Do you stretch regularly? Or is this practice limited to the gym… on a good day… and only after a weights sesh?
Have you ever wondered what benefits stretching might really offer? Or if it’s simply a nice practice that, in reality, trails well behind cardio, strength and power training?
Whether you’re looking to crush your workouts, improve your function, reduce your pain, perfect your posture, or simply establish a routine that benefits your wellbeing, regular stretching is well worth considering.
The practice offers a number of great advantages. Here are 7 of our favs…
1. Calms stress
Life is busy. Its incessant nature often leaves us frazzled. Between work, relationships, responsibilities, and other worries, stress is ever-present. This non-stop tension places us in survival, or “sympathetic”, mode.
While fight or flight serves a purpose in the short-term, in the longer term its consequences are dire. As we share in our article, Benefits Of Ashwagandha: The Ancient Herb Known To Calm Stress And Boost Sleep…
In the long term, though, the health impacts are profound. Aches and pains, headaches, irritability, loss of libido, overwhelm, poor energy, stomach and digestive problems, trouble focusing, forgetfulness and anxiousness can stem from chronic psychological strain.
Yet, the simple act of stretching may offer respite.
We see evidence in our daily practice and as an extension of Yoga research..
As the authors of an article published in the International Journal of Yoga noted, “Regular practice of yoga promotes… flexibility and facilitates characteristics of friendliness, compassion, and greater self-control, while cultivating a sense of calmness and well-being.”
Muscle stretching has also been specifically investigated. Yes, it has been shown to be effective as a form of relaxation training!
2. Boosts digestive function
There are many reasons why digestive issues manifest: stress, food intolerances or allergies, dehydration, microbial dysbiosis, illness. But stretching may help to calm the storm.
As we mentioned above, regular stretching may calm stress. Relaxation improves gut function.
Secondly, this practice may quell gut spasm and pain. For example, experiencers of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are known to suffer from colon spasm; a painful contraction of the bowel. Yet, for people who participated in yoga sessions three times per week, the symptoms of IBS and their quality of life improved. Stretching soothed a troublesome tummy.
3. Delivers pain relief
While it may seem rather odd, stretching produces hypoalgesia: an increase in the pain sensitivity threshold. In short, after stretching, the application of extra pressure was required to trigger the sensation of pain in a muscle.
What about stretching for delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS?
There is conflicting evidence about whether DOMS can be effectively treated by stretching. Most studies suggest it is unhelpful, but not all do. The best way is to be your own guinea pig; conduct your personal research. Then run with what works for you.
4. Straightens your posture
Do you work at a desk? Spend hours each day watching a screen? Or find that you hunch forward toiling away on your favorite hobby?
Modern lifestyles often lead to what’s called upper cross syndrome. It’s common! Ask a friend to take photos of you from the side, in both a standing and sitting position. If you observe a forward head posture (if your ear hole sits forward of your shoulder), rounded mid-back, and protracted shoulders, you have work to do. This muscular imbalance is likely present.
By being aware, you can become mindful of your posture and take steps to remedy this problem. Part of the answer is stretching. By relaxing tight muscles in your chest and shoulders, you’ll help to straighten your posture and return your head to its neutral point. As a result, your body will function better.
To stretch your pecs: Stand facing the corner of a room. Raise your arms out to your sides so they’re abducted to 90 degrees. (Like standing on a cross) Then, maintaining this position, bend your elbows to 90 degrees. Step in so each forearm and palm rests against its nearby wall. This should be comfortable. Now, keeping your feet and arms in position, bend towards the wall. You should feel a stretch through your chest muscles. Hold this position for 30 seconds. Rest for 10 seconds. Repeat three times.
Tip: Gently brace your core so you don’t arch your back.
To stretch your upper traps: Sit with an upright posture. Tuck your hands under your thighs. While continuing to look forward, tilt your head to your right. When you feel a stretch through your left shoulder and neck area, hold for 30 seconds. Return to the middle. Repeat on the other side. Hold for 30 seconds. Return to the middle. Repeat three times, or as needed throughout the day.
5. Reduces the risk of injury
Supple, stable joints and smooth muscle motion are important for reducing the risk of injury and the development of pain. That’s one of the reasons why stretching has been recommended for decades.
A study published in The International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy investigated different types of stretching to discover which option — static, dynamic, or pre-contraction — delivered the best benefits.
Static stretching: as its name suggests, is when a stretch is applied and held.
Dynamic stretching: involves controlled movements that move the muscles and joints. Have you watched athletes limber up with arm circles or leg swings? Then you’ve seen dynamic stretching in action.
Pre-contraction stretching: You’ve probably heard of “PNF stretching”. Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation is a popular form of pre-contraction stretching. An example involves stretching a muscle first, then contracting it against a force — say an assistant or a resistance band — for around 10 seconds. The muscle is then stretched once more, followed by another contraction. This process is commonly repeated three times.
The study’s authors found that when it came to increasing range of motion, all types of stretching work. However, PNF-stretching gave more immediate gains.
To avoid a drop in strength and performance, they advised athletes to warm-up with dynamic rather than static stretching.
For people recovering from musculoskeletal injuries, both static and PNF-stretching help.
6. Provides a supple, flexible body
If your hamstrings are too tight for you to tickle your tiptoes, if you can’t reach to scratch an itchy shoulder blade, or if you feel like your body is crafted from concrete, it’s time to stretch regularly.
Your muscles are made from sarcomeres; fundamental contractile units of muscle fiber. Its parts — actin and myosin — slide over one another. As they come together (superimpose), the muscle shortens. As they extend (separate), the muscle lengthens. When shortened for long periods of time the number of sarcomeres in a muscle may be culled, leading to a shortening muscle.
But, as the article, The effects of active and passive stretching on muscle length, said,
“Active stretch is necessary for regulating muscle fiber length (ie, the number of series sarcomeres).”
Stretching can lead to longer, more flexible muscles and a more supple, freer body.
7. Enhances blood flow to your muscles
It makes sense that as you stretch the blood that courses through your muscles might find an easier path, right?
Considering the nutrients, including oxygen, that blood brings to the tissues and the waste it removes, this is an important factor in living well.
An article published in The Journal of Physiology indicated that daily muscle stretching enhances vasodilatation — it opens up your blood vessels — and triggers angiogenesis — the growth of new blood vessels. These changes may increase blood flow in the muscles that have been stretched, including during exercise.
The key stretching takeaway
Stretching is a simple practice that has many benefits. From calming stress to improving digestion, pain relief to straighter posture, reduced risk of injury to better flexibility, and enhanced blood flow to your muscles, a regular stretching routine appears well worth the time and effort. Your body will thank you!