Stretch Your Way into the new year

The expert guide to better stretching

When someone tells you that you should stretch more, do you listen? If you listen, do you take action on this advice?

We hear a lot about how important stretching is to incorporate into our daily routine, but the majority of people do not always take that advice – myself included. It wasn’t until more recently that I put stretching at the top of my priority list and I have not regretted it one bit!  When we are focused on a certain goal (like losing weight or building muscle), it’s easy to get caught up in going to the gym to get your lift and cardio in. It seems like we are always in a time crunch…and isn’t it better to get in your last ten minutes of cardio instead of taking the time to stretch? The answer may surprise you. By NOT incorporating stretching into our routine, we are doing ourselves a huge disservice. And, don’t think you’re off the hook if you don’t go to the gym or exercise! Stretching is important for everyone to incorporate into their day, not just those of us who regularly go to the gym.

Truthfully, the research on stretching is mixed. Some studies say that it is beneficial while others say that it is detrimental. Others say that it doesn’t make a difference at all. So, how can we know if we should be stretching? The truth is that stretching DOES have benefits, but only if you do it the right way. The way we stretch should be based off our goals and how we plan to get to those goals. Are you about to have a heavy leg day in the gym or run sprints at the track? Are you trying to increase flexibility and range of motion for your yoga class? Or are you just trying to relieve your aching, sore muscles and feel better? Let’s look at each of these in more detail.

Even though the research has shown that static stretching can cause temporary muscle weakness, those who performed static stretching regularly had increased strength in the long run. This is likely because of the slight damage that occurs to your muscles when you stretch. When your muscle fibers are broken down (whether by stretching, lifting weights, or other exercise) your body goes to work to rebuild your muscle, which in turn increases the strength of your muscle. Those individuals who incorporated stretching into their regular exercise routine had increased strength over time because of it. By using stretching to increase your flexibility and range of motion, you can increase your athletic performance overall. Even though we know that static stretching isn’t the best choice immediately before working out, incorporating it in your routine to increase flexibility and range of motion can improve your overall performance when you lift weights. For example, by increasing the range of motion in your hip flexors, you will be able to reach a deeper squat.

What if your goal doesn’t involve lifting weights or running at all? What if you are aiming to increase flexibility and range of motion for any other activity, like yoga class? In this situation, static stretching is a good choice for you. It is important to never stretch a “cold muscle”, but by doing static stretching when your muscles are activated and warm, studies have shown that both flexibility and range of motion are improved. One study looked at individuals performing static leg stretches once per week, three times per week, and five times per week to see how this affected their flexibility and overall tightness of their hamstring muscle. The results showed that individuals who performed stretches three and five times a week showed improvements in hamstring flexibility and muscle tightness by the end of the study.

Other benefits to stretching include increased alertness throughout the day, better balance, relief from soreness and decreased stress levels, and even lowering blood sugar! When you stretch, whether static or dynamic, you are increasing blood flow to not only the muscles you are stretching, but to your entire body! By taking a short ten-minute break to stretch in the early afternoon, you can increase blood flow to your brain, which will help wake you up and feel less sluggish. This increased blood flow is also what can help lower our blood sugar. Studies have shown that individuals with Type 2 Diabetes had lower blood sugars when checked 40 minutes after stretching. Stretching also helps develop fine muscle coordination, meaning you will better be able to control you body and small adjustments to help you maintain better balance. When we train, we contract our muscles over and over again; so it makes sense that by taking Stretching does the obvious for our bodies, but it also helps our minds relax, which can help decrease stress levels throughout the day.

While there are many benefits to stretching, it’s also important to remember that when not done properly it can cause injury. Always remember to stretch both sides of your body equally. I know this sounds like common sense, but it is important to say! Having equal flexibility on both sides of your body will allow for equal range of motion and decrease your chances of injury. When stretching, it’s important not to “bounce” in the stretch. Some people do this to try to get a deeper stretch, but bouncing in your stretch can actually cause damage to your muscle and contribute to increased muscle tightness. And finally, remember to keep it up! As the old saying goes, if you don’t use it, you lose it! Aim to stretch 2-3 times per week and keep up that routine. As you become more flexible, you can increase your stretching to be daily! You don’t have to take much time from your day to get in an adequate stretch; it can be as little as 5-10 minutes per day.

By taking care of your mind and body through proper nutrition and exercise, you can take steps to leading a healthy and happy life. No matter what your lifestyle or fitness goals, stretching on a regular basis is great for your physical and mental health.