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To Stretch or Not to Stretch? Tips for Optimizing Flexibility

To Stretch or Not to Stretch? Tips for Optimizing Flexibility

Many have grown up with the understanding that, whenever you’re about to work out, compete or otherwise push your body, it’s important to stretch immediately before the activity in order to prevent injury and perform your best. 

Yet, despite these long-held beliefs – and perhaps surprisingly – there’s little evidence to support this theory.  

Today’s evidence suggests that there’s no connection between injury prevention and stretching – static, or reach-and-hold-type stretching – before a workout. Performance-wise, there’s also no consistent connection, with some studies even suggestions that stretching before an activity or competition can actually weaken performance. 

For example, research released by Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism in 2011 found that the vertical jump heights of young and middle-aged men actually declined when participants stretched beforehand. In contrast, the same study found heights increased after warming up dynamically, or using dynamic stretching. 

Dynamic stretches can best be described as a lower-intensity version of the exercises and movements you plan to perform during your activities or while you’re competing. 

A light jog, some leg swings, lunges, high-knees, arm and shoulder rotations … all these movements can be part of a dynamic stretching routine, depending on the activity you’re about to do. 

Such dynamic warm-ups help you break a sweat, sure, but it does so much more. It ensures your muscles are well-supplied with oxygen, promoting optimal flexibility and efficiency. 

Dynamic stretching, however, can only optimize your current level of flexibility. Static stretching is still vital in maintaining and improving your body’s level of overall flexibility … just not right before an activity. 

So, when’s the ideal time to maintain and improve flexibility through static stretching? Consider the following guidelines: 

Stretch Daily: Just as you should try to get a certain amount of exercise in each day – both cardio and strength training – it’s also important to dedicate 10 to 15 minutes to daily static stretching. Typical static stretches are held for anywhere between 15 to 60 seconds at a time, with each movement repeated two or more times. 

Experts suggest setting time aside for stretching either first-thing in the morning or just before going to bed. 

Stretch During Cool-DownsCooling down after an activity helps the body transition from a higher intensity to a resting or near-resting state. While slowed-down exercises (similar to those during dynamic warm-ups) may be included as part of a cool-down, this is also a great time for static stretching. 

As consistent tightness in the muscles and joints can put one more at risk of pain and injury, those who regularly exercise or compete have an annual physical therapy exam. During a PT exam, weaknesses in flexibility, strength and movement can be identified and properly addressed before they manifest into injuries. 

6 Common Back Pain Myths, Debunked

6 Common Back Pain Myths, Debunked

Despite being one of the top causes of disability in the U.S., affecting around eight in 10 people in their lifetimes, back pain is an ailment often misunderstood by those affected. 

Such misconceptions can cause those suffering from back pain to seek solutions, potential treatment paths, and even lifestyle alterations that aren’t necessarily in their best interests. 

Back pain can be as frustrating as it is debilitating, especially if past preventative measures and treatments haven’t been helpful. And, this can lead a person down paths that don’t result in the best and most necessary evidence-based treatments. 

These paths can sometimes lead to treatments that are more expensive or personally invasive – and perhaps even unnecessary – such as MRIs and surgery. 

MRIs, shots, surgery, medication, etc., should mostly be considered last resort-type solutions. The fact is, most back pain issues will go away on their own in a few days. And even when they don’t, most remaining cases can be successfully resolved through safer, more affordable and more effective treatment approaches. 

To help health care consumers make better decisions when considering solutions to their back-pain issues, we’d like to shed some light on the following common back pain myths: 

1. Bed Rest Helps with Relief & Healing 

Once a common treatment for back pain, research strongly suggests long-term rest can slow recovery and even make your back pain worse. Instead, treatment involving movement and exercise (i.e., stretches, walking, swimming, etc.) often works better to hasten healing and provide relief. 

2. The Problem’s in My Spine 

Back pain can be caused by a wide array of issues throughout the body as well as one’s environment. It can be a response to the way you move when you exercise, how you sit at work, the shoes you wear, the mattress on which you sleep, or simply your body compensating for movement limitations and weaknesses. Back pain doesn’t necessarily mean you have a “bad back,” or are predisposed to back pain. 

3. I Just Need an ‘Adjustment’ 

Those accustomed to visiting a chiropractor for back pain issues often claim to find relief from having their spine adjusted, or “cracked.” While this process can release endorphins that offer some temporary relief, only about 10 percent of all back pain cases can actually benefit from spine mobilization. Exercise is often more effective, as is determining and treating the pain’s source. (See item No. 2.) 

