Many experts believe that stretching may also reduce your risk of injury in sports. "The more prepared your muscles and joints are for an activity, and more protected you are against injury," says Edward Laskowski, M.D., a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist and co-director of the Sports Medicine Center at May Clinic, Rochester, Minn. Dr. Laskowski explains, "If your joints are not able to go through their full range of motion because of muscle tightness, sports and exercise activities may put an excessive load on the tissue and contribute to injury."
The many benefits of stretching include:
- Increased flexibility and better range of motion of your joints - Flexible muscles can improve your daily performance. Tasks such as lifting packages, bending to tie your shoes or hurrying to catch a bus become easier and less tiring. Flexibility tends to diminish as you get older, but you can regain and maintain it.
- Improved circulation - Stretching increases blood flow to your muscles. Blood flowing to your muscles brings nourishment and gets rid of waste byproducts in the muscle tissue. Improved circulation can help shorten your recovery time if you've had any muscle injuries.
- Better posture - Frequent stretching can help keep your muscles from getting tight, allowing you to maintain proper posture. Good posture can minimize discomfort and keep aches and pains at a minimum.
- Stress relief - Stretching relaxes tight, tense muscles that often accompany stress.
- Better Balance - Maintaining the full range of motion through your joints keeps you in better balance. Coordination and balance will help keep you mobile and less prone to injury from falls, especially as you get older.
- Basic stretches to improve your flexibility by major muscle groups - calf, thigh, hip, lower back, neck and shoulder.
- Warm up first. Stretching muscles when they're cold increases your risk of pulled muscles. Warm up by walking while gently pumping your arms, or do a favorite exercise at low intensity for five minutes. 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. That can seem like a long time, so wear a watch or keep an eye on the clock to make sure you're holding your stretches long enough. For most of your muscle groups, if you hold the stretches for at least 30 seconds, you'll need to do each stretch only once.
- Don't bounce. Bouncing as you stretch can cause small tears in the muscle, which leave scar tissue as the muscle heals. The tissue tightens the muscle even further, making you even less flexible - and more prone to pain.
- Focus on a pain-free stretch. If you feel pain as you stretch, you've gone too far. Back off to the point that you don't feel any pain, then hold the stretch.
- Relax and breathe freely. Don't hold your breath while you're stretching. Stretch both sides. Make sure your joint range of motion is as equal as possible on each side of the body.
- Stretch before and after walking or sports activities. Light stretching after your warm-up followed by a more thorough stretching regimen after your workout is best bet.
- In addition to stretching major muscle groups, stretch muscles and joints that you routinely use at work or play.
- Sport-specific stretching prepares you muscles for a particular sport or activity. For example, if you frequently play tennis or golf, working in a few extra shoulder stretches loosens the muscles around your shoulder joint, making it feel less tight and more ready for action.
- Stretch when you exercise or three times a week to maintain flexibility.