Whether you're an athlete, a fitness enthusiast or just looking to improve your flexibility and reduce the risk of injury, incorporating regular stretching into your routine should be a priority, experts argue.
According to the Harvard Medical School, stretching keeps the muscles flexible, strong, and healthy.
David Nolan, a physical therapist at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital, added that flexibility was needed to maintain a range of motion in the joints.
“Without it, the muscles shorten and become tight,” Nolan explained.
“Then, when you call on the muscles for activity, they are weak and unable to extend all the way.
“That puts you at risk for joint pain, strains, and muscle damage.”
The Mayo clinic echoed similar sentiments and added that stretching may also help improve your range of motion and consequently decrease the risk of injury, among other benefits.
Meanwhile, leading healthcare provider Affinity Health has provided several reasons why stretching is essential and how it can benefit you:
Flexibility and range of motion
Flexibility is the ability of your muscles and joints to move through their full range of motion, Affinity Health CEO Murray Hewlett explained.
“Our muscles become tighter and less pliable as we age, leading to decreased flexibility and increased stiffness,” he said.
“Stretching exercises can help counteract these effects while enhanced flexibility also contributes to better posture and reduced risk of musculoskeletal injuries.”
Proper stretching routines can improve muscle function, increase the efficiency of your movements, and enhance your overall athletic performance, Hewlett added.
He recommended stretching before exercise, which he believes helps prepare muscles for the physical demands of your activity, reducing the risk of strains and injuries.
“Dynamic stretching can activate your muscles and increase blood flow, promoting better readiness for physical activity.”
He added that after your workout, static stretching can also help alleviate muscle tension, prevent post-exercise soreness and aid recovery.
Stretching can be a valuable tool in managing and reducing pain, especially for those who suffer from chronic musculo-skeletal conditions.
“Conditions such as lower back pain, sciatica, and muscle tightness can often be alleviated or improved through regular stretching exercises,” Hewlett said.
He added that by targeting specific muscle groups and improving flexibility, stretching can relieve tension and reduce the compression of nerves and joints.
Stress reduction and relaxation
Stretching exercises can promote relaxation, reduce stress, and improve mental well-being.
Hewlett said that it also allows for a focus on breathing and body sensations, which can help clear your mind and reduce anxiety and that specific stretching techniques – such as yoga and pilates – are particularly effective for promoting relaxation and stress reduction.
“These practices combine stretching with deep breathing and mindfulness, offering a holistic physical and mental health approach.”
As you stretch and lengthen your muscles, you facilitate blood and oxygen flow to those muscles.
Hewlett believes that improved circulation not only aids in muscle recovery, but also supports overall cardiovascular health.
“Proper blood flow is essential for delivering nutrients and oxygen to your cells and removing waste products.”
When muscles are tight and inflexible, they are more prone to strains, sprains, and overuse injuries, the Affinity Health CEO warned.
Stretching can assist with this as it helps maintain muscle elasticity and reduces the risk of injury during physical activities.
Poor posture can lead to various health issues, including back pain, neck pain, and headaches.
“Stretching can help address these problems by targeting specific muscle groups responsible for maintaining proper posture,” Hewlett said.
He added that stretching exercises that focus on the chest, shoulders, hips, and back muscles, for example, can help improve your posture and reduce strain on your spine.
Better balance and co-ordination
Maintaining balance and co-ordination is essential for preventing falls and injuries, especially as we age, Hewlett noted.
He suggested balance-focused stretching, such as yoga and tai chi, which incorporates movements requiring you to engage multiple muscle groups simultaneously.
“These exercises enhance proprioception (awareness of your body's position in space) and promote better balance and co-ordination to engage various muscle groups simultaneously.”
Incorporating stretching into your routine
Hewlett recommended including stretching in your daily routine.
Here are his six tips for getting started:
Always begin your stretching routine with a brief warm-up, such as light cardio or dynamic stretching.
“Warm muscles are more pliable and responsive to stretching,” Hewlett said.
– Focus on major muscle groups:
Pay particular attention to the muscles commonly affected by tightness, such as the hamstrings, quadriceps, calves, hip flexors, and chest muscles.
– Hold stretches:
When performing static stretches, hold each stretch for 15-30 seconds and repeat two-four times for each muscle group, Hewlett suggested.
– Stay consistent:
Incorporate stretching into your daily routine, whether before or after exercise, during breaks at work, or as part of your bedtime routine.
– Listen to your body:
Stretch to mild discomfort, but never push yourself to the point of pain, Hewlett warned.
“If you experience pain, stop the stretch immediately.”
– Seek guidance:
If you're new to stretching or have specific goals or health concerns, Hewlett recommended considering consulting a fitness professional, physical therapist, or yoga instructor.
He added that doing a single stretch session for just one day won't magically make you super flexible, as it takes time and dedication.
"Achieving increased flexibility requires consistent effort and commitment over time," he said.