The benefits of stretching: why your body needs to move

Do you feel tight from sitting in your chair all day? Is it becoming harder to extend your legs or your arms? You may need to get up and stretch. A stretching routine is not just for athletes. Stretching helps our muscles and joints stay flexible and strong, which in turn helps keep our body healthy by avoiding long-term damage and pain.

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The benefits of regular stretching

You don’t need to be an athlete to benefit from stretching. There are many advantages to starting a regular stretching routine, including stress relief, increased flexibility, and a better posture:

  1. Stress relief. Our muscles can tighten up in response to physical and emotional stress. Stretching can help relax tight muscles so we feel more relaxed ourselves. For instance, a research study measured significantly better mental health in office workers who completed a 10-minute stretching session twice a week for twelve weeks. You can even couple stretching with your other mindfulness practices to further calm your mind.
  2. Increased flexibility. Regular stretching will help you move your muscles and your joints through their full range of motion so you feel less stiff. Everyday tasks that require flexibility will become easier over time. Most researchers agree that 10 to 20 seconds of stretching is enough to increase flexibility.
  3. Better posture. Stretching can help encourage proper spinal alignment and reduce musculoskeletal pain, which will improve your posture. Research suggests that a combination of stretching and strength exercises is one of the most effective ways to reduce the symptoms of a bad posture, including in the shoulders, middle back, and lower back.

These would benefit anyone, but people who exercise can have the added bonus of improving their performance in physical activities by preparing their muscles, and increasing the blood flow to their muscles, which reduces muscle soreness. What’s not to like?

Starting a stretching routine

You won’t start noticing all the benefits of stretching straight away. While you will quickly—sometimes instantly—feel its relaxing effects, you will need to stick to regular stretching sessions for a little while in order for your muscles and joint to become more flexible. In short, you need to create a stretching routine.

“It may have taken you many months to get tight muscles, so you’re not going to be perfectly flexible after one or two sessions. It takes weeks to months to get flexible, and you’ll have to continue working on it to maintain it,” explains physical therapist David Nolan of Massachusetts General Hospital.

Ideally, you should aim for 5 to 15 minutes of stretching per day. If you are in a rush and don’t want to understand the principles of stretching, Healthline put together a quick 5-minute daily routine. But if you want to make the most of your stretching routine, it is useful to study the basics.

Choosing the right stretching routine

There are so many stretching exercises practiced by athletes and amateurs alike, it can be hard to choose which ones to incorporate into your routine. Stretching exercises can be classified into three main types of techniques:

  • Dynamic stretching. Active movements that help your muscles and ligaments stretch by actively tightening your muscles and moving your joints through their full range of motion. Dynamic stretching is most often used before exercise to improve an athlete’s safety and performance.
  • Static stretching. Passive maintenance of a muscle in a position to the end of its range of motion. The position should be maintained without pain for about 30 seconds. Static stretching is mostly used in the cool-down period after athletes are done exercising.
  • Ballistic stretching. Repeated bounces or pushes of a muscle past its natural range of motion by using force or momentum. Ballistic stretching is mostly used by high-level athletes as ballerinas, and has been challenged by modern research due to its potential to induce injuries.

As you can see, not all techniques should be incorporated into your routine, as some are more dangerous than others. In general, it’s safer to stick to a mix of dynamic and static stretching. Some stretches can be performed while sitting at your desk, while others require you to get up.

Dynamic stretching versus static stretching

Dynamic stretching includes torso twists, which can be easily performed while sitting on your chair, and will help maintain your spine flexibility; or leg swings, where you get up from your chair and alternately swing your legs in front of you and behind you in a slow and controlled manner.

Static stretching includes the quadricep stretch, where you grab hold of one ankle and bring it upward, toward your lower back; or the posterior shoulder stretch, where you can stay seated and bring one arm across your body, holding it with the other arm just above your elbow.

It can be hard to remember all these and especially to perform them correctly. A good investment is a poster which lists stretching exercises with illustrations. There are lots of options on Amazon and other websites. If you need an even more visual explanation, you can look up stretching routines on YouTube.

Whatever you do, remember: do not bounce! Movements should be controlled and deliberate, and always go up to the natural end of your muscle’s motion. Stretching should never feel painful.

How to make the most of stretching

First, make sure you can stretch at all, which may not be the case if you have an existing injury or any other physical limitation that may prevent you from stretching properly. In addition, a few key principles are good to keep in mind.

  • Build a routine. A little bit everyday is better than a big effort once in a while. As you have seen, many stretching exercises can be done while sitting at your chair. A few minutes combining a torso twist, a couple of neck rotations, a posterior shoulder stretch, some back extensions and shoulder shrugs will go a long way. If you have time in the morning, you can also incorporate a quick daily stretching session in your routine.
  • Don’t overstretch. As with many self-care routines, it’s easy to overdo it. Make sure you don’t always stretch the same parts of your body. Alternate your routines so your body has time to rest. Do not push your muscles beyond the zone of comfort: a bit of tension is fine, but feeling pain is not.
  • Keep it safe. Yes, I know, I’ve said it already, but I insist: do not bounce, you will hurt yourself and it defeats the purpose of stretching. Stick to simple, evidence-based exercises. In doubt, talk to your physical therapist. And if you feel pain, discuss it with a doctor.

A stretching routine can be great for your body when practiced safely, but it is still a form of exercise. Slow, deliberate practice taking into account any past injury and your current physical health is extremely important to get the most benefits from stretching. By committing to stretching a few minutes every day, you will be rewarded with a calmer mind, a better posture, and a more flexible body. All for free.

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