When you exercise, do you warm up and cool down? Or do you, like most people, often skip right to the workout without stretching first. Although it adds time to your workout, the benefits of stretching far outweigh the additional time it takes to do it, and it is a key component of fitness.
Healthy Directions believes that you deserve all of the information you need to live your best life. When you know better, you can do better. Once you are more aware of the benefits of stretching, you’ll never miss a warm-up or cool down again.
Stretching Isn’t Just for Workouts
Although we frequently discuss the benefits of stretching when we talk about working out, they extend much further than that. Many experts recommend that stretching occurs daily regardless of whether you are exercising or not.
Stretching can increase flexibility, allowing us to achieve our full range of motion and keep our mobility and circulation at optimal levels. As we age, our muscles and joints, like our back muscles and knees, tend to stiffen, leading to a decrease in long-term range of motion. While this happens regardless of what we do, stretching can help slow down the process.
When you ignore your musculoskeletal health, your muscles start to shorten up and tighten, which places you at an increased risk of muscle strain and decreased range of motion of a joint. After some time, they are much harder to stretch back out and are more likely to stay in that shortened position. Unfortunately, when you want to exercise or even walk more than usual, it becomes more challenging to get them to elongate correctly. They may even start atrophy, leaving you at an increased risk of strains, muscle damage, and joint pain.
Think of muscles like a piece of taffy. Soft, warm taffy stretches much more easily than cold taffy.
Stretching Can Help Improve Your Posture
Poor posture tends to creep in no matter what you do for a living or how you spend your downtime. With so much time leaning over a desk or our phones, relearning how to sit and stand with good posture is crucial.
One of the benefits of stretching is that it can help you to improve your posture passively. Poor posture is often the result of muscle imbalance and weakness, especially in your hamstrings, upper back, and lower back, and stretching can help you rectify that. When your muscles are strong and balanced, they better support your posture and unconsciously remind you to sit up straight and walk with your head held high.
In addition, when you have a better posture, you are less likely to deal with tension headaches and lower back pain caused by tight muscles.
Stretching Is Good for Your Mental State
Stretching does not only provide physical benefits; it is also good for your mind. As you have likely already experienced, when your mind is tense, your muscles often are too. We so frequently hold tension in our hip flexors, shoulders and jaws, so much so that you are likely unconsciously doing that as you read this.
When you take a break to consciously stretch or even do a more active stretching routine like yoga, you set aside time to focus on yourself and increase blood flow. Paying attention to your muscles and how your body feels provides you with emotional stress relief, relieves muscle tightness and stiffness, and helps you cultivate a sense of mindfulness.
How To Stretch Appropriately
Yes, there is a “right” and a “wrong” way to stretch! Going into a stretching routine cold without warming up your muscles first can increase your risk of injury. In this regard, it may be ok to exercise first and then follow it with a regular stretching routine to cool down.
Focus on stretches specific to the areas that you have worked or are planning to work on. You will also want to make sure to keep your stretching symmetrical so that you aren’t just paying attention to one side of your body. In fact, not stretching symmetrically can increase your risk for injury.
There are two main types of stretching — static stretching and dynamic stretching.
With static stretching, you’ll get into the stretch and then hold it for around 30 seconds. Static stretching is best done after a workout and should last between 5 - 10 minutes. Avoid “bouncing” when you stretch, which can increase your risk of injury to the targeted muscle group.
Dynamic stretching, on the other hand, involves active stretching. Things like arm and hip circles, squats, and lunges are all forms of dynamic stretching. This stretching exercise is better before a workout to help warm up and get your heart rate going. You should aim for an additional 5 to 10 minutes.
With any type of stretching, stop if you feel any pain or discomfort when you are stretching. Pain does not mean that you are getting a “better” stretch; it may mean that you are actually doing damage to your body. It is possible to overstretch, so use caution and speak with a physical therapist if you need more guidance.
What Doesn’t Stretching Do?
Many people tie stretching to muscle soreness or stiff muscles after exercising. However, although there are many benefits to stretching, studies have shown that stretching does not reduce muscle soreness or recovery time the day after a workout. If you’ve been looking for ways to stop feeling that tight, achy feeling a day or so after a workout, try eating a banana or other foods high in magnesium.
You can also help your body recover by maintaining a healthy diet and incorporating supplements that support and improve flexibility in muscle tissue. And, as always, drink plenty of water.
The benefits of stretching extend much further than people often think. Even when you are not working out, regular stretching can help keep your muscles flexible and your range of motion at its optimal level. It is an excellent way to help keep your body feeling young for as long as possible.
Healthy Directions is here for you, and we would love to help you reach your best health level yet. When you focus on helping your body function its best, you are potentially adding years of comfortable, pain-free enjoyment to your life. Age is a mindset, after all.
The importance of stretching | Harvard Health
(PDF) Stretching to prevent or reduce muscle soreness after exercise | Academia.edu
Effects of Magnesium Supplementation on Muscle Soreness and Performance | PubMed