Stretching is arguably the most overlooked aspect of physical exercise. Obviously, the payoff for a good stretch isn’t nearly as visible as say lifting weights or endurance training. But fitness experts and personal trainers alike constantly remind us of its importance, and new research shows that the benefits of stretching go way beyond relaxing after a workout. The truth is, a workout without stretching is half a workout. But it shouldn’t be limited to just before or just after exercise. Regular stretching can lead to better posture, a reduction of aches and pains, a boost in your confidence, and a better mood.
If you’re like most of us, work means sitting—lots and lots of sitting. Studies show that most Americans spend upwards of 13 hours per day in a seat or chair—driving, typing, waiting. Believe it or not, sitting is bad for your body! Remaining seated for long periods of time leads to deterioration of the glutes. (No—that’s not the same as losing weight or tightening your buns. Degeneration of the glutes is what leads to a saggy, swinging bottom.)
When the glutes shut down, other parts of your body have to pick up the slack. This is why sitting around all day can lead to stiff knees, a sore back, or a crick in the neck. The best way to combat this problem is keeping your glutes active. Something as simple as stretching your hip flexors (laying down and pulling one knee at a time toward your chest, for example) will “wake up” the glutes and keep them in active-mode. It’s important to remember that even when we’re not exercising, we’re always using our muscles. Tasks like walking, sitting, and standing up can put a lot of stress on our bodies. Stretching is a sure way to grease the wheels—provide counter-movements to our routine motions, allowing the muscles to expand and release built up tension.
The increase in blood circulation also sends more oxygen to your brain, leading to a clearer mind and brighter mood—the perfect pick-me up during your busy workday.
Another part of the body that takes a beating from everyday use is the spine—more specifically, the thoracic spine (located in the middle of your back)—which is used in the majority of motions we perform. If the thoracic spine becomes tight or stiff, it may cause a chain reaction that compromises other important areas from head to toe. Rotational stretches throughout the day are extremely important in maintaining the flexibility needed for your thoracic spine to function properly.
Consider the extra weight your body might be carrying—things like backpacks, purses, luggage, etc… Even light cargo can take a massive toll on your body, and often without you even realizing it. A lot of women who regularly carry a purse or bag will notice pain in their hips, knees, or feet, not realizing that the problem is actually starting in their shoulders or back. This is because our bodies tend to correct the strain caused by superfluous weight. While our bodies are more than able to support small amounts of weight for medium to extended periods of time, it’s important that we counter those movements and release pressure by stretching frequently. Neck, arm, and shoulder stretches can greatly improve the overall comfort of individuals who need to lug around extra weight for work or school.
Finally, when you are exercising, stretching not only increases recovery time and provides more comfort to sore muscles, it also prevents unnecessary wear and tear on the very muscles you’re trying to strengthen. We’ve all heard the phrase “no pain, no gain.” And while it’s true that we need to break down muscle tissue in order for it to regenerate, we also want to be able to continue using those muscles! Stretching facilitates proper blood flow and oxygenates sore muscles, helping them recover faster while also acclimating your body to the range of motion required to continue exercising in the future.
All right—we get that stretching is important, even indispensable for overall wellbeing. But how much is enough? The answer: as much as you can. That doesn’t mean you have to start setting up your yoga mat at your cubicle. It does mean that you should be aware of the demands you’re putting on your body and try to offer as much reprieve as possible. For the tech savvy, there are apps for your phone that will remind you to engage in different stretches throughout the day, making sure you not only getting out of your seat but also alternate the target areas of your stretches. Like diet and exercise, stretching isn’t something you can check off a list and be done with it. You should strive to stretch throughout your day, taking special note of activities—even things like sitting or standing—that may be taxing your body.