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If you’re trying to get in shape, learn to love this

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Kathleen Doheny

This article is reprinted by permission from  .

My acupuncturist had known me barely 10 minutes when he looked me straight in the eyes and said, “This is your fault.” My physical therapist had the same conclusion. 

I’d been referred to both of them by my doctor for a nagging, sharp pain that began at my butt and sometimes traveled to my right foot. Despite months of this, I had continued my usual routine of five or six jogs a week, a hard hike and 40 or so hours of sitting at the computer, writing. I figured the pain would go away. It didn’t. 

The diagnosis? A tossup between runner’s butt, or ischial bursitis (a tiny sac near where you sit down flares up and fights back) or piriformis syndrome (a muscle in the same vicinity tells you it’s not happy). While I thought of myself as productive and fit, both my acupuncturist, Young Lee, and my physical therapist, Robert Dulay, were focusing on my ”crime.” I never, ever stretched — and that negligence is what is bringing on all this pain.

They both wondered: How could anyone, especially an older adult,  not  stretch?

Actually, I’ve always thought of stretching as a gigantic waste of time. OK, and wimpy.

At every 5K, 10K or half-marathon I’ve done over the years, I’ve always found something else to do as I watched friends stretch at the start line. No evidence it really works for injury risk or performance, I told myself. I’ll just fiddle with my watch and re-tie my shoes. 

Now, according to Lee and Dulay, stretching was going to play a starring role in my pain relief plan, with supporting roles from acupuncture and strengthening exercises to build up those muscles that had betrayed me. No jogging until the pain subsides, they warn. They knew they had me just where they wanted me. 

The acupuncture is the easy part; needles never bothered me and I can stretch out face down, even nod off, after Lee gently inserts nine or so needles into my legs.

The strengthening exercises are OK, too. The challenge is how to learn to love the stretching part. 

Here is how I am progressing from ridiculing stretching to trying to love it:

“When you get older, your tissues are much less flexible, even fragile,” says Meredith Hinds Harris, professor emeritus and former head of the physical therapy department at Northeastern University in Boston. “Without warming up and stretching, just one wrong way or quick movement, and you are likely to tear something because of your inflexibility.” 

If you cross train, says Hinds Harris, a triathlete, ”you might be able to do less stretching,” because you aren’t working the same muscles constantly as you do when you focus on just running or just biking, for instance.

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By focusing mainly on running and hiking as my fitness choices, my muscles became unhappy. So I need to do what the experts call ”static” stretches (extend and hold a muscle). Dynamic stretches involve movement to prepare you for activity, such as doing walking lunges before jogging.  

How unhappy are my muscles? At one acupuncture session, Lee picked up a clean towel from his supply shelf and twisted it tightly to demonstrate what all that ”pounding,” as he likes to call jogging, was doing to my hamstrings when I don’t stretch.

The acupuncture would increase blood flow to the area, draw heat away from the inflamed area and release those tight muscles. But needles alone are not enough — those muscles also need regular stretching.

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