The simple act of stretching releases chemicals into your muscles that can ease pain and relieve stress. Find out how this happens and the many reasons why you should stretch every day.
Have you ever eased into a stretch and felt that “Ahhh” moment? It’s that hurts-so-good feeling that makes stretching so enjoyable. Have you ever wondered why that is?
It’s all about the physiological changes that take place inside your body when you stretch. Similar to getting a good massage, stretching can expel toxins and get the endorphins flowing. Only stretching is less costly, and it’s something you can do every day to give your body a little reward.
Whether you’re an athlete or not, stretching is a great way to improve your body and boost your mental health.
The 7 Key Benefits of Stretching, Simply Put
Before we go into the science of how let’s talk about why stretching is so good for your body. Whether you’re an athlete or an armchair quarterback, a high school jock, or a senior citizen, everyone has a good reason to stretch every day. In a nutshell, stretching helps to:
- Maintain flexibility
- Support muscle health
- Promote a full range of motion
- Reduce injury risk
- Recover from injury
- Improve circulation
- Relieve stress
The Science Behind Stretching
At the most basic level, stretching feels good so that we’ll do it. It’s the body’s way of motivating us to keep our muscles at optimal tension. Without it, muscles would become short and tight. Movement would be difficult. Stretching is so beneficial for our health that our bodies do it involuntarily. Called pandiculation, this happens in the morning when you first wake up and stretch out. Stretching helps fluid that has built up in your torso and head redistribute through your body. It wakes you up, loosens, and aligns your muscles.
How Stretching Works
Muscles are composed of bunched-up strands of muscle fibers and connective tissue. Think of it as a bundle of threads- some aligned neatly, others disorganized, all glued together with connective tissue. When you stretch, the muscle cells at the primary level- called sarcomeres– elongate.
When the muscle fibers are stretched to the max, the connective tissue picks up the slack. It helps to get all of those disorganized fibers in line. Through this process, stretching helps to heal damaged tissue. It also elongates the individual fibers little by little, giving you greater flexibility over time.
Nerve endings related to stretching can be found in muscle tissue and tendons. Called proprioceptors, these nerves relay messages to your brain. They tell it when a muscle fiber is being stretched beyond its original point. This induces the stretch reflex, causing your muscles to contract and giving you that somewhat painful feeling associated with stretching. But mitigating the stretch reflex leads to greater flexibility. You can do this by holding a stretch for 5-30 seconds or leaning deeper into a pose.
What Happens When You Stretch
So, at the biological level, why does stretching feel good? There are four significant factors to thank for it:
- When you stretch, blood flow to that muscle increases. Blood vessels and capillaries around the muscle widen. The heart pumps harder, allowing more oxygen, nutrients, glucose, and protein to flow through. Greater oxygen flow gives you that refreshed feeling. Meanwhile, toxins and waste products are flushed out. Win-win!
- Stretching can activate your parasympathetic nervous system. This system, which controls your rest and digestion functions, can invoke feelings of calmness and relaxation when you stretch. Static stretching is best for this.
- Stretching releases neurotransmitters called endorphins, which are similar to morphine. Created by the central nervous system and pituitary gland, these chemicals have pain-relieving effects. This endorphin release can cause a feeling of euphoria.
- Muscle tension is reduced when you stretch. Muscle fibers and ligaments contract when they’re in the same position for too long. For example, when you’re sitting at your desk at work. This can compress nerves and cause pain. When you get up to stretch, that tension and tightness are immediately reduced, alleviating the pain that goes with it.
What Stretching Does for Your Body
Stretching isn’t just a way for runners and dancers to stay limber. From your mental state to your blood flow to your digestive function, every part of your body can benefit from a good stretch. Let’s talk about the good things it does for your body.
When you stretch, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over the sympathetic nervous system. When the PNS is activated, your heart rate slows, blood pressure lowers, and intestinal and gland activity increases. All good things. This brings on a sense of relaxation and calm which can relieve stress. Yet another reason why it’s good to get in a stretch each day. Your peace of mind deserves it.
Improves Blood Circulation
Stretching can positively affect your blood circulation, both in the short term and long term. As I mentioned earlier, stretching a muscle widens blood vessels, allowing more blood to flow through. Short term, this increases the amount of blood pumping through your heart and veins.
Research suggests that stretching regularly can improve arterial blood vessel function and lower blood pressure for the long term. It’s also a great way for elderly folks who cannot perform aerobic activities to improve blood flow.
