Stretching, in its most basic form, is a natural and automatic action. People often stretch instinctively after waking from sleep or after long periods of inactivity.
While the benefits of daily exercise are numerous and well known, the benefits of a regular stretching routine are far less emphasized but just as important. Incorporating stretching into your daily workouts or into your regular day on their own is just as important to health and body functioning as regular exercise.
For The Body
The most established and obvious benefit of stretching is to help improve flexibility and range of motion. As the body ages, muscles can become tighter and range of motion in the joints can be minimized. A lack of flexibility can cause movement to become slower and less fluid, making an individual more susceptible to muscle strains or other soft tissue injuries. This can put a damper on active lifestyles and even hinder day-to-day, normal motions. An increase in flexibility is accompanied by improved balance and coordination.
Chronically tense and tight muscles can also contribute to poor posture. Stretching helps to ensure correct posture by lengthening tight muscles that pull areas of the body away from their intended position. Stretching the muscles of the lower back, chest and shoulders can help keep the spine in better alignment and improve overall posture.
While it is still widely debated as to whether or not stretching can help prevent injury, it has been proven to help increase blood flow to the muscles. This increase in flow brings with it a greater nutrient supply to muscles, thereby reducing muscle soreness and helping to speed recovery from muscle and joint injuries. The less sore your muscles are, the less painful it will be to work those same muscles and to exercise in general.
For The Mind
Everyone has stress. A buildup of stress causes your muscles to contract, becoming tense. This tension can go on to have a negative impact on just about every part of your body. Like all types of exercise, flexibility exercises like stretching have powerful stress-busting abilities. Spending just a short amount of time (10-15 minutes) stretching each day can help calm the mind, providing a mental break and giving your body a chance to recharge.
To get the most out of your stretching routine keep in mind the following:
Skip the Pre-Workout Stretch
Before you begin your stretching, your muscles should be warm. Do a warm up of light walking, biking or jogging at a low intensity for 5 to 10 minutes. Or better yet, stretch after the workout when your muscles are already warm.
Focus on Muscles That Need the Most Help
Instead of trying to stretch your whole body, focus on a key area of the body at a time. Spend longer on each stretch and include more stretches for each area. If you are aware that certain muscles are tighter than others, focus your attention on those as you stretch.
Bring Movement Into Your Stretching
Gentle stretching can help increase flexibility in specific movements. The gentle movements of tai chi, yoga or pilates, for instance, may be a good way to stretch. In addition, when performing specific activities, such as a kick in martial arts or kicking a soccer ball, start by doing the movement slowly and at a lower intensity at first to get your muscles used to it. Then, as your muscles become more accustomed to the motion, gradually speed up the movement to a higher intensity.
Sarah Dreifke is a freelance writer based in DeKalb, IL with a passion for nutrition education and the prevention of chronic disease. She holds a Bachelor of Science in both Dietetics and Life Sciences Communication from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Currently, she is working towards a combined Master's Degree in Nutrition and Dietetics as well as a dietetic internship at Northern Illinois University.