You've been taught to begin and end each workout session with stretching exercises. But is contorting your body for five or 10 minutes really necessary? And what are you achieving with all of that twisting and bending? It turns out that not all health experts agree that you really need to stretch before workouts—some even profess that doing so could be harmful to your health. If you love to stretch, by all means knock yourself out. But if you've always found stretching a slightly boring annoyance to endure before the real fun starts (I guess you see where I stand here), you can feel less guilty about skipping the mat and heading straight for the elliptical.
You probably stretch before exercise to increase your flexibility. But according to Kieran O'Sullivan of the University of Limerick in Ireland, stretching before your workout actually has the opposite effect. O'Sullivan states that when you stretch out your muscles, your body reacts by constricting them to compensate once the stretch is over. If you begin exercising immediately afterward, your tense muscles are more likely to become injured. But don't dismiss stretching just yet. O'Sullivan noted that stretching still increases flexibility in the longer term—you just need to do it after, not before, your workouts.
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If you don't care much about flexibility but still stretch to avoid injury during your weekend softball games, you could be wasting your time. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention performed a thorough analysis of the data on stretching and injury, and found that athletes who stretched were no less likely to suffer pulled muscles or other types of injuries.
The lesson here? If you don't want to stretch, you don't have to. Yee-haw! There's an extra 10 minutes a day of my life back.
If you do want to stretch, though, there are still some nice benefits. The American Council on Exercise lists plenty of other reason to keep at those toe-touches. They fully endorse stretching to relieve stiffness and help ease sore, achy muscles. They also state that stretching can help reduce stress (hello, isn't yoga almost all stretching?), improve muscle performance and give you better posture. All fine reasons to keep on stretchin' —and maybe enough to make me rethink my aversion.
So it seems that for athletes, the decision to stretch is far from dire. But if you do stretch, there are some precautions to follow. For one thing, it's important to warm your muscles up first. That may sound funny if you think that stretching is your warm up, but you can actually injure yourself by stretching cold muscles. The Mayo Clinic recommends taking a walk, jog or bike ride for five to 10 minutes before you stretch. They also warn against using a bouncing motion, which can scar up your muscles. Stop extending before you feel pain, and hold each stretch for about 30 seconds. The results of stretching disappear once you stop, so keep at it regularly to reap the benefits.
image: lululemon athletica