Why Stretching Is So Important! Releasing Physical And Mental Tension And Stiffness.

I am 64, and I have arthritis in my right hip, left knee, and, I suspect, my left shoulder. Oh, and in the knuckle of the middle finger on my right hand. Regardless, I am two gradings away from a black belt in kickboxing (a strange choice of activity for someone in my condition, right?). Anyway, a few days ago, I finally got to see a hospital consultant about my hip, a very cheerful, chatty guy with an admirable bedside manner. He put me on the list to have a hip replacement operation – before blithely announcing that the NHS aren’t actually doing those operations now and no one knows when they might be. “So, could I be waiting five years?” I ventured. He shrugged. “Can’t say. No one can.” And then he suggested that I should consider having it done privately. Hmmm.

Now, I am definitely not keen on spending any more time than I need to in a hospital, especially in these strange times. I do not relish the idea of a major operation, and I hate the thought of being off my feet for weeks – months even. However, I am in constant discomfort, have walked with a limp for several years, and have to work so much harder than everyone else in my kickboxing/fitness classes. There are things I can do in life and things I can’t. I can deliver a back kick without much problem, but spinning kicks hurt like hell. I can’t kick high, but can kick low, below the knee, and pretty hard, too. My balance isn’t as good as I’d like it to be, and I can’t walk any major distance – but my fitness levels are good, and I have fast fists. I like the idea of being able to leap around like a gazelle again, and so was reluctantly willing to go through the process of having a new hip fitted. However, as I can’t currently afford the several thousand pounds that private treatment would require, I’ve had to think again. And adapt my mindset.

In my defence, I have been taking care of myself. I’ve lost the 35 lb in weight I’d gained since the arthritis took hold. I take a combination of supplements daily, am careful about what I eat, and I exercise regularly. But still, the cavalry ain’t coming… so, I asked myself, is there anything else I can do? Well, I asked it two days after my appointment. The first day I shrugged and said, “nothing I didn’t expect.” The second day I felt p****d off, demanding to know why we’re continuously being reminded to ‘save the NHS’ when we have no access to certain treatments? And, on the third morning, I woke up with a new determination. “To hell with them – I’ll take care of myself!” And I put my thinking cap on.

What was I currently doing – or rather, not doing, that I could? Well, not stretching enough, for a start off. I always feel more mobile and flexible after stretching. It doesn’t last forever, but it helps. And I feel better in my head, too. And I wasn’t relaxing enough, either. I don’t mean sitting on the sofa watching television – I mean consciously releasing the tension from my body. After all, tension leads to stiffness, which has been a big problem for me – more so than the pain, to be honest. And what was going on inside my head wasn’t helping; arthritis was becoming a part of who I am, and I don’t want to be defined by it or have it be what people remember about me. Even though I have attended kickboxing classes religiously for the past four years, I have remained a little afraid of it. Certain moves or combos would have me tensing up, dreading the pain they might cause – and I hated that. My sensei and Kyoshi have been great, adapting things for me and encouraging me in the things that I am able to do well… but we all want to do better, don’t we? And we all want to feel competent… and unafraid! If the NHS can’t/won’t help me, I decided, my only option is to take even more responsibility for my own health and fitness.

So, stretching is included on my daily to-do list, and not just reserved for classes. I always find that music makes everything easier and more fun, so I have my stretch playlist going in the background. I also stretch in bed several times during the night (I’m a serial waker-upper), and before I get up in the morning. There is something about expanding and crunching our muscles that is so satisfying! My work is conducted via the computer and I find that when I get up from my chair, my hip and lower back have often stiffened up – and so regular breaks are necessary (even if it is just to nip to the loo!). Posture is important, too. I’ve never been a slumper but there is always room for improvement, and I try to catch myself out and change position whenever necessary. Good posture also tends to lift our spirits and cause us to feel less defeated or vulnerable, so it isn’t just something to be aware of for the sake of the body – the mind benefits, too.

