You have just enough time in your busy schedule for a quick workout, and you manage to get to the gym in time for your favorite group fitness class. Class is just about to end and out the door you go. But hold on a minute. Did you leave just after that last set of burpees? Were you putting your equipment away during the core track and gone before the cool down? Were you busy wiping down your bike? What happened to stretching those joints and muscles you just worked out?
Hey, I get it. Time is short. The decision between stretching and a shower or a Starbucks or Target run is a tough one. But think about this…Flexibility is a key component of physical fitness. After a workout, muscles need to repair themselves, and muscle fibers that are entangled impede the recovery process.
“Flexibility training is an important, yet often overlooked component of fitness,” explains Jessica Matthews, M.S., senior advisor for health and fitness education for the American Council on Exercise (ACE). “The reality is, stretching serves an important purpose in improving overall function, dramatically improving how we move and positively enhancing overall quality of life. Flexibility exercises are most effective when the body is warm, such as following cardiorespiratory or resistance exercise,” she explains.
Stretching can help improve flexibility. Maintenance of and improvement in flexibility is especially important as we age. Declining flexibility, reduced muscle mass, strength, and endurance can result in loss of function and less independence. Better flexibility may also improve your performance in physical activities or decrease your risk of injury by helping your joints move through their full range of motion.
Stretching immediately following a workout is crucial. As our bodies cool down, so do our muscles, making them harder to stretch. Stretching at the end of class can help relieve any tightness, cramping, or discomfort you may have felt during class. It also helps you recover and better prepare for your next workout.
And, just in case you can’t stick around for the stretch at the end of class, here are some tips for stretching on your own.
- Engage the muscle while you stretch it. The body automatically wants to tighten the muscle you are stretching to protect it. Relaxing the muscle you are lengthening can actually increase your chance of injury.
- Use your breath mindfully. Reach with your breath into the places you feel the stretch. Think about your breath moving there and clearing the tension, restoring balance in your body.
- Listen to your body. When you feel pain, that’s your body telling you something is misaligned and asking you to do something about it. Never force or strain! If you feel pain or a twinge in your stretch, back off, re-align, and use your breath to go back into it.