Your muscles and joints feel stiff and achy every morning. Isn't it time to change that? The best way to reach that goal is to start a stretching routine several days a week. Stretching keeps your muscles strong and flexible.
But that's not the only benefit. According to the American Council on Exercise, stretching decreases stress, reduces your injury risk, improves your circulation, protects your joints and increases your overall quality of life. That's a lot of benefits from a few easy movements.
Are you new to stretching? Here's how to improve flexibility and stay healthy.
There are three main pillars of overall wellness, according to many conventional fitness experts: muscular strength and endurance, cardiovascular endurance and flexibility.
For many U.S. adults who manage to make time for exercise, two out of three ain't bad, as the saying goes. After a long day of work, perhaps it's a trip to the gym for a run on the treadmill and some weights.
Most people, however, neglect stretching. Sure, yoga and Pilates have become popular, but many people remain sedentary all day at work and at home.
As for trying yoga for the first time, the thought of contorting an inflexible body into a pretzel-like figure in front of others intimidates some enough to prevent them from ever entering a yoga studio.
Just like dieting advice, stretching theory varies greatly
Isn't it frustrating to hear all the conflicting advice about what to eat and what not to eat? Eggs are healthy one decade; the next they're vilified for their cholesterol. The same is true with stretching. We're told to stretch but then we're told not to stretch before certain activities.
One study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research by exercise physiologists at Florida State University suggests that if you're going for a run or performing some other endurance exercise, static stretching can lower your cardiovascular endurance. Static stretching is when you hold a certain stretch for a prolonged period of time.
There are several other types of stretching techniques, including:
- Active isolated stretching
- Dynamic flexibility
- PNF stretching
- Ballistic stretching
- Isometric stretching
Some of the negative impacts of stretching often occur when you use stretching as a way to warm up before exercise, rather than as the exercise itself. We used to think that stretching was necessary to warm up muscles before exercise. But more research has found that stretching muscles before they're warmed up can actually cause damage.
"When everything is cold, the fibers aren't prepared and may be damaged. If you exercise first, you'll get blood flow to the area, and that makes the tissue more pliable and amenable to change," physical therapist David Nolan of Massachusetts General Hospital tells Harvard Health. Instead, experts now suggest a few minutes of light activity, such as a brisk walk, to warm up muscles before exercise.
How long should I stretch?
As if there aren't enough different types of stretching to confuse you, different styles of stretching suggest holding a stretch, or pose, for different periods of time. For example, there's one style of yoga — Yin Yoga — that holds each asana, or pose, for five full minutes. The theory goes that it takes that long to fully relax a muscle into a greater state of flexibility.
Aaron Mattes, a rehabilitation specialist and developer of an athletic stretching technique called active isolated stretching suggests holding stretches for no longer than two seconds.
Conventional flexibility fitness for decades has advocated holding a stretch for 20-30 seconds. The Mayo Clinic suggests holding each stretch for at least 30 seconds because that's the time it takes to lengthen muscle tissue safely. For a really tight muscle, hold for 60 seconds. Repeat the stretch on the other side of your body. For most muscles, a single stretch is enough.
Don't bounce, because that can cause injury. You should feel slight tension when you stretch, but you shouldn't feel any pain.
Now I'm totally confused. So what type of stretching should I do?
As the aforementioned study suggests, don't do static stretching first thing in the morning, especially if you're going to go for a run.
Consider performing a dynamic flexibility routine (as seen in the video above) before any athletic activity. Although dynamic flexibility hasn't been shown to remarkably improve flexibility, it does prepare the body quite well for activity and may feel like your joints have greater range of motion.
Examples of dynamic flexibility include controlled leg swings, arm circles and torso/hip rotations.
If you want to improve your flexibility and are recovering from an injury or surgery but want professional guidance, consider hiring a personal trainer or therapist who is schooled in active isolated stretching or Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation techniques, the latter of which can dramatically improve range of motion.
If you enjoy the meditative nature of static stretching, it's best to think of static stretching as a cool-down. Consider doing static stretching (gentle yoga classes incorporate static stretching) in the evening, especially after going for a long walk.
Isometric stretching is recommended for people who don't do enough strength training. Nearly everyone is familiar with pushing against a wall with one leg forward to stretch the calves. This is an example of an isometric stretch.
What can I do to improve flexibility if I'm already pretty flexible?
If you've been stretching for several years and want to break through a flexibility plateau, consider using deep-breathing techniques. Trying to do a full split but can't quite get all the way? Deep exhales as you're going further into the stretch should help. Also, stretching at the beach, on sand, will help get you into a deeper split.
Can't get to the beach? If you have access to smooth surfaces like wood, wear two pairs of socks and grab onto a chair as you deep breathe your way into a full split.
Judd Handler is a health writer in Encinitas, California.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was published in December 2011.