4. Medication’s the Answer 

A popular quick fix, medication should never be viewed as a long-term solution to chronic back pain issues. Over-the-counter pain relievers can help get you through in the short term, but many prescription pain meds can be dangerous, addictive, and even make the pain worse in some instances. 

5I’ll Probably Need Surgery 

Of people experiencing low-back pain, only about 4 to 8 percent of their conditions can and should be successfully treated with surgery, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Even 90-plus percent of herniated discs often get better on their own through a combination of rest and physical therapy. 

6. I Need a Referral to See a Physical Therapist 

Multiple studies have concluded that physical therapy is one of the safest and most effective ways to both treat and prevent back pain. And in nearly every state, patients can access physical therapy services without first getting a physician’s prescription. 

7 Fitness Tips for Summer Vacation Travel

7 Fitness Tips for Summer Vacation Travel

It’s vacation season, and for many that means visiting faraway friends, exploring new places and possibly even crossing some things of the ol’ bucket list. 

Unfortunately, traveling often also means lots of sitting, interrupted sleep patterns due to time zone changes, unhealthy eating, and workout routines that are sporadic, if not nonexistent. 

But, travel doesn’t have to be synonymous with unhealthy habits and a lack of exercise. Vacations are a time to reboot mentally while reconnecting with friends and family, but this doesn’t have to happen at the expense of your health. 

With just a little forethought and planning, you can stay active and healthy throughout your trip, whether it lasts a few days or a few weeks.” 

So, for the purpose of planning, here are seven tips for staying fit and healthy while traveling: 

Plan Around an Activity: Don’t just plan your vacation around a place. Consider making one or a series of activities central to your agenda. For instance, plan to go on some hiking tours, try snorkeling for the first time, or make vacation a family camping trip. 

Keep Moving En Route: Whether you’re flying or driving, you’re going to likely do a lot of sitting and waiting during the front and back ends of your trip. So, capitalize on breaks in your trip to go for short walks, do some stretching, or warm the body through some dynamic exercises (i.e., lunges, light jogging, arm/leg swings, etc.) 

Explore on Foot/Bike: Once you’re at your new destination, resolve to explore the area on foot, either by jogging a new route each morning or taking regular walking tours of the area. Or, see the sites from the seat of a rented bike. 

Strength Train Using Body Weight: Even though you’re likely to be in an unfamiliar place with little to no gym access, don’t let that keep you from strength training. Whether in your hotel room or at a local park, your body weight provides ideal resistance while doing lunges, dips, push-ups, planks, and so on. 

Stay Hydrated: When you’re out of your element and distracted by new people and places, hydration habits can go awry. Carry a reusable water bottle with you at all times as a reminder to hydrate continually throughout the day, and consume sugary and/or alcoholic drinks in moderation. 

Mind Your Diet: A disrupted or inconsistent schedule, coupled with a desire to try the local cuisine, can cause your good eating habits to go out the window. Continue to try new things, but do so with a plan. If you’re expecting a big dinner out one night, eat a lighter, healthier meal earlier in the day … and vice versa. 

Don’t Skimp on Sleep: While you may be tempted to trade sleep for a few more hours of sightseeing and new experiences, it’s not a trade worth making. Getting a good night’s sleep while on vacation will keep you more alert and active while improving the overall experience of your trip. 

And as you’re planning your trip, if you have any movement, discomfort or pain concerns that you feel may keep you from having a fun, relaxing time, visit a physical therapist before heading out. 

After a full assessment of the issue, a physical therapist can provide you with some treatment options and travel and/or exercise tips that can help you maximize your vacation’s enjoyment. 

Dynamic Warm-Ups Reduce Injury, Improve Performance

Dynamic Warm-Ups Reduce Injury, Improve Performance

It’s generally understood by most that warming up before exercise or competition (i.e., that 5K fun run) is essential in performing your best while warding off potential injury. 

What may not be universally understood, however, is what truly constitutes a proper warm-up regimen. Oftentimes, either people don’t truly appreciate the necessity of warming up, or they don’t quite know how to do it properly. 

Some of this is understandable, though, when one considers ‘the warm-up’ has evolved quite a bit over the last couple of decades due to changes in our understanding of what the body needs to perform optimally and safely. 

The days of static stretching prior to workouts, for instance – the bend-and-hold type stretches you may remember from gym class – are in the past. Instead, studies have shown that the better and safer way to “loosen up” before a workout is through what’s called a dynamic warm-up. 

