Working out may be necessary for the muscles but what is equally important – and often forgotten – is stretching.

Muscles make bodies. Only some are nicely toned and sculpted; exercised. The thing is while exercise keeps us moving, our bodies worked out and our minds in a happy state, thanks to endorphins released, our muscles need some more TLC (Tender Loving Care).

Wrong eating habits and lack of exercise leads to a high percentage of fat. Muscle tone cannot be felt or seen even if it does exist deep within. Often, when there is little or no movement – in other words exercise – muscles shrink. When you burn more calories, the fat in your body melts and muscle tone improves. Obviously your fat percentage will reduce and lean muscle mass will increase. A very healthy sign.

Remember though, that exercise and diet go hand in hand. One cannot replace the other. Eating well balanced, nutrition dense meals is as important as getting your daily dose of working out. No matter what your chosen form of movement – yoga, walking, running, dancing, gymming – give it your best shot and focus on it completely. You will know your body is responding.

Warming up before a workout and cooling down after are important but equally important are the stretches. Whatever exercise you may do, it will work out your muscles and make them react. Jogging is a particularly good example of an exercise that will do well with some stretching before and after.

Why stretch?

It gets the body ready for action, and reduces probability of muscle injury, helps correct your posture when you exercise, relaxes tense muscle and you will always see sportspeople stretching when they have a minute or so before leaping into action on the sports arena.

If you are not a sports person and don't particularly like exercising, you could still do with a good stretch, even if it is to release cramped calves or hurting hamstrings.

A few pointers:

Never stretch a body that has not been warmed up, unless you are naturally stretching yourself awake. Warm up for about five to 10 minutes. Let your body get accustomed to being awake. Walk around the house, boil the milk, get things ready for breakfast. Once your body is accustomed to the movement, get into stretching.

Stop if it hurts. You are not doing it to cause your body more injury. Go back to where the stretch feels comfortable enough for you to hold the stretch to a minimum count of 10 to a maximum count of 30. I do it for 10 breaths each stretch. That way, I ensure I'm breathing – a very important aspect of exercising

The neck is the most neglected area. Often a lot of people stretch the rest of the body diligently, but leave out the neck. That poor thing starts working from the time you wake up. It needs strengthening – and stretching – too.

The muscle groups to include in your stretching regimen: Shoulders, Pects, Biceps, Triceps, Lats, Quads, Hamstrings, Calves.

Remember to stretch both sides of the body equally.

Once you are done with your exercise, do not directly go into the next activity. Your body needs to cool down too. Just like when you are about to reach your destination and you need to stop your car you don't drive it into a wall, instead you slow it down and brake it to a halt. Similarly, your body needs to slow down before it halts. If you are walking briskly or jogging, reduce your pace for around five to 10 minutes till your heart rate becomes normal. Your breathing must return to normal too. When that happens, end your exercise routine with a session of nice leisurely stretches and feel the luxury of having exercised. Focus on each muscle as you stretch it. Your muscles will feel relaxed and you will avoid the risk of soreness or stiffness. Often, clients who've never stretched before and are made to do it at Score, come back and tell me how wonderful they feel. “There is no stiffness at all!” They exclaim in surprise. Stretching is like a magic portion for sore muscles.

New spring

Many of those who stretch and are really tuned into their bodies find their performances improving, a new spring in their step. Often people who've crossed 40 find that when they wake up, the first few steps out of bed are stiff, robot like. Knees take a bit longer to awaken, ankles are slightly stiff and calves behave all wrong. The answer: s-t-r-e-t-c-h. Try surya namaskar. It is a wonderful exercise that stretches your muscles and has an aerobic effect on your body. Do it on an empty stomach, first thing in the morning after a glass of water and a short warm-up stint.

As told to AMEETA AGNIHOTRI

Ajit Shetty is Managing Director, Score Clubs, Chennai

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012