Surprising to many, research has yielded mixed findings regarding the health benefits of stretching and increasing flexibility. While there are questions regarding whether or not stretching increases athletic performance, there is general agreement that when done properly, stretching decreases the risk of activity-induced injury.
Flexibility is the range of motion (ROM) around a joint, while stretching is the activity we do to increase that range of motion. Joints have “ideal” ranges of motion which allow the body to move freely while maintaining stability. This ROM differs in each of us depending on the balance of our muscles due to factors such as over- or under-use of a muscle group and injury. So, for example, a cyclist will likely have much tighter hip flexors and hamstrings if they do not stretch adequately because of the repetitious use of the lower body. Likewise, a ballet dancer might have overstretched muscle and loose joints due to years of training from an early age. In either case, both joints that have limited or excessive ROM can contribute to injury due to the lack of stability in those joints.
The goal then is to achieve muscle balance, i.e., having muscles on either side of each joint and on both sides of the body be equal in strength. A well-coordinated exercise program that increases strength where needed and lengthens shortened muscles (stretching) in order to achieve muscle balance is most healthful and helps to prevent injury during both exercise and regular, daily tasks.
If you’re interested in improving your flexibility, set a regular time every day to include stretching into your routine. We naturally stretch our bodies in the morning after waking up. Mornings can be a great time to stretch, starting your day off with some self-care and leaving you in a more peaceful state before delving into the daily to-do list. Some people prefer stretching at night time, enjoying the release of the day’s tensions and shifting them into a calmer state of mind before going to bed.
There are countless resources for learning good stretches and proper form (essential for preventing injury), including trainers at your local gym, videos or DVDs and books such as the classic, Stretching by Bob and Jean Anderson. According to the Mayo Clinic, all stretches should be gentle (i.e., don’t push it) and held for 30 seconds to 2 minutes. What’s most important is that you learn to listen to your own body and be aware of the impact any kind of exercise has on your feeling of well-being.