A dynamic warm-up stretches the body through active movements that take the muscles and joints through their full range of motion, ideally mimicking movements related to the activity you’re about to do. Exercises like high-knees, arm and hip circles, lunges, squats, and even light jogging or brisk walking would be part of a dynamic warm-up.” 

Exercises such as these do more than just help you break a sweat. 

A good warm-up ensures your muscles are well-supplied with oxygen, leading to optimal flexibility and efficiency. This helps extend your range of motion, which can ease the stress you put on your joints and tendons. 

The benefits of a good 10-to-20-minute warm-up include: 

A Lower Injury Risk: Research shows that by increasing the flexibility and efficiency of your muscles, warming up before exercise lowers your risk of muscle injuries. And, when your muscles are performing optimally, the benefits cross into improved form and technique, which leads to reduced impact on your joints. 

Improved Performance: According to a 2010 study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, a proper warm-up regimen improved sports performance in 79 percent of those analyzed. Sports reviewed in the study spanned a broad spectrum – from cycling, running and swimming to softball, basketball, golf, and even bowling. 

Mental Preparation: Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra once said, “Baseball is 90 percent mental, and the other half is physical.” While his math was a little off, the point that physical activity and competition can be mentally strenuous is spot on. The time it takes to warm up, then, is also time that can be used to shake off nerves, visualize performance and get yourself into a competitive mindset. 

The main things to keep in mind when warming up are to keep the process short, keep the warmup light, stick with dynamic stretching, and to try to make your warm-up exercise-specific. In other words, the ideal warm-up for a runner wouldn’t be the same for someone who’s about to golf 18 holes. 

Consult with a physical therapist to establish a warm-up regiment specific to your exercises and/or activities, and which takes your personal goals, abilities and history into consideration. 

Tips for Preventing Painful Shin Splints this Running Season

Tips for Preventing Painful Shin Splints this Running Season

The longer days and warmer weather of spring can be invigorating, enticing runners of all levels to up their games. But while this time of year may motivate one to increase the duration, frequency and intensity of their runs, be cautious, say physical therapists and other medical professionals. 

After all, if the increase is too sudden, it could put the runner at the risk of a painful condition known as shin splints. 

Shin splints isn’t a serious condition, but it can be painful and will most certainly hold runners and other active people back from their workout, and perhaps even other things they enjoy in life. 

Known in the medical world as medial tibial stress syndrome, shin splints present as soreness, tenderness and pain along the inside of the shin bone (tibia). At first, the pain may only be felt during a run or workout, but the condition may progress to the point where pain may be felt well after exercise. 

With about 3 million reported cases per year in the U.S., shin splints account for 13 to 17 percent of all running-related injuries. Dancers and military recruits also record a high incidence of shin splints. 

People who take part in activities that involve high-impact stress on the legs are most susceptible to developing shin splints, especially during a time when the intensity of their exercise has suddenly increased. This increased stress can overwork the muscles, tendons and bone tissue in the lower leg, which can manifest as pain.” 

The key to overcoming shin splints is to rest. Take a few recovery days off from high-impact activities and exercises, and allow the body to heal. If you experience inflammation, ice can also be beneficial. 

However, it’s important that runners and others susceptible to shin splints take steps to prevent the onset of the condition. Consider the following tips: 

Avoid overdoing it. When increasing the distance, duration, intensity and/or frequency of an exercise regimen such as running, do so gradually. Slowly building your fitness level over time is safer on the body than making quick, monumental leaps that can overload your shins. 

Wear proper shoes. Not only should you always wear a good pair of shoes, but the type of shoes you wear should fit your foot type. The right shoe for someone who’s flat-footed, for instance, won’t be right for someone with high arches, and vice versa. Also, wear the right type of shoes for your chosen activity or sport. 

Mix uyour workouts. We all have our preferred ways of exercising, but mix it up once in a while. Alternate running with, say, cycling or swimming – something that still challenges you but with less impact on the body. 

Analyze your movement. A thorough, biomechanical running analysis performed by a physical therapist can identify movement patterns that may be leading to the onset of shin splints. You may find out that one small tweak in your running form can keep your shins healthy and pain-free. 

See a physical therapist. Besides performing a running analysis, a physical therapist is trained to analyze your entire kinetic chain to identify any imbalances or weaknesses that could put you at risk of pain or injury. From advising you on what shoes to wear to creating a personalized exercise regimen to help you move and perform better, teaming up with a physical therapist is an ideal step for those serious about pain and injury prevention.