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The Role of Stretching and Flexibility Exercises

April 8, 2024

When it comes to physical fitness and athletic performance, flexibility can be just as important as strength and endurance. In addition to lifting weights and keeping up on cardiovascular fitness, incorporating stretching and flexibility exercises into your routine will benefit your overall performance, as well as helping with injury prevention. 

The benefits of maintaining flexibility are not limited to only athletes. Every person’s well-being is enhanced by taking a few minutes in our days to focus on moving our bodies and stretching our muscles. 

Benefits of Stretching 

Stretching keeps your muscles flexible, strong, and healthy. These deliberate movements work to elongate muscles, tendons, and ligaments which increases their elasticity and range of motion. 

A lack of flexibility results in shortened, tight muscles. When your muscles are tight they become weak and unable to extend as they are supposed to when used for physical activity. This puts you at risk for joint pain, strains, muscle injury, and damage. 

In general, flexibility: 

- Improves performance in physical activities
- Decreases risk of injury
- Helps joints move through their full range of motion
- Increases muscle blood flow
- Enables muscles to work most effectively
- Improves the ability to do daily activities

Regular stretching and flexibility maintenance are important for those who are active daily playing sports as well as those who sit for most of the day. For one example, sitting in a chair while working all day causes the muscle located at the back of your thighs, the hamstrings, to become tight. Then, when you attempt to use these muscles they are weak and unable to extend all the way, leading to a higher risk of pain and issues. 

How to Stretch

There are about 600 muscles in the human body, so the thought of stretching them all can seem daunting. Luckily, you don't have to stretch EVERY muscle you have. We recommend focusing on the lower extremities: your quadriceps, pelvis, hip flexors, hamstrings, and calves are critical in your daily mobility. Your neck, shoulders, and lower neck should also be kept in mind for healthy movement. 

There are two main types of stretching that can be incorporated into your routine. 

Dynamic Stretching: controlled movements that mimic activities of daily living or sports motions, used mainly to prepare muscles and joints for subsequent activity.

Static Stretching: holding a position to elongate a muscle without movement. The pose is held where you feel tension but not pain for 15 - 30 seconds.

Muscle flexibility doesn’t happen after just one stretching session, it takes weeks to months to achieve and then maintenance to keep. It is important to include it with your daily movements and workouts, so that when it comes time to take on physical exertion there won't be too much force placed on the muscle being used. 

Flexibility and Stretching During Sports

Ideas on the importance of stretching before participating in sports have gone back and forth. Currently, it is not advised to consider stretching your warm-up. Stretching cold muscles can cause harm to them. Instead, warm up with a ten minute light walk or jog to get blood flowing to the muscles, then stretch them before doing higher-intensity activities like soccer or football. These sports require muscles and tendons that are compliant to high amounts of energy absorption. 

However, some sports may require less flexibility from their athletes. Runners, for example, can become too flexible before they compete and over accentuate their muscles and their movements, ruining form. Work with your coach, physical therapist, or trainer on a custom stretching and flexibility plan for your activity level.

Flexibility is one piece of the puzzle to keeping our bodies working correctly and moving for us - whatever our age, physical activity level, or body composition. We encourage you to find breaks in your day for routine stretching and to find movements that feel good for your lifestyle. A few minutes in your daily schedule or alongside your workout goes a long way in helping you continue to live in motion.