By Dr. Bruce Pinker
I encounter many patients everyday in the office presenting with painful conditions. While there are several options for treatment, a common theme usually exists: most individuals do not stretch out their bodies on a regular basis. Looking back to high school gym class, we all stretched before exercising. As adults, regular stretching is even more important. For many reasons (lack of time, thinking it is unimportant, having to take care of children, etc), we usually do not stretch. Unfortunately, this is the cause of many painful injuries and conditions of the foot.
There are some who believe stretching is unnecessary. However, most believe that it is essential for optimal and injury-free activity. For example, as we sleep, many of us toss and turn, sleep on our sides, or curl ourselves up into a ball. By challenging our bodies in these positions, we add stress to our muscles, ligaments, and joints, often causing shortening or tightness. Specifically, our ankles and toes point downward while lying in bed, causing our calf muscles and Achilles tendons to tighten. This is known medically as the “equinus” position, a term derived from the structure of horses legs and feet. In this position, we also find that the muscles and ligaments (plantar fascia) on the bottom of our feet tighten. Many people suffer from plantar fasciitis and find it difficult to step out of bed in the morning. There are several treatment options for this condition. When muscles and ligaments shorten, they can become stiff and usually need to be extended or stretched to allow for proper function.
While this shortening/tightening is a natural occurrence and offers the body a chance to heal and recover, too much can lead to problems. Our ligaments and tendons are somewhat elastic and can shorten excessively. Activity level will have a strong influence on this effect. The “weekend warrior” who exercises only on occasion usually suffers tremendously from ligament and tendon shortening, in addition to muscle strains and sprains. Therefore, if we know that our bodies naturally shorten/tighten, we should stretch out every morning.
General stretches include “toe touches” to open the lower back and hamstrings. “Wall pushups” (heels flat on the ground, arms full length from the wall and palms flat on the wall, bend elbows and bring nose to the wall – hold for 10 seconds, rest for 10 seconds, 10 reps) are also recommended to stretch hamstrings, Achilles tendons, and ankles. Another excellent one is the “hurdler’s stretch” (see photo below) as one sits on the ground with one leg stretched forward and the other knee bent as one reaches for the toes in front of her – hold for 10 seconds, rest for 10 seconds, 10 reps. This will work on the quadriceps muscles in the thigh region, the hamstrings and lower leg muscles and tendons, and the lower back region.
There is another type of stretching, called “dynamic stretching.” This includes jumping rope and hopping or performing lunges. It is recommended for 5 – 10 minutes prior to exercise as part of a warm-up routine.
Because stretching is essential for good health, it is important to incorporate it into your daily routine. It is just as basic as brushing your teeth and can result in living a pain-free life.
Taking good care of your feet can be your first step towards good health. Remember, your feet are your foundation for your body.
Dr. Bruce Pinker is a podiatrist with offices in Pomona and White Plains.