When was the last time you really spent quality time stretching out your body? Are you someone who stretches regularly, perhaps by participating in something like yoga? Or do you tend to do the bare minimum when it comes to stretching? Today is Week 46 in our Full Year of Resolutions, and our More Than Healthy Tip is all about the health benefits of stretching.
Flexibility is more important than you might think. If you want to be active well into your later years; if you want to be able to play with your grandkids without pain, then taking the time to stretch and paying attention to flexibility is a must.
What is flexibility?
Flexibility refers to how much a joint can comfortably move through normal range of motion without any pain. Most body movements involve multiple joints. It’s important to maintain flexibility in our joints if we want to be able to move and function normally as we age. However, this is often a neglected or under-trained aspect of health. Many medical professionals are starting to think that flexibility should be used as a marker of aging. In fact, some studies link loss of flexibility and aging to cognitive decline.
We lose flexibility fast
As we age, we gradually begin to lose the ability to move our joints through full range of motion. On average, by the time we reach age 70, 25-30% of overall flexibility is usually lost. I actually think this number sounds a little conservative, as I see many people who lose flexibility so quickly as they age.
There are many reasons we lose flexibility as we get older. We typically see more rigidity of tendons and ligaments around the joints, because the connective tissue collagen fibers tend to stiffen up. There is a reduction in elastin content (which helps these body parts be pliable) as we age, as well as a general deterioration in cartilage, ligaments, tendons, and fluid within the joint.
There’s some good news, however. These changes can be slowed down dramatically. Staying physically active in general will slow down some of the deterioration. Individuals who are physically active achieve much greater range of motion than sedentary individuals. And this matters, because studies say that one-third of the global population over the age of 15 gets insufficient physical activity. However, the rate of this decline can be significantly decreased with the right stretching exercises.
The health benefits of stretching include better overall health
An improvement in flexibility is linked to better overall health. I know this, and yet I still sometimes struggle to give it the attention it deserves. David is much better at this health tip than I am. I go in spurts – for a while I’ll be good at doing daily yoga and stretching, but then I fall back into old habits and only stretch before an intense pickleball game.
David learned about the importance of stretching years ago when he started having back issues. His physical therapist drilled him on the importance of daily stretching, and he realized early on that if he did his morning stretching, his day would go much better. Stretching is a way to prevent pain. He is still diligent about this routine and usually does his stretching during his morning shower, where the heat and steam help his muscles bend and move even more.
Let’s talk about four of our favorite health benefits of stretching.
Benefit #1: Stretching decreases your risk of injuries and pain
This is a really important benefit. Stretching helps to keep us safe from injury. This is always important, but it’s especially vital as we get older. Studies show that as we age, we are more prone to sports injuries. There are four physical changes in our bodies that cause that to happen:
- Maximum heart rate decreases and there is an overall decline in the amount of blood the heart can pump. (This affects both athletic performance and the body’s ability to heal itself.)
- Overall lung capacity decreases, and we aren’t able to move oxygen from the air into our bloodstream as efficiently as we used to. (This limits strength and endurance.)
- Blood flow to the brain decreases, affecting the rate at which our nervous system is able to react. (This affects our ability to make tiny but vital adjustments when we run, jump, etc. that prevent injury.)
- We slowly lose muscle and bone mass. (This equals decreased coordination, flexibility, and overall physical capability.)
I don’t share this to depress you; I share it to motivate you! There are SO many things we can do to prevent and slow the aging process (check out our previous 45 tips this year, a wealth of anti-aging information). But because so many people experience injury as they age, we want to help prevent that. A sports injury can sideline you for weeks or months, and it can have other really difficult side effects in your life. Daily stretching, as well as pre- and post-workout stretching, can make all the difference.
Stretching is critical
Now that I’m in my 60s, this type of stretching is critical. Even though it was definitely less than ideal, I used to be able to show up to play a sport without any warm up or stretching. Not anymore. Stretching is so important. Studies show that stretching can help improve flexibility and range of motion on your joints. That alone will decrease your risk of injuries during a physical activity.
A consistent stretching regimen significantly influences tendon flexibility and compliance. This makes our bodies much more pliable, which is so important for injury prevention – more important than you might think. For example, sitting in a chair at work all day results in tight hamstrings. At the end of the day, it’s harder to extend your leg all the way, which inhibits walking. When tight muscles are suddenly called on for a strenuous activity that stretches them, they can become damaged. Injured muscles may not be strong enough to support the joints, which can lead to joint injury.
They say that flexibility is one of the first things to go. Yet it’s so important when it comes to injury prevention, particularly as we get older. Stretching enables us to maintain that range of motion that helps to protect the body.
