The importance of stretching
Is stretching really that important? How can something so simple bring such huge health benefits?
It’s common to associate stretching with something only athletes and sports people need to do but stretching is beneficial for absolutely everybody! Stretching shouldn’t just become a priority when our muscles start to feel tight, or when we feel pain, but should be done regularly to stop these problems occurring in the first place. If you exercise regularly, having recovery days or workouts for recovery stretches is also important, rather than just stretching before and after a workout.
In a review published by Harvard Health they explained that “stretching keeps the muscles flexible, strong, and healthy, and we need that flexibility to maintain a range of motion in the joints. Without it, the muscles shorten and become tight. 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.”1
What are the specific benefits of stretching?
While the obvious benefits of stretching are in the physical effects, stretching has been shown to make us feel more mentally at ease too – this is particularly true when the stretches also incorporate focused breathing techniques, such as those practiced in yoga.2 There are plenty of other benefits too:
Better flexibility and increased range of motion
Being more flexible makes it physically easier to perform everyday activities that we may take for granted – such as bending down, getting up and down from a chair or lifting a toddler – without niggling aches and pains. The ability to move your joints freely through their full range of motion has been shown in studies3 to be achievable through a number of different types of stretching, which are explained further on.
Stretching is good for your muscles, as it stops them becoming tight and allows them to move more freely. You have less chance of suffering from muscle imbalances and more chance of your muscles supporting your skeleton, resulting in better alignment and better overall posture.
Greater exercise performance
We’ve already seen that stretching can help increase your range of motion, and the better range of motion you have, the more muscles you will be able to activate and use. The more muscles you can use, the more power and energy you will have and the better your potential sports performance will be. Furthermore, stretching can help prepare your body to absorb high forces and get ready for the workout you are about to undertake with less chance of injury.
Better exercise recovery
Stretching after exercise increases the blood flow to your muscles, which helps flush out any toxins or waste products and can shorten your recovery time, while helping to prevent delayed muscle onset soreness (DOMS).
Great stress reliever
Stretching – particularly after a workout – helps to lower your heart rate and calm your breathing. The time you spend stretching can also be spent in a state of mindfulness, giving you a mental break from the world around you.
What are the different stretching techniques you can try?
From stretches you can do yourself, to those you need help with, and stretches that calm you to those that get your heart rate up, there are different styles of stretching techniques that each come with their own benefits.
An active stretch is a static type of stetch where you hold a position without the assistance of anything other than your own muscles. In an active stretch, your muscles will perform opposing functions, with one being lengthened as the other is contracted. An example of this would be if you were to point your toes and flex your ankle back and forth.
Passive stretching is another style of static stretch. It engages your muscles in the same way as an active stretch, with your muscles performing opposing functions. Passive stretching uses an added force though, making it greater in intensity. An example of passive stretching would be using a resistance band, or having another person push your leg towards the ceiling from a laying position, to stretch out your hamstrings.
This type of stretch will increase power and endurance. A dynamic stretch involves a gradual stretch up to, but not beyond, the normal range of motion. Unlike static stretches, dynamic stretches involve movement and effort for the stretch to occur. A dynamic stretch will take soft tissues to their full length and then rather than holding it, will wait for just a brief pause before the muscle being stretched contracts and the muscles and tendons exert a force in that lengthened position. An example of dynamic stretches could include lunges or squats.
How to incorporate stretching into your daily routine
As with any new routine, it’s important to take things slowly so that you don’t do too much, too soon. If you are new to stretching, consider speaking to a yoga or Pilates teacher to make sure you know the correct form you should be using before you begin. You might choose to keep going to a class to follow guided stretches, or you could make stretching part of your own daily routine.
You can make time to stretch at any stage in the day that suits you. Focus on the major areas of your body where you might suffer stress or tightness, such as your calve, hamstrings, hips and lower back, and don’t forget your upper body too – try to include some moves that will stretch your neck and shoulders. Be slow and deliberate with your stretches, trying to hold each one for around 30 seconds, and avoid bouncing. The stretch should feel pleasant so if at any point you feel pain, you should stop as you may be stretching too far.
Things that make us feel good tend to do wonders for our wellbeing and for most people, stretching feels good! If you’ve not considered stretching as an act of self-care, it might be time to give it a go and start reaping the physical and mental health benefits.