While stretching can feel good first thing in the morning, it can actually be beneficial almost anytime. Even in small doses, stretching can help move your body and mind toward improved overall health and a greater sense of physical and mental well-being.
“If everyone just got up to stretch for 15 minutes during the workday, they’d almost certainly feel better,” says Matthew Panzarella, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at Sentara Martha Jefferson Outpatient Surgery Center.
“While stretching is often viewed as an activity you do before and after more strenuous exercise, it’s actually a safe and effective form of exercise in itself,” adds Thomas Weber, MD, medical director of orthopedics and sports medicine for Sentara RMH.
“Not everyone can play sports, run or even walk,” Dr. Weber continues. “But keeping muscles moving and active is good for our overall health and balance. Humans are built to move, so almost anything that adds activity to a sedentary lifestyle is a step toward better health.”
Stretching Before and After Other Exercise
Of course, the act of stretching as a warmup and cooldown to almost any other form of exercise should not be overlooked.
“A stretching warmup activates the muscles and tendons, preparing your body for a workout and helping to prevent injury,” explains Dr. Panzarella.
At the end of an exercise session, a cool-down period with stretching is equally important. Quitting exercise without cooling down can allow higher levels of lactic acid to remain in the muscles, leading to increased muscle soreness and cramping later.
However, stretching loses its value if you aren’t careful to use good form (see sidebar). It’s important to be familiar with the proper technique for any type of stretching you do, and to understand that the more rigorous the exercise you plan to undertake, the more loosening up you will need.
“For example, stationary biking requires less stretching than, say, going for a hike in the mountains,” Dr. Weber says. “In general, the fewer motions involved with an activity, the less stretching required.”
When it comes to stretching, though, too much of a good thing can have negative effects. For instance, when people push themselves too hard trying to overachieve, which is more likely to occur in a group or class setting, tiny microtears can form in the tendons. Similarly, rapid stretching can damage tendons and muscles and put undue tension on other body parts.
“If people bend over too quickly at their hips to touch their toes, they can pull their hamstring muscles, which torques the spine and may cause a disc to bulge,” says Dr. Weber. “The average person can get all he or she needs with good instruction, and by taking it slow and not overdoing it.”
Adding More Movement to the Mix
A more active way of preparing the body for exercise is dynamic stretching, which runs counter to the more traditional static type of stretching, during which a person holds a stretch pose for up to 30 seconds. Dynamic stretching uses more low-impact types of movement—for example, swinging the legs back and forth to loosen the hamstring muscles, skipping rope, lightly jogging, and hopping or jumping. This type of stretching can be especially good for athletes and active individuals.
“Dynamic stretching is definitely what athletic trainers and physical therapists recommend for warmups these days,” says Dr. Panzarella. “It helps to enhance your strength, power and range of motion, and increases blood flow to the muscles, so it’s generally better for warming up before more strenuous or active types of exercise. On the other hand, static stretching is better used as a cooldown. In fact, doing static stretches before other exercise has been shown to reduce a person’s power and strength, since static stretching tends to relax muscles and reduce blood flow.”
He adds that several case studies support the superiority of dynamic stretching. A 2014 review of more than 30 studies published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that active warmups encompassing such exercises as sprints and plyometrics, including activities such as jumps or hops, can enhance a person’s power and strength performance. Meanwhile, static stretching not only fails to provide such a boost but may also reduce strength, according to a December 2009 article in Sport Sciences for Health.
However, even a static warmup is better than no warmup at all.
“With both kinds of stretching, but especially with dynamic stretching, you’re preparing the body for activity and increasing blood flow to your muscles to help reduce the likelihood of pulling something and injuring yourself,” advises Dr. Panzarella.
Stretching as a Form of Exercise in Itself
As important and preventive as stretching is for the body as an
accompaniment to other exercise, it’s not just for the athletes of the world. Almost everyone should engage in regular stretching activities, even if there’s no trophy at stake.
“Because many adults are less physically active, stretching is important in helping joints maintain the maximum range of motion, which tends to decrease with age,” says Dr. Weber. “Stretching also can improve balance and leg strength, which can reduce a person’s chance of falling and sustaining accompanying injuries like broken bones. Regular stretching helps to maximize range of motion in the joints and does actually exercise the muscle groups being stretched.”
How frequently should you be stretching? Both Dr. Panzarella and Dr. Weber recommend making it part of your daily routine.
Good for the Body and the Mind
“Daily stretching is a great invigorator of the body,” says Dr. Weber, “particularly if you regularly work the major muscle groups: the calves, quadriceps, hamstrings, paraspinals [muscles next to the spine], pectorals, triceps and paracervicals [muscles next to the cervical spine]. Fifteen to 30 seconds of holding each stretch is typically regarded as adequate.”
The benefits of stretching are twofold. In addition to improving flexibility and enhancing muscle tone, stretching also can provide a greater sense of mental well-being.
In fact, certain types of stretching exercises, such as yoga and tai chi, deliberately seek to integrate the mental and physical components of exercise. Tai chi, which is sometimes described as “mediation in motion,” has been shown to improve strength and balance, as well as reduce pain in arthritic joints.
“Tai chi, yoga and Pilates are all forms of exercise that have been studied quite a bit,” Dr. Weber says. “Participation in these activities can reduce blood pressure, slow heart rates, improve vascular circulation and reduce levels of stress hormones like cortisol in the body.”
Dr. Panzarella agrees that the mental benefits of stretching are particularly evident when a person is participating in an exercise like yoga.
“Most exercise is beneficial on multiple levels,” he says. “Many exercises, but especially activities like yoga and tai chi, provide a time to relax and reflect. Exercise gives you a little reprieve from your busy day, and can help you feel better in just 15-20 minutes. Any type of exercise is going to release the endorphins that make us feel better.”
So with all of its benefits, stretching should be more than just part of your wake-up routine.
“You don’t have to be an athlete to enjoy the benefits of stretching,” concludes Dr. Panzarella. “A lot of people these days tend to sit in a fixed position at their work desks for hours on end. Stretching is a great way to counteract a more sedentary lifestyle, and it’s an easy way to help yourself feel better.”
Suggested Everyday Stretches
Here are a few simple stretches you can include in your daily life. While you should feel some tension and pulling in your muscles as you stretch, don’t push yourself to the point of pain. If you feel pain, let up until you feel a mild sensation of tension or pulling, and hold the stretch there. If you already have a pulled or strained muscle, or other health concerns, talk to your physician, physical therapist or a fitness trainer before beginning a regular routine of stretching.
• To stretch your chest (pectoral muscles): Stand against a wall with your back flat, raise your arms overhead, and keep them flat against the wall. You will feel a lot of stretch in your chest and pecs.
• To loosen your hamstrings, put one leg on a low chair and lean forward. Lean until you begin to feel the pull on the muscles, but don’t force the motion or overstretch.
• To stretch your calves, stand with your feet apart at shoulder width. Place your hands on a wall and, keeping your heels firmly on the ground and knees straight, lean into the wall until you feel the pull on your calves.
• To stretch your back muscles, stand straight and grab one hand with the other hand over your head. Gently lean to one side of the body and hold, then repeat on the other side.