The Benefits of Stretching: The Routine You Need for a Better Day

A woman stretching and arching her back on a yoga mat outdoors

You know the benefits of a good fitness routine in your wellness practice — it’s good for your mental health as well as your physical health.

But even the slightest of movement, a good stretch, can be beneficial. 

Stretching keeps your muscles limber, which helps to prevent injury. Plus, it feels really great and when you’re running low on time and can’t get in a full workout, stretching helps get the body moving.

You probably also feel rejuvenated after a good stretch, so the benefits are several-fold.

The benefits of stretching

Even if you can’t touch your toes, you probably love the feel of a deep stretch, and the more often you do it, the better it gets.

“Stretching keeps the muscles flexible, strong, and healthy, and we need that flexibility to maintain a range of motion in the joints. Without it, the muscles shorten and become tight,” health experts at Harvard say. “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.”

That means stretching is necessary for building muscle and improving fitness. But it can add a lot to your life in other ways, too. Stretching is slow and methodical. You don’t need to be worried about being first or the best, you just need to do it. It also takes time to build flexibility, so there’s a real emphasis on slowing down, something we could all use more of in hectic times.

Besides muscle health, stretching can do a lot, especially if you’re stressed out.

“Everyone experiences stress to some degree — some more than others. Stress can cause muscles to become tense, which in turn causes muscles to tighten, leading to discomfort and chronic pain. Stretching reduces the muscle tension, thereby reversing the cycle of tension, then tightening, and pain. Stretching has been shown to increase serotonin levels — i.e., the hormone that helps stabilize our mood, reduce stress, and overall makes us feel good — which causes a decrease in depression and anxiety,” according to researchers at Colorado State University.

That’s probably why you feel so much more at peace after finishing a stretch.

Stretching essentials

Like most things in fitness, proper technique is important when stretching. If you’re not careful you could end up hurting yourself or causing your muscles damage. Avoid that by going slow, being thoughtful and taking some tips from the pros:

  • Avoid stretching ‘cold’ muscles. Too much too fast is a bad idea. Warm up with some light walking, biking or another low-intensity activity. Many trainers recommend even saving stretching for after an intense workout.
  • Symmetry is key. It would feel weird to stretch one shoulder or leg and not the other. Strive for mirroring what you do one side of your body to the other. Experts warn that not getting an even stretch in could put you at risk for damage or injury.
  • Hold it. If you want to work on flexibility, really focus on leaning into a stretch. Hold it for 30 or 60 seconds. 
  • Breathe. Especially with tight muscles, it can be hard to remember to breathe through it, but your muscles will thank you. You may even want to count stretches in breaths. Hold for three inhales and exhales, then switch sides.
  • Make it a routine. The more often you stretch, the better it will be. Start slow, maybe a few times per week for 15 or 30 seconds, then gradually build from there.
  • Be mindful. Before stretching, do a brief audit of how your muscles feel. Has working at your desk all week made your shoulders tight? Did that run from yesterday make your calves sore? Start by taking note of where you need to focus.

Each stretching session is likely to be unique to your current fitness level, and that may vary each day or week. Trainers encourage exercising caution. 

Different types of stretching to try

Just like most physical activities, there is a science to stretching, and you may want to utilize different types of the exercise to achieve different results. 

There are several different types of stretching, but ballistic, dynamic, active, and passive are the main 

Ballistic stretching. Think of this kind of stretching as a warm-up. You may bounce in and out of different positions, so it’s a bit more involved than other types. Examples include bouncing in and out of calf raises or repeatedly reaching for your toes. Be careful not to over do it with these stretches, for it could cause you to be a bit tighter afterward.

Dynamic stretching. Dynamic stretching requires momentum, like rotating your arms in circles or reaching for your toes over and over again. Each repetition should build flexibility and help mobility. What makes this different from ballistic stretching is that dynamic is much more controlled. While ballistic stretching is a bit faster and relies on velocity, dynamic stretching requires more muscle.

Active stretching. This type is probably what most people think of when they hear the word stretch. You hold your position for a certain amount of time, working that one muscle area. The only thing you’ll need for active stretching is your body.

Passive stretching. If you want to achieve flexibility and balance, passive stretching is for you. Through this method, you’ll stay stable and really melt into different positions. Think deep, long stretches or yoga. This is considered the most relaxed type of stretching.

Finding a good routine is easy to do. Between online videos, fitness programs and your own intuition, you’re unlikely to get bored with it.

All you’ll need is some space and a little bit of time. If you have a mat, pull it out and get started. A five-minute stretch in the morning can set the tone for a mindful day, while a bit more specific exercise after a run can help you get the most out of your workout.

To really feel the benefits — body and mind — book a yoga class. Yin yoga is a deep, less intense workout and really helps you to melt into poses.
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