• Consumer Health: Here’s what you need to know about stretching and flexibility

a smiling older woman seated on a yoga mat, doing stretches

You know exercise is important, but what about stretching? If you think it's not as important as the rest of your exercise program, think again. One of the five elements of a well-rounded fitness routine is flexibility and stretching.

Stretching can improve your flexibility and the range of motion of your joints. This can improve your athletic performance and decrease your risk of injuries. Stretching also increases blood flow to the muscles, which enables them to work effectively.

Proper technique is key to making sure you stretch safely and effectively. Stretching incorrectly can do more harm than good.

Here are some stretching technique tips:

  • Don't consider stretching a warmup. 
    You may hurt yourself if you stretch cold muscles. Before stretching, warm up with light walking, jogging or biking at low intensity for five to 10 minutes. Even better, stretch after your workout when your muscles are warm.
  • Strive for symmetry. 
    Focus on having equal flexibility side to side, especially if you have a history of a previous injury. Flexibility that is not equal on both sides can be a risk factor for injury.
  • Focus on major muscle groups. 
    Concentrate your stretches on major muscle groups, such as your calves, thighs, hips, lower back, neck and shoulders. Make sure that you stretch both sides. Also stretch muscles and joints that you routinely use. Here are some examples of basic stretches.
  • Don't bounce. 
    Stretch in a smooth movement without bouncing. Bouncing as you stretch can injure your muscle and contribute to muscle tightness.
  • Hold your stretch. 
    Breathe normally and hold each stretch for 30 seconds. In problem areas, you may need to hold for 60 seconds.
  • Don't aim for pain. 
    Expect to feel tension while you're stretching, not pain. If it hurts, you've pushed too far. Back off to the point where you don't feel any pain, and then hold the stretch.
  • Make stretches sport specific. 
    Some evidence suggests that it's helpful to stretch the muscles used most in your sport or activity. For example, if you play soccer, stretch your hamstrings, as you're more vulnerable to hamstring strains.
  • Keep up with your stretching. 
    Stretching can be time-consuming. But you can achieve the most benefit by stretching regularly, at least two to three times a week. Skipping regular stretching means you risk losing the potential benefits.
  • Bring movement into your stretching. 
    Gentle movements, such as those in tai chi or yoga, can help you be more flexible in specific movements. These types of exercises also can reduce the risk of falls in older adults.

And, remember, stretching isn't only for workouts. Sedentary behavior, including sitting for long periods of time, can contribute to adverse health effects, including something referred to as "sitting disease." If your job has you sitting for hours at a time, don't forget the importance of stretching throughout your workday.

Connecting with others can help keep you motivated. Share your progress and get encouragement from others in the Healthy Living group on Mayo Clinic Connect, an online patient community moderated by Mayo Clinic.

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