Make time to s-t-r-e-t-c-h after your workout

October 25, 2010

Exercising is great for flexibility and overall health

You've just finished a healthy workout. Good for you! But before you move on, don't forget to take that key last step in your fitness program: stretching!

When to stretch

Most of us grew up believing that you should stretch before you work out. But stretching cold muscles can do more harm than good. The best time to stretch is when your muscles are warmed up, so after you exercise is the ideal time. If you want to stretch before you work out, too, warm up with about 10 minutes of light exercise first.

What stretching can do for you

As the staff of the Mayo Clinic explains it, most exercise and strength training cause your muscles to contract, or get shorter and tenser. That's why stretching is such an important step. It brings you:

  • Better flexibility - Flexible muscles can make everyday activities like lifting packages, playing with your children, or getting in and out of a car easier. Stretching can help you reach, bend, and twist without stiffness.
  • Better range of motion in your joint - When muscles are stiff and tight, they can keep a joint such as your shoulder, hip, or knee from having the full range of motion that it should. Stretching can help your muscles stay loose and flexible so you can move the way you want. And that can give you better balance and help prevent falls.
  • Better blood flow - Stretching helps bring more blood to your muscles. That can help them recover faster after a workout.
  • Stress relief - Stretching relaxes the tense muscles that often go along with stress.

Some studies say stretching also helps prevent sports injuries, but others don't support it. And recent information from researchers at the University of Sydney suggests that stretching won't spare you from feeling sore a day or two after heavy exercise.

How to get the most from stretching

To do the most good, stretching needs to be done the right way. Here are some tips from eXtension (a partnership of 74 universities in the United States), The Nemours Foundation, and the Mayo Clinic:

  • Don't bounce or force a stretch. Hold a comfortable position until you feel a gentle pull on your muscle.
  • Hold your stretches for 15 to 30 seconds each.
  • Do each stretch at least twice.
  • Relax and breathe. Don't hold your breath while you're stretching.
  • Stretch both sides of your body evenly.
  • Pace yourself. It takes time to lengthen tissues safely.
  • Stretch major muscle groups such as your calves, thighs, hips, lower back, neck, and shoulders. Also stretch muscles and joints that you use often in work or play.
  • If you have an injury, talk with your doctor or physical therapist about the best way to stretch that part of your body.
  • Stretching should never cause pain. You should feel tension while you stretch, but if it hurts, you've gone too far. Back off to the point where you don't feel any pain, and then hold the stretch.

If you're ever tempted to skip the stretching step after you exercise, just remember that stretching after your workout does even more than bring you better health. It feels good!

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