You’ve undoubtedly watched your assistance dog wake up and do that same familiar stretch that she always does… She arches her back, extends her front legs out in front of her, curves her stomach toward the floor, and stretches her entire body as she yawns. It’s a trademark move among our canine and feline companions.
It’s a different kind of stretch called pandiculation. Never heard of it? That’s OK; most people haven’t.
Pandiculating is a natural maneuver many vertebrates—including people—are programmed to do upon waking. It’s a way for the body to sort of reboot its muscle memory to keep the muscular system relaxed and limber. Unfortunately, we humans tend to deprogram it out of our instincts with our lifelong habits of hitting the snooze button and suddenly jumping out of bed and dashing off.
Stretching Versus Pandiculating
We’ve long thought that stretching is a great way to prevent injuries and keep ourselves flexible. However, we’re realizing that the way we do it isn’t too helpful. The stretches we do that simply extend our muscles from whatever resting position we’ve trained them to stay in provides little lasting benefit.
Yes, our muscles are trained. For example, when we sit at a computer all day, day after day, the muscles in our back come to rest in the hunched over position many of us assume; our arm muscles normalize as they rest while we use the keyboard and mouse.
As a result, our muscles “at rest” aren’t actually fully relaxed. They settle in a state of permanent tension. Stretching them out from this tight position doesn’t benefit them much, and can even increase the risk of over-stretching.
Pandiculation refers to contracting your muscles back to a natural position before extending them. When you do this, it resets your muscle memory at the brain level and allows your muscles to return to their naturally relaxed state. People and many other vertebrates are supposed to do it on a daily basis.
That’s exactly what your assistance dog is doing when she performs her wake-up stretch. Cats, with their fondness for napping, do it up to 40 times per day. It’s a big part of why cats and dogs don’t suffer from sprains, chronic pains, and other muscular problems like humans do, even with all their athletics and acrobatics.
How to Pandiculate
So, here’s another way your assistance dog can improve your physical quality of life. Take a page from her physiology playbook and start pandiculating.
It takes a little focus and practice, but you can do it any time you want to stretch (and it’s worth adding it into your morning routine immediately upon waking). Pandiculation involves three steps: contracting your muscles, slowly stretching them, then letting them return to a fully relaxed state. Hone in on the muscle group you want to stretch and deliberately contract it. Then slowly stretch it and hold it briefly, then gradually ease off until it’s completely relaxed.
When you pandiculate, it feels different—and better—than static stretching. Over time, you’ll improve at targeting specific muscles and become more proficient at fully contracting and relaxing them. You’ll also develop better muscular control and range of motion.