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Teach Teens to Stretch

Jordan D. Metzl, M.D., and his staff have a saying: "An adolescent athlete can never stretch or study too much."

Stretching to stay flexible is vital -- particularly when your child reaches puberty and goes through a growth spurt, says Dr. Metzl, a specialist in sports medicine.

For a child or teen who is active in sports, failing to stretch can cause problems, adds Dr. Metzl, author of The Young Athlete: A Sports Doctor's Complete Guide for Parents. Too little stretching can make your child more prone to muscle tears or strains and tendonitis, an overuse injury of the muscle tendon. Poor flexibility also might harm sports performance.

For most children, there's little benefit to stretching before age 10, according to New Jersey sports doctor Stephen G. Rice, M.D., Ph.D., a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness.

But starting earlier can get your children into the habit of stretching so that they'll be doing it when they need it. Experts recommend that children begin when they first join organized sports. By starting young, children are more likely to continue with that healthy practice as adults.

Tips for adolescents

  • Before starting into a game or sport, warm up the muscles you will use with five to 10 minutes of a light version of the type of exercise. For example, to warm up for basketball, do some relaxed shooting; for jogging, walk. A warm-up will increase blood flow to the muscles and tendons, which makes them less likely to be injured.

  • After exercise, cool down for 10 minutes by decreasing the intensity of the activity. Cooling down helps the muscles eliminate waste products and decreases soreness. Gently stretch the muscles used in the activity to help relax them.

  • Stretch at least three times a week, but do the stretching after you have warmed up or after a workout, when muscles are loose and relaxed. Stretching before warming up does not reduce the risk for injury during a sport, and fitness experts such as the American College of Sports Medicine no longer recommend it.

  • When stretching, hold each stretch (no bouncing or jerking) for 20 seconds. Don’t stretch to the point of pain.

  • Repeat your stretches three times for each muscle group.

  • Learn good stretching techniques, and relearn them often.

Three good stretches

To loosen key lower-body muscles:

• Quads — Stand with knees together. Gently, pull a leg up behind you with the hand on the same side of your body; pull your heel toward your buttocks. Brace yourself with your other hand.

• Hamstrings — Sit and extend your left leg. Put your right foot against your inner left thigh. Gently bend forward from the hips, keeping your back straight. Switch legs and repeat.

• Calves — With knees straight, stand with a heel hanging over a step. Grasp a railing, push heel down. Repeat with knee bent to work both calf muscles.