Squeezing physical activity into your hectic daily schedule can be a challenge. So why waste precious time with warm ups and stretching when you can be out on the sports field, tennis court or golf course instead? “A common cause of non-traumatic sports injuries is poor flexibility,” says Dr. John O’Kane, attending physician at the University of Washington Sports Medicine Clinic. “If people stop and take a few minutes to prepare their bodies before and after exercising, they can increase flexibility and help avoid being sidelined by an injury.”
Many people abandon warm-ups and stretching after they finish organized sports in school. Yet since flexibility decreases with age, stretching is much more important in later years, especially for preventing tears to muscles and tendons.
O’Kane notes that stretching can be for naught if performed incorrectly. For example, bending over and touching your toes is not an effective stretch, since it places too much force on the hips and back. Altering this stretch by raising one leg and flexing at the hips helps stretch the hamstring and not the back.
“The key to stretching is making sure it isolates specific muscles and avoids compensating movements,” O’Kane explains. A warm-up (such as a brisk walk or jog) and gentle stretching should be performed before exercising. Since it’s difficult to stretch a muscle when it’s cold, it’s best to stretch after exercising, when muscles have warmed up and are more flexible.
O’Kane offers the following additional tips for proper stretching:
- Don’t bounce. Stretching should be performed slowly and gently, without jerking motions or bobbing that may place undue stress on muscles.
- Avoid pain. Painful stretching can result in injury to muscles. Stretches should be performed to the point where a person feels it, but not to the point that it hurts.
- Relax. Breathing deep and slowing down can help warm-ups and stretching be more enjoyable and beneficial.
- Hold in place. For maximum benefits, each type of stretching exercise should be performed at least three times and held in place for 20 to 60 seconds.
- Establish a pattern. To make sure you find time for stretching each day, O’Kane suggests associating it with a regular activity. This may include stretching after dinner or before going to bed.
- Choose the right stretches. Just because there are an abundance of stretching exercises doesn’t mean you have to do them all. Select those which work the upper and lower body and focus most specifically on the areas you will be utilizing during your physical activity.
- Pay attention. It’s important to take note of the muscle area you’re trying to stretch. O’Kane notes that people may avoid stretching tight muscles by “stretching around them.”
For help in selecting proper stretching exercises, people may wish to consult with their physician or a physical therapist. Numerous books and other resources that outline stretching and warm-up activities are also available. “A lifelong stretching program can have great benefits in preventing muskulo-skeletal problems and in maintaining balance and mobility,” O’Kane says.