Why is Stretching Important?
Stretching is often overlooked and skipped over unless you’re a yogi or a gymnast. Many people, especially when they’re first getting into a workout routine or starting to get fit, will take the time to work out but forget to stretch afterward.
Flexibility is incredibly important and something we often lose as we age. Lack of flexibility can cause pain, limit your mobility and eventually your independence. Maintaining mobility is key to aging gracefully and keeping your ability to do everyday things without needing help.
Stretching isn’t just important for keeping your muscles flexible, it also affects your ability to strengthen your muscles. When muscles become too tight or rigid, it’s more difficult to effectively work the muscles and get stronger. Muscles that are too tight stay locked in a shortened position and when you go to use them, they’re weak and it’s difficult to activate them. Stretching keeps your muscles healthy, strong, and pliable, which helps you reduce risk of injury.
How often should you stretch?
So how often do you need to stretch to keep your muscles healthy and mobile? The answer is daily. This does depend somewhat on your level of activity and what your days look like, but ideally, you’re stretching every single day for at least a few minutes. Those that exercise vigorously and regularly should stretch for at least ten minutes every day after physical activity and should include a rest day with a long stretch session. Those that are less active but sit for long periods still need to stretch daily. Taking a few 2-3 minute stretch sessions throughout the day can help you maintain flexibility.
If stretching isn’t already a part of your fitness routine, aim to add 3-4 stretch sessions per week of about 10-15 minutes. Ideally, you’ll increase to about 6 sessions per week and possibly lengthen the time of your sessions. Start small so that you don’t get overwhelmed!
What to Stretch
There are about 600 muscles in the human body. But you do not need to stretch them all! When you’re just starting, focus on the main muscle groups. Most people need to focus on the lower body – the hips, legs, and calves especially. Those who sit for long periods, work at a desk, and parents of small children also need some chest and shoulder stretches.
It’s always recommended to work with a professional who can assess your body’s needs and create a personalized program for you. But if working with someone one on one isn’t an option right now, use resources like books, online videos, group yoga, Pilates, or stretching classes at your local gym or community center.
When to Stretch
While there’s no such thing as a bad time to stretch, there are better times to stretch. If you run or play sports, you’ll want to warm up before physical activity, but you don’t necessarily want to stretch before. Studies have shown that stretching before intense physical activity, like running, can make your muscles perform worse. Warm up with gentler exercises, then cool down with stretches. Don’t skip your post-workout stretches!
For those who don’t do any strenuous activity, stretching first thing in the morning is a great way to wake up and get your blood flowing. If you sit for long periods, taking 1-10 minutes to stretch during your lunch break or even just scattering in short stretch breaks throughout your day can help you stay alert and out of pain. Use bathroom breaks as a reminder to get up and stretch! Utilizing a doorway to stretch your chest, or a curb or step to stretch your calves is a great way to use what you already have in order to stay flexible.
Benefits of Stretching
Stretching isn’t just about being able to touch your toes. Below are some benefits of stretching to help you get motivated and start stretching regularly!
1) Improves your flexibility
Flexibility is an important part of overall health and maintaining flexibility will help you keep your mobility and ability to do everyday activities as you age. Doing things like reaching up for a glass on a high shelf can become more difficult with reduced flexibility as you age. So, staying flexible keeps you independent!
2) Improves posture
It’s no secret that sitting for long periods or using your phone a lot can led to poor posture. But poor posture can cause pain, tension, and even lead to spinal injuries over time. Stretching can help you keep proper posture, so you feel better every day.
3) Improves range of motion
Range of motion refers to how far you’re able to move a joint. Being able to move your joints through their full range of motion allows you to function better. This is important for everyday activities, but it’s especially important for things like weight training.
4) Improves blood flow to your muscles
Stretching helps to increase blood flow to your muscles and improves your circulation. Better circulation to your muscles helps speed up your recovery time so you experience less muscle soreness after exercise.
5) Improves performance in physical activities and sports
Better flexibility and being able to move freely through your joint’s range of motion allows you to move better and perform better in sports, weight training, and any physical activities. The increase in circulation also helps you to recover faster and brings more nutrients into the muscles so they can repair better and get stronger.
6) Helps reduce pain
Tight muscles can cause pain on their own, but when muscles are tight, they’re also more likely to become injured. Stretching tight muscles can keep you out of pain.
7) May reduce your risk of injury
When muscles are tight and then are called on for strenuous activity, like going for a run or even just quickly stepping off a curb, they’re more likely to not fire correctly which can lead to muscle strains, sprains, and other injuries. Staying flexible helps you reduce your risk of sudden injury. Tight muscles can also lead to poor posture which can cause back injuries over time.
8) Relieves stress and can contribute to better mental health
Tight muscles cause pain, and chronic pain can lead to stress. Stretching mindfully with a focus on deep breathing can be especially good for reducing stress. Yoga is great for this because of its focus on deep breathing and moving mindfully. Less stress means better mental health and better mental health is crucial for everything in life. When you’re stress-free, you’re more patient and kinder to those around you, and you’ll have better relationships.
9) Helps reduce tension and headaches
Tight neck and shoulder muscles can lead to tension headaches. Stretching regularly can help keep your muscles free from tension and lead to fewer headaches.
If you want to start working on your flexibility but don’t know where to begin, my book Yoga for Flexibility comes out on September 6th and is available for preorder now on Amazon! The book includes flexibility plans, yoga pose tutorials, and yoga sequences you can follow on your own as you begin your flexibility journey.