Benefit #2: Stretching improves blood circulation
Another excellent benefit of stretching is increased blood circulation. A good stretch increases blood flow to your muscles. Blood delivers nourishing nutrients which promote long-term growth while removing waste byproducts from inside the muscle tissue. This improved circulation increases blood flow to your muscles, which shortens recovery time and reduces muscle soreness.
Stretching even helps to prevent stroke
Not only can the increased blood flow that results from regular stretching prevent muscle pain, it may actually be a way to protect yourself from heart disease and stroke.
One study in particular really caught my attention. Researchers split 39 healthy people into two groups. One group didn’t do any stretching. The other group performed four types of leg stretches five times a week for 12 weeks. Researchers found that the arteries in the lower legs of the stretching group had better blood flow and less stiffness. The stretching group also had lower blood pressure at the end of the study compared with their initial readings.
The researchers noted that leg stretching could add extra protection against heart disease, stroke, and even diabetes, all of which are associated with reduced blood flow.
Benefit #3: Stretching improves muscle performance
This benefit is closely associated with Benefit #2, because those well-oxygenated muscles will perform better. By stretching, you can directly improve your performance, whether you’re playing a game of pickleball, going for a run, or lifting weights. That’s because lifting, bending, and running get a little easier when you’ve prioritized your range of motion.
Flexibility exercises loosen up your active muscles, freeing your body to achieve more positions. The more range of motion we have, the more muscle we can activate. For example, if you have limited range of motion in your hamstrings, you might only be able to activate 40% of the muscle. But if you increase that hamstring flexibility, you can activate more of the muscle. That means you’ll gain strength and perform better in whatever activity you’re doing.
Without stretching, our muscles shorten and become tight. Then, when you call on the muscles for activity, they are weak and unable to extend all the way. That puts you at risk for joint pain, strains, and muscle damage.
It definitely makes a difference for me when I stretch well before a pickleball match! It’s an integral part of my warmup.
Benefit #4: Stretching is good stress relief
When you’re feeling stressed, there’s a good chance your muscles are tense. That’s because your muscles tend to tighten up in response to physical and emotional stress. Focus on the areas where your body tends to hold tension (like your neck, shoulders, and upper back), and take the time to stretch.
Participating in regular stretching helps relieve stress in your body as well as calm your mind. This is a great way to practice some self-care. It’s also a good time to employ some healthy deep breathing techniques or even some mindful meditation, previous tips that you can check out on our website.
Taking the time to do some stretching to release stress is good for your body, gives your mind a mental break, and can even help you sleep better. Yep, you know we have to talk about the link between stretching and healthy sleep! If you struggle to fall asleep, stretching may help you to do so more quickly. That improved blood flow and relieved muscle tension both aid in muscle recovery and sleep quality. The more you can get your body to relax before sleep, the more effective your sleep will be. We recommend incorporating 10 minutes of gentle stretching into your wind-down routine each night.
The dos and don’ts of stretching
If you’d like to see a demonstration of some of our favorite stretches, please be sure to watch this week’s video. Both David and I show you some of the stretches that will help you access all the benefits mentioned above.
Here are some basic “rules” for proper stretching:
- Hold a stretch for 30 seconds.
- Don’t bounce, which can cause injury.
- You’ll feel tension during a stretch, but you should not feel pain. If you do, there may be an injury or damage in the tissue. Stop stretching that muscle and talk to your doctor.
- Don’t forget to breathe! Easy and relaxed breathing will reduce all-around muscular tension, allowing you to stretch further. Holding your breath tenses your entire body, making the stretching far less effective.
- Be sure to include stretching at the end of your workout as well. Stretching when your body is thoroughly warmed-up and there is good blood flow to all your muscles is ideal.
Whether you’re new to exercise or a seasoned athlete, you’ll benefit from a regular stretching routine. By incorporating even 5 to 10 minutes of stretches into your daily workout, you can increase your range of motion, improve your performance, and ease your mind.
10 minutes a day keeps the doctor away
Okay, so I can’t guarantee that stretching will prevent all health problems in your life. But I do know (and science backs it up) that the health benefits of stretching are real, and they’re accessible in just a few minutes a day!
How do you feel about stretching? Do you do it faithfully, like David? Or are you more sporadic, like me? I’m committing to do some form of stretching every day. I know it’s so worth it!
We always love hearing from you. Please let us know if you have any questions about the health benefits of stretching. And don’t forget, for those of you interested in our free More Than Healthy coaching calls, we do them once a month on a Tuesday night at 6 PM MST. Anyone can join us. Text COACHING to 1-647-558-9895 to join our email list or watch our social media pages and we will have the link there.
Thanks for being here! We’ll see you next week.