5 health benefits of stretching: Why it's so important and how to stretch properly, according to physical therapists
Stretchingis beneficial for your healthbecause it improves flexibility, mobility, and posture.
- Research has found that stretching 15 minutes before
exercisecan also reduce the risk of injury.
- Experts recommend stretching daily and to stretch all major muscles and joints in order to see benefits.
- This article was medically reviewed by Joey Thurman, CSCS, CPT, FNS, a Chicago-based
fitnessexpert and MYX Fitness coach.
Any healthy workout routine should include stretching exercises. That's because stretching provides a variety of health benefits, from improving flexibility to preventing injury.
There are two main types of stretching:
- Static stretching involves holding a stretch for a certain length of time and then repeating it.
- Dynamic stretching is when you move a joint through its full range of motion repeatedly, without holding it in place.
Both types can be helpful to incorporate into your routine, but when and how you should do each of them depends on your goals and the type of exercise you do.
Here a few ways that stretching can benefit you and how to do it safely and effectively.
1. Stretching improves flexibility
Stretching exercises can increase flexibility and help joints move through their full range of motion.
Flexibility is needed to keep your joints and tissues healthy, whether you're a young adult who's a serious athlete or an older adult whose exercise routine is more limited. If the tissues around a joint become inflexible, your muscles can become fatigued and tight, leaving you more prone to injuries like muscle strains or ligament tears.
A small 2019 study found that dynamic stretching increased flexibility and decreased stiffness in the hamstring muscles, as well as improved range of motion in the knee. In fact, those who dynamically stretched saw an immediate improvement in flexibility that lasted for up to to 90 minutes.
2. Stretching maintains mobility
Stretching maintains range of motion, which is necessary for everyday activities like walking, bending, and twisting, as well as for athletic pursuits.
"When I'm thinking about my kayaking and hiking and all the things I want to do, if I don't have a better range of motion, it's going to limit my ability to do those activities," says Barbara Bushman, an exercise physiologist, kinesiology professor at Missouri State University, and fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM).
People typically lose range of motion as they age. A large 2013 study found that flexibility decreased with age, typically starting at 30 or 40 years old. The study also found that some joints, like those in your spine, lost more flexibility than others, hindering participants' ability to move.
Plus, as people age, they tend to get more hunched over, and their walking stride shortens, making it extra important to stretch frequently.
"Maintaining flexibility and joint mobility is really critical to aging gracefully and staying active," says Michael Fredericson, a professor of orthopaedic surgery at Stanford University and head physician for Stanford's track & field and swimming teams.
3. Stretching prevents injury
Traditionally, athletes learned to stretch statically before a workout to avoid injury. However, research now shows that dynamic stretching loosens tissues and muscles more effectively before physical activity.
A small 2019 study found that stiff hamstrings and decreased range of motion in the knee are risk factors for hamstring injury. As a result, dynamic stretching may help prevent those injuries.
A 2007 review also found that stretching, both static and dynamic, within 15 minutes before an activity can deter injury. It found that stretching significantly reduced low back pain and muscle/tendon injuries such as strains.
4. Stretching improves posture
Flexibility exercises can enhance posture, stability, and balance. A small 2016 study of adolescents aged 15 to 17 found that a 16-week resistance and stretching program improved posture by decreasing slouched shoulders and a forward head.
If someone has a slouched posture, this can tighten muscles and put stress on muscles and joints, as well as cause back or neck pain. Stretching can alleviate this tightness and thereby improve posture and pain.
5. Stretching improves sleep and eases anxiety
Stretching not only helps loosen tight muscles, but it might also offer mental health benefits.
A small 2019 study found that participants with chronic insomnia reported improved sleep and anxiety after stretching three times a week for four months when compared to those who did not stretch or exercise.
Additionally, stretching may ease stress and anxiety. A small 2013 study found that people who stretched for 10 minutes after work reported being less anxious and more energetic three months later than those who did not. They also reported less bodily pain and improved mental health.
"[Stretching] gets you into an environment that you're not running around," says Phil Page, a licensed physical therapist, and assistant professor of physical therapy at Franciscan University in Baton Rouge. "I'm stopping, and I'm relaxing, and I'm thinking about my muscles and my movement."
How to stretch properly
Stretching shouldn't be painful. Instead, you should stretch until you feel a slight discomfort. If you feel intense pain, you should stop, especially if you have an injury in the area.
If you're stretching before an athletic activity, opt for dynamic stretches, and focus on the joints you'll be using during the activity. For your upper body, this might include arm circles. For your lower body, it might include leg swings and lunges. You should repeat each stretch several times on each side.
Additionally, Bushman recommends dynamic stretching at least two or three days per week on all the major joint areas to maintain full range of motion. These areas include:
- Lower back
As for static stretching, Fredericson recommends doing it daily to improve flexibility and posture. "The mantra I've always said is: You need to warm up to stretch," Page says about static stretching. Fredericson agrees that static stretches should be done after activity when your muscles are warmed up.
To stretch statically, Fredericson says you should hold the stretch for at least 30 seconds, and then repeat it three times on each side. Examples of a static stretch include reaching for your toes while standing or pulling your foot towards your glute.
Stretching is essential to keep your joints and muscles healthy and to maintain your flexibility — both for the activities you enjoy today and as you age. "The problem is, as we get older, we often lose flexibility. If you don't use it, you lose it," Page says.
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