SCMP Monday, July 3, 2000

SELF

Keeping Fit - stretch yourself

DAWN GOLDSMITH


If I asked you to touch your toes right now, could you? OK, if you weren't in your office at this minute, or riding the MTR to work, and if you weren't wearing that tight pair of trousers you bought two years ago, could you touch your toes then?

The last time someone asked you to perform this simple exercise might well have been in grade school when your little bones were all nice and loose and when your head was a little closer to your feet than it is today. But getting older doesn't necessarily mean you have to resign yourself to becoming all stiff and brittle. Just watch Late Show With David Letterman. He touches his toes every night in front of a live TV audience. And he's had quintuple bypass surgery.

Most of us, if we exercise at all, probably devote more time to working on cardiovascular fitness or strength training and neglect an all important facet of all-round fitness: flexibility.

If you think flexibility is just for gymnasts or people who like to show off at parties by doing the splits, then think again. Consider all the times you need to raise your arms, twist your waist and bend your knees, not to mention all those occasions you tell the boss you need to stretch your legs, and you'll realise how much you take your body's flexibility for granted. Sadly, all the bulging biceps in the world won't help you reach up to grab that glass from the top shelf or bend to tie your shoelace.

Says Chris Watts of Hong Kong-based Stretch Limited, "The joints are covered with sinovial fluid. If you don't work your joints, this fluid can become like glue." Conversely, if you regularly perform limbering exercises, then sinovial fluid can become like a fine oil, lubricating your joints and making them glide over each other smoothly and easily. "Your body actually uses more energy and does more work trying to cope with stiff joints," Watts adds.

The best way to stay limber and supple is to incorporate five to 10 minutes of stretching a day. "You don't even have to leave your desk to stretch," Watts says.

If you do exercise regularly, stretches for flexibility can easily be incorporated into your cool-down period. Some gyms have a range of stretching equipment and promotional guides. Australian-based The Torson Group (www.torson.com.au) provides health clubs with a handy wall-chart and CD-ROM demonstrating 100 new, and not so new, stretches for gym members. For equipment, a personal favourite is the StretchTrainer from Precor (www.precor.com) that boldly goes where no other stretch machine has gone before.


If you're a little confused about the best way to stretch it's understandable. Whether to bounce on the stretch or hold it in a static position sometimes depends on the fitness professional you're talking to. According to Watts, however, there's a scientific approach to stretching called active isolated stretching. "How this works is that by contracting one muscle, it stretches and relaxes the opposing muscle," he says.

In practice, what this means is that rather than performing a hamstring stretch cold, for example, you perform a movement that contracts the opposing muscle - in this case the quadricep. When the quadricep is contracted, the hamstring is relaxed and stretched. "A typical hamstring stretch will stretch the hamstring to its limits but the body will react by contracting. So what you have is a contraction and a stretch at the same time, and this can result in injury," Watts says.

"Maintaining flexibility means opening up your joints to allow a greater flow of blood and oxygen to those joints. Flexibility also works deeper down at the vital organ level. If you have a closed chest, where your shoulders are rounded, by opening up the chest through stretching, you open up the chest cavity and allow greater oxygen to flow to your lungs."

Clients who come to Watts for active isolated stretching sessions often see remarkable improvement in joint mobility. "I often see a 20 to 30 per cent greater range of motion in joints after just 10 stretching exercises," says Watts. Being supple and limber only gets more important as we age. As the saying goes: use it or lose it.