Stretching is one of the most important habits you can implement for healthy living

Why Is Stretching so Important?

By: Liz Lotts, RDN; NASM-CPT

Scientifically Reviewed By: Michael A. Smith, MD

You can do it in the gym. You can do it at home. You can do it with a friend, or you can do it all alone. Stretching can be done anytime, anywhere. However, that's not its only benefit.

Stretching can help loosen tight muscles and improve flexibility, yet so many people skip this crucial step during their regular exercise routine. It makes sense—when you're crunched for time, you would rather prioritize reps over recovery. But let's talk about why that's a mistake and why stretching is more important than you may realize.

Stretching is one of the many ways to support muscle health, but the effects go beyond the muscle. And a few minutes a day goes a long way! Stretching is a natural instinct. In fact, it's probably the first thing you do when you get out of bed each morning, which indicates your body needs to stretch. If that's not a clear enough sign to release the tension, then keep reading—we have six ways stretching on a regular basis can benefit the mind, body and soul.

6 benefits of stretching

1. Eases muscle tightness

When you exercise frequently, your body is bound to feel occasional muscle soreness and stiffness. The good news is you can counteract that with a dynamic warm-up, which is a combination of light activity (such as jogging or cycling) and dynamic stretching.

2. Increases range of motion

Whether you're an athlete or not, you want to be able to extend your muscles to their full potential in order to maintain good posture and perform everyday activities. This is where stretching can help. In a study of university-level athletes with an internal rotation deficit, participants were able to significantly increase their range of motion after completing posterior shoulder stretches for eight weeks.

3. Supports muscle activation

A tight muscle with no flexibility is more likely to experience occasional stiffness—but stretching can help counteract that. In one randomized controlled trial, participants experienced less muscle stiffness when they performed dynamic stretches and vibration foam rolling before their workouts. Researchers suggest this type of pre-workout stretching can help activate your muscles, making it easier to maintain proper form and posture during your workout and support a more effective workout.

4. Enhances athletic performance

The researchers who assessed the benefits of pre-workout dynamic stretches also proved this type of stretching increases range of motion, power output and agility in athletes—and who doesn't want to improve their overall workout performance?

5. Improves blood flow

A research paper published in The Journal of Physiology examined 39 participants randomly assigned to bilateral passive stretching, mono-lateral passive stretching or no stretching at all. After 12 weeks, both passive stretching groups supported their healthy vascular and arterial function. These changes are a surefire way to ensure optimal cardiovascular health and increase blood flow throughout the body.

Pro tip: Consistency is everything! Six weeks after stopping the stretching program, participants' biomarkers returned to baseline—demonstrating that a stretching routine is most beneficial when you consistently stick to it.

6. Provides stress relief and relaxation

Stretching, especially when performed with proper breathing exercises, is even good for your mental health! It helps muscles relax from constant contraction, slows your heart rate and gradually decreases your respiratory rate. All these factors help calm the central nervous system and signal the body to unwind after a workout.

Can Stretching Improve Flexibility?

Flexibility is defined as "the ability of a joint or series of joints to move through an unrestricted, comfortable range of motion."

With that in mind, range of motion can be influenced by all kinds of soft tissues, including muscles, ligaments, tendons and skin. By improving muscles' range of motion and increasing mobility of all soft tissues around your joints, routine stretching can absolutely increase flexibility.

The importance of stretching before and after exercise

The type of stretching you do before exercise is different than the type of stretching you should do at the end of a sweat session. Below is a rundown of what the different types of stretches are, when to use them and why they are equally important.

Stretching before exercise

It doesn't matter if you're doing powerlifting exercises or a spin class, stretches before you start working out should be dynamic. Dynamic stretches consist of active movements that send muscles and joints through their full range of motion to best prepare you for what you have ahead. The goal of dynamic stretching is to ensure you are well-stretched, which helps increase muscle temperature and inhibit occasional muscle stiffness. Put all of these together and you get better exercise performance.

Some dynamic stretches for before a workout include:

  • Cossack squat
  • Plank walkout
  • Standing toy soldier toe-tap
  • Downward-facing dog with alternating calf stretch
  • Arm circles

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Stretching after exercise

Stretching after exercise is an effective way to catch your breath and cool down your body temperature. Post-workout stretches signal your mind and body to turn off "gym mode" and turn on "get-back-to-business mode." While you can use dynamic stretches in a cool-down, static stretches are a great way to help tired and constricted muscles return to a more relaxed state. In contrast to dynamic stretching, static stretching does not involve movement. These stretches are meant to be still and held for a period of time.

Some static movements to try post-exercise include:

  • Standing forward fold
  • Lying figure-4 glute stretch
  • Seated butterfly (hip flexors stretch)
  • Child's pose
  • Ear-to-shoulder trapezius stretch

Should I stretch every day?

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends stretching at least two to three times per week to reap health benefits. And when it comes to stretching, more is better than less. In fact, daily stretching can even help reverse some of the effects of inactivity.

Pro tip: If you've been in a regular fitness routine but got sidelined by any life event, stretching can help you get back in action. Researchers say stretching just 10 minutes every day can help ensure you don't lose all your gains.  

Tips to stretch safely

No matter how often you stretch, the most important thing is that you do it properly. Like any form of movement, you risk losing the benefits with poor posture and lack of body awareness. To stretch safely and effectively, make sure you follow these simple dos and don'ts:

DO balance both sides of the body—It's not uncommon for a healthy hamstring on the left leg to compensate for a tight hamstring on the right, which eventually leads to both sides feeling overworked. So, even if one side of your body feels tighter than the other, stretch both sides to avoid muscle imbalance and overuse.

DO hold your stretches—While the official recommendation is to hold a stretch for 10 to 30 seconds at a time, older adults may benefit from a 30- to 60-second stretch, as this longer hold can help improve their flexibility. Even though you may be in a hurry—especially at the end of a workout—be sure your timing is on point. Counting to 10 or 20 Mississippi isn't the worst idea, but using a stopwatch is the most accurate way to hold your stretches.

DON'T bounce—Imagine your tight muscles are a worn-down elastic band. Now, stretch that band to full extension and add an external force (aka a bounce). It probably won't hold up as well. Instead of bouncing during a stretch, try breathing properly to get deeper. Take a big inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth, letting your body relax into the position to decrease some of the muscle tightness you may be experiencing.

DON'T push yourself—While stretching, tune into your body and take note of any motions that feel off or different than normal beyond leaning into the stretch. This type of tension is your body's way of saying that particular muscle doesn't have that much flexibility and you need to back off. Stretching may not always feel like a warm hug, but it should NEVER be the cause of occasional pain and discomfort.

Get ready to stretch!

Taking time to stretch every day may seem daunting; but remember, you can stretch anytime, anywhere. Set an alarm on your phone to stretch throughout your workday, book a stretch session with a professional or personal trainer, or skip the last exercise or interval of your workout and use that time to stretch. Consider stretching a pivotal part of your overall health and well-being, and just as important as your daily protein shake. Trust us—your body will thank you later!

About the Author: Liz Lotts is a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified personal trainer. She has a passion for helping people achieve their health goals through personalized nutrition and effective fitness programs. In her free time, Liz enjoys running, lifting weights, watching live sports with her husband and traveling to new places.

Credentials/Degrees: RDN; NASM-CPT; Certified Orangetheory Fitness Coach; TRX Qualified Coach; Bachelor’s in Advertising, Marketing & Communications; Master of Science in Dietetics.