You know you feel looser and more relaxed after stretching, but is it really doing your body good? Science tells us the answer is a resounding “yes.” Research shows that static stretching, which involves holding a muscle in a stretched position for a short amount of time, increases range of motion. While optimal range of motion in your joints will allow you to do most of the things you want to do in life — whether it’s taking a yoga class or playing with your kids — poor range of motion can be a major limitation to everyday activities.
As you probably guessed, studies have found that stretching also improves flexibility. While range of motion is all about the way your body moves at the joints, flexibility deals with how far your muscles stretch. We all know what it’s like to bend over or walk up or down a flight of stairs when muscles are stiff, so there’s no doubt that enhanced flexibility can make your body feel better able to complete a wide range of activities. Research has even demonstrated that good flexibility plays a role in preventing falls in older adults, so it’s something worth working on throughout your life.
The question remains: How do you get the most out of your stretching routine? Here are five tips to help you get the most bang for your buck:
1. Get in the habit.
Consistency in a stretching routine is key if you hope to see any progress when it comes to increased range of motion and flexibility. Studies suggest that you’ll need to stick to a regular stretching regimen, usually at least 2–3 times per week for a number of weeks to see results. For areas like the hamstrings, as little as 6 weeks of stretching has been shown to be effective, while improved spinal mobility may require more like 10 weeks of regular stretching.
To ensure you’re committed and consistent, pencil stretching into your daily calendar the same way you’d schedule a meeting. Have a designated room or place to do your stretching where you’re relaxed. An exercise mat laid out and ready will not only serve as a reminder, but it’ll also enhance comfort while performing those stretches.
2. Warm up.
If you’re planning on starting a stretching routine, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends first doing an active warmup. This could include 10–20 minutes of walking or jogging, riding an exercise bike, jumping rope or a wide range of other activities that will warm up your muscles prior to stretching.
3. Get the right stretching dosage.
Research suggests that both range of motion and flexibility are improved by holding stretches between 15–30 seconds. For older adults, 30–60 seconds may be required. Other research shows that it probably isn’t beneficial to do more than 2–4 repetitions of each stretch, so there’s no need to spend a considerable amount of time stretching any one area. Altogether, you should be able to get all your stretches completed in 10–15 minutes.
4. Time it right.
Dubbed “stretch-induced strength loss,” static stretching prior to certain workouts, like running, has been shown to have a detrimental effect on strength. This means that while stretching may be a healthy thing to do after a run, walk, bike ride or strength session, it can hurt performance when you do it beforehand. Save that stretching routine for a post-workout cooldown ritual. The better option prior to workouts is usually dynamic stretching, which involves movement-based active stretches to ready your muscles for the work ahead.
5. Individualize your stretching program.
Everyone is stiff and inflexible in different places. This is why it’s important to tailor your stretching routine to your specific needs. If you have a certain muscle that is inflexible or a joint that is stiff, focus there first. ACSM identifies the hamstrings, hip flexors, calves and chest muscles as some of the areas of the body that tend to be tight. Include those potential trouble spots in your routine, along with considering your individual concerns, and you’ll have a great all-around stretching regimen that will leave you feeling like you are moving better than ever before.
—By Mackenzie Lobby Havey