Sometimes we do it quickly pre- or post-workout. Other times, we do it at our desks or as we crawl out of bed without even realizing it. But, despite these occasional moments, many of us don’t do it enough. Stretching—it’s more important than you may think. While it plays a role in helping us exercise safely and perform daily tasks with ease, taking a few moments to extend your hardworking muscles can also help protect them, improve your range of motion and flexibility, reduce stiffness and even minimize stress. It’s a simple practice that, when done on a regular basis, can really change how you feel physically and mentally.
What Stretching Does
- Eases Tightness: There’s a reason your spinning instructor or tennis pro takes you through some stretches when you’ve finished your workout. Vigorous exercise and activities that repetitively work the same muscle groups (like golf, cycling and tennis) can make muscles shorter and tighter and lead to aches and pains. Stretching helps minimize post-workout stiffness.
- Promotes Circulation: Tense muscles get shortchanged when it comes to the circulation of oxygen and essential nutrients. Just a few minutes of stretching each day helps your muscles get what they need to move efficiently.
- May Help Prevent Injury: Though experts are still studying the link between stretching and injury prevention, we do know that flexible joints require less energy to execute a wider range of motion, which may mean that stretching regularly can help you perform bigger movements (like bending down to retrieve something you’ve dropped) with greater ease. As a result, you’ll be less likely to pull, strain or sprain a muscle.
- Feels Good: A more flexible body is a more comfortable body. When your muscles are limber and your joints bend freely, you’re likely to feel better emotionally too, especially since the calm, relaxing aspects of the practice of stretching can help reduce the stress hormone cortisol.
Types of Stretching
There are several forms of stretching that can help you improve your flexibility. Choose movements that suit your lifestyle and help your body feel its best.
- Dynamic Stretching: While many of us jump right into a cardio routine when we’re ready to exercise, you may get more out of your aerobic workout if you spend a couple of minutes doing some dynamic stretching first. These moving stretches, like arm circles or jumping jacks, activate your nervous system and raise your heart rate and body temperature, prepping you for an effective and comfortable workout.
- Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF): This modality, which is a contraction of opposing muscles, usually involves stretching with another person—ideally a physical therapist or personal trainer—to provide resistance while you stretch. Some examples of PNF stretches include the Lying Hamstring (when your partner pushes your raised leg toward your chest as you lie flat on your back) and the Overhead Triceps (when your partner pulls your elbow, which is pointed toward the ceiling, slightly behind your head while your bicep is against your ear and your hand is against your upper back).
- Static Stretching (Active-Isolated Stretching): This technique, which also involves contracting opposing muscles, requires you to hold each stretch from anywhere between five and 30 seconds, repeating each movement up to 10 times. This type of stretching can help minimize muscle soreness and improve range of motion after your workout. Give these static cool-down stretches a try.
- Yoga: Hatha and restorative yoga involve holding static poses that promote stretching and extending various muscle groups. Practicing these movements can include supports, like a bolster, blanket or strap, helping your body relax as you breathe through each stretch. These soothing poses are great options to try.
How to Stretch Safely
It’s important to perform these movements gently. To avoid any pain or possible injury, follow these guidelines:
- Prepare Your Body: Warm up your muscles before holding any static stretches by jogging in place or performing a few dynamic stretches. This helps circulate blood to your muscles, making them more limber and less prone to straining or pulling when you begin your stretches.
- Know Your Limits: Whether you’re stretching at home, at work or in a fitness class, listen to your body and be mindful of how you feel as you move. You should never experience more than mild discomfort during a stretch. If you’re struggling or bouncing as you hold the stretch, you may be pushing yourself too far—ease back a bit. As your range of motion improves, slowly increase how far you bend or how far you reach.
- Use Your Breath: Relax the muscle group you’re working on and breathe into the stretch, extending further with each exhalation, if possible. Keep this up throughout the stretch to help your body loosen up.