- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 17, 2006

At age 56, Dianna Cuatto can do splits like high school cheerleaders. She gives the credit to the fact that she has been dancing since 1953. She is artistic director of the Ballet Theatre of Maryland in Annapolis, where she teaches other people about the importance of flexibility.

“I feel so much better after I stretch,” Ms. Cuatto says. “If I stretch, everything starts to release; it feels like everything is flowing better inside of me.”

Flexibility is important for a person’s overall health, medical professionals say. It enables people to exercise, which is critical to health and well-being. No matter how stiff a person is, it’s never too late to stretch and strengthen muscles.

The idea of getting the blood circulating before stretching is new in exercise science, says Judith Lynne Hanna, senior research scholar at the University of Maryland in College Park. She is author of “Dancing for Health: Conquering and Preventing Stress.” She holds a doctorate in anthropology.

In the past, many therapists and trainers recommended stretching before exercise. Newer research suggests exercising a bit before stretching.

“You have to warm up so you don’t pull something,” Ms. Hanna says. “I try to move all parts of my body.”

While learning to become more flexible, it’s best to have instruction from a teacher, Ms.Cuatto says.

For instance, a person never should bounce harshly while stretching. While trying to touch the toes, a person should bend at the waist and hang instead of bouncing to reach them. Exhaling on the hardest part of the stretch rather than holding the breath also is important.

The Ballet Theatre of Maryland offers Anatomical Restructuring Stretch and Strengthener Class on Thursdays from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. It costs $260 per semester or $25 per class.

“If you stretch one muscle, you have to stretch the opposing muscle,” Ms. Cuatto says. “You also have to strengthen either the same muscle or something different, so you don’t create imbalance.”

As a person ages, stretching and weight-bearing exercises are two of the best tools for maintaining health, Ms. Cuatto says.

Back twists are a good low-impact stretch, she says. While sitting on the floor, cross one leg over the other and put one arm on top of the bent knee and twist. Like most stretches, it should be held for 10 seconds for three repetitions.

Another good stretch is done while sitting on the floor, straightening one leg to the side while bending the other at the knee. Hang over the bent leg for 10 seconds and then reach for the ankle of the other leg for 10 seconds, repeating at least three times.

Putting a leg on a chair and pressing forward into a lunge position is a way to stretch leg muscles. During the stretch, try to relax the muscle to help it lengthen, Ms. Cuatto says.

“A good time to stretch is after a shower,” she says. “It will warm you up a little bit.”

The goal of stretching is to try to change the length-tension relationship in the muscle to relieve stress on joints, says Jennifer Gamboa, owner and director of Body Dynamics Inc. in Arlington. She holds a doctorate in physical therapy and is a member of the American Physical Therapy Association in Alexandria.

When a person’s muscles are tight, the tissue is too short or the nervous system is holding tension within the muscle, or both, Ms. Gamboa says.

If a muscle needs lengthening, holding a position for a longer amount of time than traditionally recommended will be most effective, she says. Teaching the brain to change the resting tone also might involve relaxation.

For instance, people often are taught to stretch the hamstring by lying on their backs and pulling their legs toward them. However, lying on the back and pushing the leg muscle into the hands will cause an isometric contraction of the hamstring. Then, the isometric contraction is followed by a reflexive relaxation.

“Any time you relieve stress on the joints, the joints have better nutrition,” Ms. Gamboa says. “You want them to move through a complete range of motion to stay healthy. Arthritis can occur when joints don’t move through their full range of motion.”

Because everyone is different, each person needs a stretching program tailored to their size, strength and health, says Jennifer Carter, clinical supervisor for physical therapy at the National Rehabilitation Hospital at Washington Hospital Center in Northwest. She holds a doctorate in physical therapy.

Anatomy, bone structure, muscle makeup and gender determine what kinds of stretches work best for each person. Children, especially those who swim and practice ballet, are likely to be more flexible than most adults. As people age, they tend to be less flexible.

Women who regularly wear high heels often tighten their Achilles tendons.

“A lot of people’s tightness has been years in the making,” Ms. Carter says. “You can’t change it overnight.”

However, choosing activities to increase flexibility can help anyone at any age, she says.

With enough time and practice, anyone’s flexibility can improve, says Douglas Yeuell, executive director at Joy of Motion Dance Center in Northwest. As a person continues, he becomes used to stretching, and previous physical limits are overcome.

Flexibility is a key to overall physical fitness, he says.

“It’s the flexibility and stretch that keeps the body supple and less susceptible to injury,” Mr. Yeuell says. “It helps increase overall muscle strength and tone.”

Many people think they have to feel pain for a stretch to work, says Nancy Newell, director of the DC Dance Collective in Northwest. She has been dancing since childhood. Stretching shouldn’t hurt, she says. A relaxed muscle stretches 3 to 4 inches farther than a muscle that’s pushed.

“I was not a kid that tied myself in a knot,” Ms. Newell says. “I was not the most flexible dancer ever. I learned the value of relaxing the spine and the body. Sometimes you think yourself into that relaxation. It sounds esoteric, but if you breathe properly, you can make a huge difference in how flexible you are.”

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