The benefits of stretching (aka why, yes, you should spend time on it)
You might think that stretching is only for elite athletes like gymnasts, footy players and marathon runners. But the experts say that everyone can reap the benefits of stretching.
For example, physiotherapist Brad McIntosh says, “There are many health benefits associated with stretching daily, ranging from reducing your blood pressure to increasing circulation.”
He adds that stretching is important because it can also help to increase mobility. “As we age,” Brad says, “This can then help to keep us independent. It helps our muscles to become flexible and strong, and that can protect us from strain.”
Why stretching sore muscles feels so good
Most women would agree that there’s nothing better than coming home from work, kicking off their heels, rolling their ankles around and flexing their toes. When you do this, Brad says, “your shoulders also drop, your hamstrings lengthen and your hips relax. It’s like your whole body finally exhales.”
Brad explains that sitting in a chair for a long time also weakens your posture, which then puts pressure on your spine, core and neck. But when you stretch, you allow oxygen-rich blood to flow to those areas of your body. This helps to release the pressure that causes sore muscles, and offers instant relief from discomfort.
How clever is that?
“Many of my patients and athletes swear by light stretching and foam rolling,” says Brad. “Although there isn’t a lot of research on foam rolling, I see only good outcomes in trying to actively help your body recover.”
How to stretch
You can stretch your muscles in several ways:
- Static stretching means lengthening a muscle by holding a stretched position for 15-30 seconds. You may feel a mild discomfort, but it shouldn’t hurt. You can do static stretches sitting down or standing up.
- Dynamic stretching involves repetitive movements like leg swings. To do this safely, Brad suggests starting within your normal range and then slightly increasing the stretch to the end of your range. This warms up your muscles as it lengthens them.
- Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) stretching is more advanced, and is also known as facilitated stretching because it’s often done with a partner or trainer. It involves alternating a short period of first contracting your muscle without moving it, with one of relaxing into a stretch.
- Ballistic stretching can be used as a warm-up method, but may create some safety issues. This form involves stretching a muscle to the end of its range, then adding in a bouncing movement to try to increase the range.
Just like with yoga, pilates and even walking, technique is key with stretching.
“Often people need to stretch to help with flexibility or to prepare their muscles for the type of movement they are about to undertake,” says Brad. “In the latter case, specificity is important: you need to identify which muscles you’ll use and which movements they’ll make. Then you need to replicate those movements with those muscles – stretching both before and after your exercise.”
He adds that this will help your body to not only perform well, but also recover better afterwards – both physically and mentally.
How often should I stretch?
Experts recommend that we should all be physically active for at least 150 minutes across the week. This can incorporate strength training, sports, low-impact cardio exercise, running and even incidental exercise.
Additionally, Brad says, we should all incorporate some flexibility training into our week too. He adds that some of this training will just be quickly stretching before and after your run, netball game or spin class. “It doesn’t take long,” he says, “so there’s no excuse.”
He recommends dynamic stretching as a really good way to warm up before any exercise that involves jogging, running or cardio. Meanwhile, he says, static stretching will probably have more benefits in the cool-down phase.
“After you exercise, your muscles and joints are already warm,” he explains. “This means they’ll stretch further into their range of motion. But both static and dynamic stretching should be a regular part of your exercise routine.”
Can I overstretch a muscle?
Does the thought of pulling a muscle put you off stretching? Don’t let it. Stretching shouldn’t hurt if you do it correctly.
“As long as you stay within your limits, and keep your stretches specific to what you want to achieve, you won’t do any harm,” says Brad.
In fact, experts actively recommend warming up and stretching before and after being active to avoid muscle strains. Just try not to compare yourself if you’re stretching with others, Brad cautions. “Stretching is not a competitive sport.”
His other recommendations include trying not to push your muscle into a stretch too hard or for too long. “Stretching isn’t meant to cause pain – it’s meant to offer relief. So don’t overload your muscles. Just use long breaths and count slowly as you stretch.”
Flexibility and strength are key
Brad finishes by saying that your exercise goals should prioritise having a strong, flexible body that keeps you healthy and dancing late into the night.
The key message he wants you to take away is that, “Stretching isn’t just for professional athletes. It’s for everyone who leads an active life. It feels good and it’s good for you – both for your body and your mind.”
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Brad McIntosh is a highly-trained and well-regarded physiotherapist with a particular clinical and research interest in knee rehabilitation.
Reviewed by the healthylife Advisory Panel June 2021