I would assume that you probably learned about the benefits of stretching long before today. As early as elementary school, gym teachers and tee ball coaches have been teaching us routine stretches and letting us know why they’re good for us; flexibility, injury prevention blah-blah-blah. Now that I am an adult, I must confess that I had taken that information for granted as it went in one ear and out the other.
After all, how much of a difference could stretching before or after a workout really make? How much more prone to injury do you become when you jump straight into a workout without first loosening up your muscles? According to the guys in the white lab coats (not literally), the difference can be pretty significant, and the susceptibility to injury becomes much more prominent when jumping straight into the workout.
Trust me when I tell you that you do not want to take your body for granted. Even if you’re the type of person who hates the gym and all other types of strenuous activity, stretching should become a priority for you. Not only does stretching improve flexibility when done routinely on top of reducing the threat of injury, but there are a ton of additional health benefits that can be realized from stretching every day.
Did you know that stretching daily, or, at least routinely, does wonders for correcting your posture? The every day wear and tear your muscles deal with on a regular basis causes them to contract and sometimes slip out of place and away from their true position. Stretching acts as a way to combat this, as it allows the muscles to lengthen and return to their true and intended form.
Stretching also is linked increased levels of energy. It makes sense if you really think about it. As we go through the motions of our daily lives, we use our muscles for one reason or another, and they slowly contract as we activate them more and more. Without stretching or any other type of energy expenditure, our muscles continue to contract over the long term. When we stretch, we are allowing the muscle fibers to open up, which increase blood flow and allows oxygen to move more freely throughout the body. Improved blood flow and an increase in the flow of oxygen results in increased energy as our muscles are able to utilize more of the body’s resources.
You may not have heard this one before, but stretching regularly actually helps the body reduce cholesterol. Moving, stretching and any type of physical activity results in a reduction of LDL cholesterol in the body. The reduction of LDL cholesterol means blood is able to circulate more freely throughout the body without any obstructions preventing blood from moving to the heart or the muscles.
Even if you only stretch for five minutes before your workout routine begins, you are still much better off than if you hadn’t stretched at all. As I mentioned earlier, one of the most commonly known and obvious benefits of stretching is the improve flexibility throughout the body.
Stretching routinely will drastically increase your range of motion, which in turn has the added benefit of boosting your body’s physical performance. The same movements and motions that you were performing will now be done with greater ease due to this increased range of motion. This is part of the reasoning why stretching is great for injury prevention.
Think about it this way: If a basketball player that hadn’t stretched before a game goes up for a layup, they are exerting a measurable amount of energy. Now let’s assume an identical basketball player had stretched before the game, and now has a slightly higher range of motion than the first basketball player. The second basketball player, with their increased range of motion, can perform that same layup with 20% less effort, which in turn leaves them less prone to injury.
But increased range of motion isn’t the only factor behind the idea of injury prevention. Remember earlier how I mentioned that stretching is good for the flow of blood and oxygen throughout the body. Well, with that being the case, it also means that other nutrients are able to flow throughout the body more easily. These nutrients are constantly feeding your muscles and joints throughout your workout and long after, allowing for a rapid recovery from muscle and joint strain.
Just as it is important to stretch prior to jumping into your workout routine, it is just as important to stretch after your workout has concluded. The reasoning for this is similar to all the reasons mentioned above. Increased mobility and an improvement in blood flow allow for macro and micronutrients to penetrate the muscles and joints quickly and effectively. The sooner your body is able to get the necessary nutrients into the necessary places, the less likely you are to tweak something when your exercise is over.
Exercising causes what’s known as lactic acid buildup in the muscles. Lactic acid is essentially an organic compound that occurs in the muscle cells whenever oxygen supply is insufficient. Lactic acid buildup is what creates that burning sensation in your muscles after a workout. But why does stretching help in reducing lactic acid buildup?
Well, when oxygen is in short supply in the muscle cells, your body begins to produce lactate to break down the glucose that causes lactic acid buildup. Stretching actually encourages lactate production, which in turn increases how effectively your body can actually get rid of the lactic acid.
As I stated earlier, even if you absolutely despise working out, I still encourage you to stretch more routinely. You will start to notice a number of improvements in how you feel on both a physical and mental level.
Stretching Before Exercise: An Evidence Based Approach, British Journal of Sports Medicine
Stretching Before and After Exercise: Effect on Muscle Soreness and Injury Risk, Journal of Athletic Training
Current Concepts in Muscle Stretching For Exercise & Rehabilitation, International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy