When we think of stretching, we associate it more with workouts and sports. The truth is stretching is important not just before any strenuous physical activity or playing a sport, but also in your daily routine even for people with non-athletic backgrounds. It is in fact a natural process for body. Without stretching our body parts will grow stiff and their movement will become difficult with time.
Stretching is at times also our natural instinct. While sleeping soundly we stretch our legs instinctively and while waking up in the morning, sometimes we feel like stretching our arms. But of course, for the rest of the body and particularly important muscles, we need some kind of stretching. We probably do not notice, but due to our sedentary lifestyle, our muscles over the time bear the brunt of our incorrect postures and become immobile.
For example if we are constantly sitting throughout the day, out hamstring muscles get stiff. If the hamstring muscles are stiff, we won’t be able to straighten our legs properly and even stand properly.
The adequate stretching of calf muscles is important for the movement in legs. Our joints, calves, hips, shoulders, neck all need movement and mobility. Stretching keeps the muscles strong and flexible and decreases injury risk in joints and muscles. Stretching also helps improve the posture and overall well being.
According to American College of Sports Medicine, stretching each of the major muscle groups at least two times a week for 60 seconds per exercise is important for muscle mobility
The most crucial areas that require stretching are:
- Hip flexors in the pelvis
- Quadriceps in the front of the thigh
Kinds of stretching
When you hold your stretches for 15-20 seconds without moving, they are called static stretches. They are done to loosen the muscles post exercise. A review article published in January 2020 by the Scandinavian Society of Clinical Physiology and Nuclear Medicine, said that pre-exercise static stretching reduced an individual’s overall muscular strength and maximal performance. That’s why a dynamic stretch is recommended before exercise in place of static stretching.
Dynamic stretching means when you move a joint or muscles through its full range of motion. This helps in getting your cold muscles get ready for exercise. Dynamic stretching can be done before or after exercise and is a more recommended form of stretching.
When to stretch
Before exercise/physical activity: Warm-ups are always advised before an exercise not without a reason. The cold muscles are prone to injury or underperformance if not warmed up with stretches. That’s why you will notice that football or cricket players do stretching exercises before any match or practice. To warm up muscles before any strenuous activity, it is advised to do stretching. It leads to better performance and prevents injury.
After exercise: Your muscles may become sore due to strenuous physical activity or sport. Stretching is required also to relax the muscles and release tension. The soreness or any kind of tightness can be fixed with the right kind of stretching exercises.
After sitting: Sitting for prolonged hours can make your hamstring muscles stiff. When you sit all the time without moving any muscles, they get stiff and as a result the blood flow to the muscles is restricted. In order to overcome the harmful effects of sitting, it is important to do some hamstring stretches that improves mobility around the area. Stretching improves blood flow in the muscles and helps to straighten the leg and stand properly.
Before bed: While we are working or going about a regular work day, we hardly notice how stress takes a toll on our muscles and make them extremely tight. The stress is stored in the muscles and make it difficult for us to relax and enjoy a good night sleep. This is one of the reasons why insomnia is rising among highly stressed working professionals. Stretching aids in relaxing the tired muscles and helps one to sleep better.
After getting up: Yes, certain stretches are also important when you get up early in the morning. Especially for arthritis patients who find their muscles sore and inactive in the morning, they can do ankle circles, neck circles and other such stretches recommended to them by their physiotherapist. In general also, considering your muscles remain inactive during the process of sleeping, stretching them after waking up makes them active.
Benefits of stretching
- Helps to correct body posture: The incorrect body posture leads to many kinds of chronic pains like back pain and neck pain. Over the times stress accumulates in the muscles and when we do not release it, it leads to chronic pains. Muscles get stiff if not worked upon and then a sudden physical activity can lead to soreness, pain or injury. Stretching helps to improve your body posture and makes your muscles flexible and active.
- Decreases risk of injury: It happens sometimes, that after a certain age or due to a health condition, people may lose their balance and fall. If you are doing daily stretching, the risk of injury is less. Also, when you do a physical exercise or participate in a sports without proper stretching exercises, your risk of getting an injury or sprain is more. By doing daily stretching, the risk of getting joint and muscle injury comes down as your body becomes more flexible and muscles get strengthened.
- Makes your body flexible: Your muscles will not get flexible by doing stretches for a few days or weeks. It may makes months before your body acquired this flexibility. Stretching over a period of time makes your muscles strong and flexible. It helps your joints move through full range of motion.
- Improves performance in physical activity: Your joints open up when you do dynamic stretching before any physical activity or sports. Not only it reduces the risk of injury, but your performance also improves as your muscles now have a full range of motion and can push you to literally put your best foot forward.
Don’ts to remember before you start with stretching
- While you may feel overenthusiastic while starting to stretch, it is advisable to be mindful of your boundaries and respect them. Don’t overstretch beyond your comfort point and if you experience any kind of pain, just stop.
- Do not stretch while you have cold muscles and straight from an inactive position. Take a light walk or do a little bit of jogging before you do any of the stretches. If you do stretching without a light warm-up, there are chances of getting injury.
- Do not be tempted to stretch in the area which is vulnerable or has experienced an injury in the past. It is best to take your trainer’s advice if you feel certain kind of stretches will do more harm than benefit.
- If you have any acute pain, it is best to seek advice instead of worsening your condition by stretching areas that are tricky.