For all too many Americans, stretching is an afterthought in their physical fitness routines—maybe never even making it onto the to-do list, despite the fact that people’s bodies become less flexible as the years roll by. Or, if individuals do stretch, they often don’t stretch all their muscle groups properly. They may even stretch in ways that could cause injury. There is actually much more to know about stretching than you might imagine. This chapter examines the rationale for stretching, describes the major types of stretches, explains basic guidelines for stretching, and delves into the anatomy of a stretch. In later chapters, you’ll find information about stretching to improve sports performance and to ease certain types of pain. And, of course, you’ll find our stretching routines, along with instructions for each stretch. Whether you’re hoping to relieve stiffness or improve sports performance, our routines can help. And there’s no need to wrestle your body into positions worthy of Cirque du Soleil. While some poses designed for deep stretching require practice and patience, you’ll find most of our stretches simple to do and, as a bonus, quite relaxing.
Stretching is a safe activity for healthy adults, and the exercises we’ve chosen for this report are designed for people at all levels of ability. If your health is compromised, however—perhaps by heart disease, diabetes, or joint or back problems—please read the chapter “Safety first” (see page 6) to determine your best course of action before jumping in.