If you’re trying to improve your overall fitness, you might be tempted to spend most of your exercise time doing some type of cardio, such as walking or swimming. Aerobic exercise is an important part of staying healthy, but you might want to take a more balanced approach to fitness, one that includes strength-training exercises and stretching. Stretching doesn’t count toward meeting the aerobic or muscle-strengthening guidelines, but it’s relaxing, doesn’t require any fancy equipment and can be done anywhere—even waiting in line at the grocery store.
Plus, done right, stretching may provide real benefits. So don’t throw in the towel at the gym before reaching for your toes—the benefits of just 5 to 10 minutes of stretching before and after your workout are too good to be ignored.
Why It’s Important to Stretch
Stretching can help increase your overall flexibility, but it may also help improve your posture, manage pain caused by tight muscles and help you stay balanced. Since muscles come in pairs that ideally counterbalance each other, stretching and strengthening the muscles opposite the ones that always seem tight might help. If you have a sore back, for example, overdeveloped chest muscles or underused back muscles may be to blame. Try stretching the muscles in your chest with arm rolls, or clasp your arms behind your back and gently pull your shoulders down and back.
Stretching tight muscles can also help counteract the negative effects of sitting for long periods of time. Hunching over a desk can create muscle tightness that can lead to poor posture and pain, notes Joshua Duvauchelle, an ACE-certified personal trainer in Vancouver, Canada. "Stretching helps correct habitual posture problems, which can translate to reduced lower back pain."
One of the best reasons to stretch is to help prevent injuries. "Stretching increases a joint’s range of motion," says Diana Doven, an AFAA-certified personal trainer in New York City. "Without sufficient range of motion, the body is vulnerable to injury: the likelihood of pulling a muscle due to overexertion increases, as does the potential to lose balance and/or take a fall."