When you wake up in the morning, feeling groggy with stiff muscles, what’s one of the first things you do without even thinking?
You stretch. That’s because stretching is fundamental to human movement, and when we’re doing it correctly, it feels great. So why don’t more of us make stretching part of our routines? Like any good habit, it can take a little motivation (and a little time) to adhere to a new routine. Below, we break down the benefits of stretching, how you can incorporate it into your day, and where to get started. Don’t worry—you don’t need to be a yogi or a gymnast either. We’ll start with the basics.
Benefits of Stretching
Stretching helps keep muscles flexible, which helps us maintain a range of motion in our joints. If we don’t stretch our muscles, they become tight. Not only can tightness in our muscles be painful, but it limits our motion. When we call on those muscles to perform, or to, say, reach down and pick something up, the muscles aren’t able to extend fully. This inflexibility can put us at risk for joint pain and strains, and even muscle damage.
Stretching helps us move more effectively. Whether we’re an athlete or a desk jockey, stretching increases blood flow to our muscles and helps decrease our risk of injury.
It’s also an opportunity to practice mindfulness. When we’re present with our bodies during stretching, it helps us better understand what feels good, and what might need a little work. Not to mention, stretching increases activity in the parasympathetic nervous system, i.e., it promotes relaxation.
Where to get started
Think about a runner loosening up before a race. You’ll see the best runners doing a combination of stretching and warm-ups. It’s similar to making dough. You knead the dough, then you stretch the dough, you knead, then you stretch. This is considered a dynamic warm-up. If a runner goes into their most intense stretches before warming up, it can strain the muscle. So when we think about an at-home routine, it’s important to consider also adding in a little movement—even a short walk beforehand can get the blood flowing enough to prepare the muscles for a stretch.
Here are few key things to remember when stretching:
- Pain is not the point. You should feel tension, not pain. If you feel pain, back off until the pain is gone and you only feel tension—hold the stretch there. If pain is always present, come in for a consultation.
- Be even. That is to say, strive for equal flexibility on both sides. It is better to be even than it is to have one very flexible side.
- Don’t bounce. Be smooth in your movements. Bouncing does not help extend the stretch—it only helps to increase your likelihood of injury.
- Make it a routine. Like with many things, the only way to get better at something is to do it regularly, stretching included. To see improvements in your flexibility, stretch at least two to three times per week.
How to make it a routine
It’s difficult to get a new habit to stick, but there are a couple of things you can do to help yourself.
- Set yourself up for success. This means creating the framework you need to succeed. In this case, start by delineating where in your home you will stretch, and at what time. Put a reminder in your phone, and set aside clothes you can move in in advance.
- Know your motivation. Just because something is good for us, doesn’t mean we stick with it. So what’s your motivation to maintain flexibility? Is it so you can pick up your kids or grandkids with ease? Or is it so you can still go on long, challenging hikes? Knowing how flexibility benefits us can help us center in on our motivation.
- Have a plan. For the stretches, that is. If you’re sitting on the floor thinking, “so I just… reach for my toes?” You’re not going to have a lot of success. Follow a stretching routine like the ones provided by Harvard, the Mayo Clinic, or talk to a provider at Orthology about which stretches may be right for you.
- Make it do double duty. By this we mean, do mindful stretching so you can find stress relief and flexibility at the same time. Mindful stretching incorporates many of the tenets of meditation into the act of stretching, so instead of thinking about emails while you reach for the sky, you’re improving your range of compassion.