The Benefits of Stretching: How it Works, Why You Should do it, How to do it Properly, and More!
While there are a lot of unknown facts around stretching, it is widely accepted that the practice is one of the best things you can do for your body. Not only does stretching help to improve your range of motion and flexibility, but it also helps to alleviate stress, improve circulation, and prevent injury.
In this article, we’ll talk about how stretching works, some incredible benefits to doing it regularly, and the proper ways to stretch!
Let’s start at the top:
How Stretching Works
Did you know that stretching your muscles doesn’t actually sustain lengthening your muscles or fibers? It’s true, during a stretch, your muscles temporarily and slightly elongate, but because muscle tissue is attached to fixed points at the bone, your muscles can’t get permanently longer.
To understand how exactly stretching your muscles works, it’s best to liken the process to a rubber band. When you use the rubber band, it stays elongated for the duration of use, but when use is over and you take away the tension, the band snaps back to how it was before. However, the amount your muscles can lengthen compared to a rubber band is much, much less, so keep that in mind when using this comparison.
So then, if stretching doesn’t lengthen your muscles? How does it work?
In short, it’s all about your nervous system.
When you stretch, your muscles, by way of your nervous system, send signals to your brain regarding what degree of muscle extension you are accustomed to withstanding. Your muscles and tendons are scattered with nerve endings, and if your muscle isn’t used to extending past a certain point, those nerve endings will fire, causing your body to register a certain amount of pain and resistance.
Over time with repeated stretching, you’re essentially retraining your nervous system to withstand a greater amount of tension.
Fun facts: This point is proven in patients under anesthesia — with their nervous system quietened, they have full range of motion. This is also why babies are extremely flexible and are able to do the splits — their bodies have yet to develop a blueprint for unsafe ranges of motion.
Why Stretching Increases Flexibility & Range of Motion
So then, with the above information, it’s no wonder why stretching helps you to increase your flexibility and range of motion over time.
Physical therapists and practitioners of Yoga and Pilates will surely attest that specifically curated poses will deepen your stretch. And, to reiterate the above, it’s because repeating these poses tells your nervous system that deeper levels of stretch are safe, thus building up a stretch tolerance.
On the flip side, if you’re not doing a range of deep stretching positions every day, and you spend your day sitting, your nervous system will become used to that limited range of motion.
Basically, your body gets used to the kind of movements that you make the most.
Speaking of movements you make the most, if you’re looking to move more without hitting a gym (especially if you’re unable to during Covid-19 lockdowns), then check out these 7 fun home workout ideas!
How Stretching Reduces Your Risk of Injury
As being more flexible increases your range of motion, it makes sense that it would, in turn, reduce your risk of injury. With a greater range of motion, your body is used to an increased range of movements, and the pain signals don’t go off as often. This especially helps if you’re looking to relieve daily pains, move faster, and be more active in general.
However, beyond getting more flexible, the research into how stretching reduces your risk of injury is flawed. In fact, there are some studies that suggest athletes that stretch before exercise have roughly the same risk of injury as those who don’t stretch.
That said, given that stretching improves your range of motion, stretching regularly (for years) prior to performing the exercise will give you more flexibility and help reduce your chances of getting hurt, or of having your muscles send pain signals to your brain when you move outside of your normal range.
Why Stretching Will Improve Your Posture
Every day, people everywhere are actively trying to improve their posture. Why? Because posture affects everything from how you sit, to how you stand, how you walk, and how your body will function over time. People with poor posture tend to have symptoms such as lower back pain, poor balance, headaches, heartburn, and incontinence.
With that, there are a few things we need to remember in order to improve our overall posture, including strengthening our core, ensuring muscle balance (for example, keeping both the front and back torso muscles equally toned, and stretched), how the body is interconnected (which muscle groups, directly and indirectly, affect others), and stretching tension pattern (the order in which you stretch your muscles).
A lot could be said on the exact ways in which to improve your posture, but as a starting point, this article from Medical News Today will put you on the right path.
Using Stretching for Stress Relief
Do you find yourself experiencing stress in your daily life? And do you find that not only does this stress affect your mood, but it also builds up in your muscles? For most of us, stress isn’t just a mental response, it’s also a physical one — our muscles might ache, feel stiff, or even spasm.
While it’s always important to find the root cause of your stress and tackle the situation from the source, stretching is a great way of alleviating some of the physical symptoms of stress. It soothes the muscles, and as mentioned above, gives you a wider range of motion.
Plus, stretching releases natural endorphins! It’s true — every time you stretch, your body releases endorphins that make you happier and healthier in both the short and long term.
Check out this article for more ways you can alleviate stress in your daily life.
Increases Blood Flow to Muscles
If you’ve been having problems with your circulation, or if you just want to improve your blood flow, then keep in mind that stretching can help to promote blood flow circulation. As with exercise, the more you use your muscles, the more your body will send blood (filled with oxygen and nutrients) to those areas to immediately start supporting and repairing your muscles.
Having proper blood circulation is necessary for proper muscle function, building or maintaining strength, and increasing your range of motion.
How to Properly Stretch
When stretching, in order to prevent injury, your primary focus should be on your form. Be careful to maintain proper posture, align your joints and, while the intent is to override your body’s pain signals, take the stretching process slow and listen to your muscles.
Remember, you should feel resistance when stretching, but it should never be painful. In this, always remember to set realistic goals when stretching, or set no goals at all beyond feeling better and having a greater range of motion.
As soon as you begin to feel resistance in a stretch, hold the position for 20-60 seconds (avoid bouncing), and breathe deeply and continuously. In through your nose and out through your mouth. This will help to calm you and send more oxygen throughout your body.
Thanks for reading! I hope you learned a lot about what stretching does and why it is so important. If you have any thoughts or questions related to the article, feel free to post them in the comment box below!