjustable to the individual. You do not have to conform to any unyielding discipline; stretching gives you the freedom to be yourself and enjoy being yourself.
Anyone can be fit, with the right approach. You don’t need to be a great athlete. But you do need to take it slowly, especially in the beginning. Give your body and mind time to adjust to the stresses of physical activity. Start easily and be regular. There is no way to get into shape in a day.
When you are stretching regularly and exercising frequently, you will learn to enjoy movement. Remember that each one of us is a unique physical and mental being with our own comfortable and enjoyable rhythms. We are all different in strength, endurance, flexibility, and temperament. If you learn about your body and its needs, you will be able to develop your own personal potential and gradually build a foundation of fitness that will last a lifetime.