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. 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. For example, sitting in a chair all day results in tight hamstrings in the back of the thigh. That can make it harder to extend your leg or straighten your knee all the way, which inhibits walking. Likewise, when tight muscles are suddenly called on for a strenuous activity that stretches them, such as playing tennis, they may become damaged from suddenly being stretched. Injured muscles may not be strong enough to support the joints, which can lead to joint injury.
With a body full of muscles, the idea of daily stretching may seem overwhelming. But Nolan says you don’t have to stretch every muscle you have. “The areas critical for mobility are in your lower extremities: your calves, your hamstrings, your hip flexors in the pelvis and quadriceps in the front of the thigh.” Stretching your shoulders, neck, and lower back is also beneficial. Aim for a program of daily stretches or at least three or four times per week.
We used to believe that stretching was necessary to warm up the muscles and prepare them for activity. However, mounting research has shown that stretching the muscles before they’re warmed up can actually hurt them. “When everything is cold, the fibers aren’t prepared and may be damaged. If you exercise first, you’ll get blood flow to the area, and that makes the tissue more pliable and amenable to change,” says Nolan. All it takes to warm up the muscles before stretching is five to 10 minutes of light activity, such as a quick walk. You can also stretch after an aerobic or weight-training workout.
Overall, stretching is very beneficial where feeling tension during a stretch increases the capabilities in your muscles, but you should not feel pain. If you do, there may be an injury or damage in the tissue, but it will increase your flexibility being able to do active activities easily.