As deeply An unathletic person, gym class was my waking nightmare, punctuated by a myriad of footballs in my stomach and scoring goals for the wrong team. The only thing I didn’t absolutely hate or dislike was the mandatory stretching session we had to do before playing the nightmarish sport that was on the agenda that day. Unlike being shot in the esophagus, stretching feels good. But is it good for you? The conventional wisdom of physical education teachers that stretching before working out protects you from injury may be less grounded in physical facts than you might think.
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So, how beneficial is stretching? It depends on everything from when and how you stretch to why you do it in the first place.
Here’s what science says about what your body can — and can’t — gain from regular stretching sessions.
Should you stretch before or after a workout?
Despite what gym instructors across the country have been saying for decades, there’s no solid evidence to suggest that stretching before (or after) a workout prevents injury or muscle soreness resulting from activity. .
In 2007, researchers at the University of Sydney in Australia conducted a systematic review of ten previously published studies on the effects of stretching before or after exercise. Most of the studies they reviewed focused on stretching before exercise; only one study looked at stretching after a workout. The researchers found that stretching had “little or no effect” on muscle soreness experienced between half a day and three days after physical activity.
Then, in 2010, the same researchers wanted to see if stretching programs specifically designed to prevent or treat delayed-onset muscle soreness were effective for what they claimed to do. This study found that stretching can reduce post-workout soreness by a very small amount (between half a point and one point on a scale of 100).
“Evidence from randomized studies suggests that muscle stretching, whether performed before, after, or before and after exercise, does not produce clinically important reductions in delayed-onset muscle soreness in healthy adults. health,” they write in the study.
If you feel good stretching and enjoy doing it before working out, don’t worry, you can keep doing it. These researchers may not have found any clinical benefit to the practice, but they found no harm in doing it either.
When it comes to stretching to prevent injury, there is more evidence to support the idea that increased flexibility reduces the likelihood of injury.
A 2011 study of soccer players who stretched found “it is likely that increased flexibility leads to a decreased incidence of muscle injury in soccer players,” according to the authors. study.
Some studies have shown that stretching may be more helpful in preventing injuries from certain types of exercise than others. A 2004 study, for example, looked at people who stretched before “sports involving bouncing and jumping activities with high intensity stretch-shortening cycles (SSC) [e.g. soccer and football]” compared to people who stretched before other types of exercise, such as jogging and cycling.
Specifically, the authors of this study found that stretching can have a beneficial effect on our tendons’ ability to absorb energy. Tendons are the connective tissues that connect muscles to bones. In sports considered to have a “high impact” on the body, such as football or sprinting, the tendons, according to these authors, experience more stress than during “low impact” activities, such as cycling. As a result, stretching before high-impact workouts may have some injury-preventing benefits — but stretching before low-impact workouts “may have no beneficial effect on injury prevention,” they conclude.
But again, they found no harm in stretching before any type of workout either.
Stretching vs warming up
You might think stretching and warming up are the same thing, but they’re not. The distinction is important because it affects the order of things you do to optimally prepare for a workout.
The research is pretty clear that people should stretch after they warmed up their muscles a bit – doing a few minutes of easy walking, say, or a few minutes of light biking. Once the blood is flowing to your muscles, that’s when you should start doing the stretches you want to do before getting into the nitty-gritty.
While the research may be a bit mixed when it comes to stretching before or after a workout, what’s clear is how good stretching is for the body, no matter when you stretch. .
Many studies confirm that stretching is a great way to keep your muscles strong, flexible and healthy. When our muscles are strong and flexible, it’s easier for us to maintain a range of motion in our joints – and that’s essential no matter what physical activity you’re doing.
The best way to start stretching
If you’re new to stretching or, like me, you’ve spent the past two years being the human equivalent of a couch potato, Colorado State University’s Columbine Health Systems Center for Healthy Aging offers four strategies: to help you get started:
- Start by stretching two to three times a week and hold each stretch for 15 to 30 seconds. Eventually, when the stretches are comfortable, you can increase the time you hold a pose. Between 30 and 60 seconds is the optimal time to hold a stretch.
- Colorado State University students have developed an exercise video library through the Center for Healthy Aging’s THRIVE project. Their introductory video on full body stretching can be a good place to start.
- Google and YouTube can be good places to find daily stretching routines. Look for videos that emphasize static and dynamic stretching techniques.
- Most importantly, pay attention to how your body feels. Stretches won’t always be comfortable, but they shouldn’t be painful. Don’t push yourself too far too fast.
Ultimately, stretching might not help you avoid sore muscles or sore joints after your workout. But taking a minute to loosen up can help keep your body fit long enough to enjoy working out for decades to come.