Believe it or not, stretching is a critical part of any exercise program. Keep your body healthy with these pointers for a good stretch.
You might be thinking that it's hard to carve out time in your schedule for exercise, let alone stretching. But most cardio and strength-training programs cause your muscles to tighten. That's why it's important to stretch regularly to keep your body functioning well.Regular stretching:
- Increases flexibility, which makes daily tasks easier
- Improves range of motion of your joints, which helps keep you mobile
- Improves circulation
- Promotes better posture
- Helps relieve stress by relaxing tense muscles
- Helps prevent injury, especially if your muscles or joints are tight
Keep these key points in mind:
- Target major muscle groups. When you're stretching, focus on your calves, thighs, hips, lower back, neck and shoulders. Also stretch muscles and joints that you routinely use at work or play.
- Warm up first. Stretching muscles when they're cold increases your risk of injury, including pulled muscles. Warm up by walking while gently pumping your arms, or do a favorite exercise at low intensity for five minutes. If you only have time to stretch once, do it after you exercise — when your muscles are warm and more receptive to stretching. And when you do stretch, start slowly.
- Hold each stretch for at least 30 seconds. It takes time to lengthen tissues safely. Hold your stretches for at least 30 seconds — and up to 60 seconds for a really tight muscle or problem area. Then repeat the stretch on the other side. For most muscle groups, a single stretch is usually sufficient.
- Don't bounce. Bouncing as you stretch repeatedly gets your muscles out of the stretch position and doesn’t allow them to relax, making you less flexible and more prone to pain.
- Focus on a pain-free stretch. Expect to feel tension while you're stretching. If it hurts, you've gone too far. Back off to the point where you don't feel any pain, then hold the stretch.
- Relax and breathe freely. Don't hold your breath while you're stretching.
Fit stretching into your schedule
As a general rule, stretch whenever you exercise. If you don't exercise regularly, you may want to stretch at least three times a week to maintain flexibility. If you have a problem area, such as tightness in the back of your leg, you may want to stretch every day or even twice a day.
Think about ways you can fit stretching into your daily schedule. For example:
- Do some stretches after your morning shower or bath. That way, you can shorten your warm-up routine because the warm water will raise muscle temperature and prepare your muscles for stretching.
- Stretch before getting out of bed. Try a few gentle head-to-toe stretches by reaching your arms above your head and pointing your toes.
- Sign up for a yoga or tai chi class. You're more likely to stick with a program if you're registered for a class.
What you should know before you stretch
You can stretch anytime, anywhere — in your home, at work or when you're traveling. But if you have a chronic condition or an injury, you may need to alter your approach. For example, if you have a strained muscle, stretching it as you usually do may cause further harm. Talk with your doctor or a physical therapist about the best way for you to stretch.