When most people think of fitness they think of cardiovascular and strength exercise—but if you want to get and stay fit, don’t forget to stretch. Stretching and flexibility exercises are an important component of any fitness regimen. In fact, flexibility is critical not just to athletic performance, but to overall health.
Stretching refers to a practice of elongating a muscle or muscle group to its fullest length. Though we may not realize it, stretching is actually a natural, instinctive behavior. Upon waking, most of us will instinctively reach our arms overhead and stretch from fingers to toes. Our body naturally craves a “stretch” after long periods of sitting or inactivity. This natural instinct is your body’s way of telling you that stretching is good.
Benefits of Stretching
Stretching offers numerous health and fitness benefits:
- Relaxation: Put simply, stretching feels good. It’s an excellent way to cool down and relax after an invigorating workout. Furthermore, research has shown that stretching can lower blood pressure and improve artery function. It’s a natural stress reliever.
- Increase flexibility: Flexibility refers to the degree to which an individual muscle will lengthen. As we age, our muscles grow shorter and tighter and we become less flexible. As a result, we become more susceptible to injuries. Stretching is an effective way to maintain and increase flexibility. A regular stretching routine will keep you flexible—and hopefully, injury-free.
- Improve circulation: Stretching increases the blood flow to the muscles, which not only helps to nourish the muscles but also helps to eliminate waste byproducts from muscle tissue.
- Eliminate pain: Many of us experience muscle tightness in our quadriceps, hamstrings, and hip flexors. What we may not realize is that this muscle tightness is a common cause of low back pain. Short, tight muscles result in impaired movement patterns and compensation, which leads to low back pain. A regular stretching routine can help solve this common problem.
In order to gain the benefits of stretching, it’s important to stretch properly:
- Warm up. Never stretch a cold muscle; it can result in injury. Instead, warm up with some cardiovascular activity prior to stretching. This will help make your muscles more pliable and conducive to stretching.
- Breathe. Sometimes we’re inclined to hold our breath when stretching, but this is counterproductive because it results in tightness and resistance. Instead, breathe into a stretch. Breathe slowly and deeply. As you exhale, you may feel yourself naturally sink a little deeper into the stretch.
- Be gentle. Never force a stretch. Instead, gently ease your way into a stretch and let your body dictate how far you can go. Flexibility will naturally increase over time—forcing a stretch will only result in injury, not increased flexibility.
- Be consistent. The best way to build flexibility is with a consistent stretching routine. Aim for 3 to 5 days per week. If you commit to a stretching program, you will see results.
Ready to stretch? Learn about the value of static stretching and dynamic stretching—and when to use both.