The letting go of inner tension has also been added to my list – and boy is that a biggie! And it isn’t easy, either, because it starts with what goes on in the mind – or at least, it does with me. What I pay attention to, on a daily basis, has a huge impact upon my body – especially when the subject matter leads to mental and emotional conflict. For example, being a digger and a questioner, I have been delving around in all matters pandemic since the middle of 2020. I have to know what is going on, and I need the details, and the background stories, and I need to be aware of what is being covered up or misrepresented. That’s my coping strategy. However, it’s really tough on my muscles because I am unwittingly clenching everything, which then impacts negatively upon my joints. I’m not a doctor or a fitness coach, and so am only offering this up as a theory – but I reckon that an awful lot of muscle and joint pain is at least partially caused, unknowingly, by ourselves. Or, at the very least, not helped by the way in which we think and feel about life, on a consistent basis. I never want to switch off from the world, or live in a bubble – but if I want to reduce the amount of inflammation that is often holding me to ransom, I need to find ways of being less inflamed by life! I’m not an efficient or practiced meditator, but I have found that by sitting or lying quietly, earphones in, and listening to a particular piece of space music that I enjoy, I do relax and drift away for a while. And, at night, in bed, I make a conscious effort to let everything sink into the mattress, bit by bit, including my head and its contents! Of course, my body wants to fight against it, as does my mind, but I am persisting, nevertheless. I can’t tell you how good it does feel when I do manage to hit that sweet spot… as if a whole load of garbage has just been sucked right out of me!

Which leaves the way in which I mentally approach kickboxing and fitness to be dealt with. I genuinely enjoy it and love the camaraderie of the group, but it is incredibly difficult not to compare myself to others (who are younger and without knackered hips and knees!), and to tell myself “this is going to really hurt!”, when certain moves are coming up – even though I am always told, “if you can’t manage to do that, swap it for something you can do.” However, I realised that, despite appearing unfazed to the outside world, I was worrying inside. And holding myself incredibly tense. And reminding myself that “I have arthritis”. Of course I have to be aware of it – I can hardly not be. But I have been making things much more difficult for myself than I need to, courtesy of my inner dialogue. And here’s an example. I became convinced that squats were impossible for me, and I began to fear them. So, instead, I would do lunges or something else. But then I watched a YouTube video by a doctor who was giving dos and don’ts about movement and exercise with arthritis – and he did some slow, measured squats. So, next class, I decided to try them again – and even though I wasn’t going up and down like a jackhammer, I was doing okay… and I wasn’t in agony at the end of the session! In fact, I think they helped to stretch the hips a little. I’ll continue to work on them and see if I can improve them to any degree – and I will continue to work on the conversations I have with myself!

So, basically, one of the ways in which we can help to reduce muscular and joint stiffness and inflammation is to lessen the amount of inner tension we produce. Stretching definitely makes a difference – but, if you haven’t exercised much for some time, or have health issues, please don’t just launch into it. If you do, you could end up injuring yourself. Start slowly and gently, and build up your flexibility over time – and ask for advice from the experts. I’m not an expert, I’m just someone sharing my thoughts and experiences with you. 

Also, consciously relaxing the body, inch by inch, has a highly therapeutic effect. Now, even when walking, I’m checking to see how rigidly I’m holding myself, taking a breath and letting everything loosen up a bit when necessary. And I’m checking my posture – is it okay, or is an adjustment required?

And maybe the most important thing to keep an eye on is the stiffness of our own thoughts and feelings – and the quality of the information we are consistently feeding our mind with. And the nature of the conversations we have with ourselves, within the confines of our inner world – the place to which no one else has access. We human souls are highly complex creatures, and you’ll know what I mean when I say that we can be our own worst enemy! However, we’re all capable of so much more than we believe, and we should never fear challenges. Regardless of your current physical condition, the chances are that you can improve it, little by little, with persistence. Don’t be like I used to be… refusing to join a fitness class “until I’ve lost weight and become a bit fitter!” No one will judge you – in fact, they’ll be more than keen to help you to help yourself. And, if you are awash with stiffness and soreness, don’t believe that there is no hope – there is. Pick the brains of those in the know, do your research, make a new plan, and start a new daily routine – and never give up. I know that you won’t regret it.  

      

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An intuitive consultant, blogger and writer; a lover of motorbikes, Formula 1 motor racing, music, reading, walking, camping and ongoing self - improvement!

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