Relieves Muscle Tension
Muscles will contract after being in the same position for an extended period. This often causes a painful stiffness that only a good stretch can cure. The act of stretching releases those muscle fibers from their contracted state, and it gets the blood flowing again.
After a marathon session at your desk, stretching is a little reward that puts your body back to rights. It can also relieve muscle soreness after a bout of physical activity. After a game or a challenging workout, some static stretching can help your body relax and recover.
Reduces Stress & Fatigue
Stress doesn’t just affect your mental state; it takes a toll on your body as well. If you’re chronically stressed out, you may notice stiffness in your neck, back, and shoulders. Excess stress can cause inflammation and pain. And all that anxiety can cause a lack of focus and fatigue. Taking a minute to stand up and stretch will send more oxygen flowing through your blood, giving you an immediate refresh.
While stretching can’t reduce your workload or lower your bills, it can help your state of mind. Stretching helps to relieve muscle tension and improve circulation, which can reduce stress. It also helps the body to relax thanks to that parasympathetic nervous response. Many people use stretching as a method of grounding to relieve panic attacks, curb depression, and promote mindfulness. When you stretch, focus on proper breathing and relaxation to get the full effect.
Relieves Pain and Promotes Healing
If you’ve ever undergone physical therapy for an injury, you’ve seen firsthand how static and passive stretching can help you to feel better and get back to normal again. Stretching has an analgesic effect, meaning that it relieves pain. Both the improved circulation and endorphin rush from stretching enable this.
The act of stretching also helps muscle fibers to rebuild and realign. The increased blood flow it enables can shorten recovery time. The caveat to this is that only certain types of stretches are beneficial for healing, and you must do them correctly. Ballistic stretching, for example, is no way to recover from an injury.
Promotes Mobility & Flexibility
As we age, both our mobility and flexibility slowly decline, no matter how active we are. Living a sedentary lifestyle can make matters even worse. Muscles will become shorter and tighter from disuse. When this happens, it’s harder to do things that came easily in your youth.
But regular stretching is an excellent way to counteract this gradual slide. It keeps muscles strong and healthy so that you can maintain a good range of motion in all of your joints. Your muscles are like elastic bands. When you extend muscle tissue to its full length and hold it for a few seconds, it elongates. Stretching every day can help to maintain flexibility no matter how old you are.
Many of us spend our days hunched over a computer. So it’s no surprise that taking a few minutes to stand up straight and stretch out those muscles can do wonders for your posture. Poor posture can develop over time because muscles become weak from disuse. Stretching daily can strengthen these muscles and realign your spine.
Taking breaks to stretch throughout the day can also relieve the tension in your neck, shoulders, and back, allowing you to stand up straighter without pain. Aside from relieving lower back pain, better posture can make you feel more confident and alert, improving your overall sense of wellbeing.
Stretching for Athletes
Stretching can improve your sports performance. Not only does it enhance flexibility and muscle strength, but it can also boost your power, speed, and agility. It loosens up your muscles so that you avoid tears and strains. And stretching reduces recovery time, which is crucial to keep you in the game. Regardless of your sport of choice- from gymnastics to soccer- every athlete should include stretching into their workout routine.
To best benefit your body and performance level, you should do different types of stretches before and after a workout. For a warm-up, focus on dynamic stretching. This type of continuous motion stretching will help get your body warmed up without overexerting your muscle tension and explosive power. Ballistic stretching can be done for sport-specific activities like jumping or kicking.
Static stretching is a great way to cool down after a workout. This type of slow and concentrated stretching helps your muscles to recover faster. That way, you don’t feel so sore after a grueling training session. It can also relieve tight muscles so that you feel more relaxed.
Starting a Stretching Routine
There are a lot of muscles in your body. So it can seem daunting to stretch each one every day. Don’t worry; it’s okay to just focus on the ones that are crucial for mobility: thighs (hamstrings, quadriceps, and hip flexors), calves, lower back, shoulders, and neck.
Start your daily routine with a set of simple stretching exercises. These may include:
- Hamstring stretch
- Standing quad stretch
- Shoulder I-Y-T’s
- Wall calf stretch
- Hip flexors
- Shoulder rolls
You can find examples of all of these here on my website. Yoga is also an excellent way to get your stretching in every day.
If you’re new to stretching, it’s okay to take it slow. You may want to begin by lying on the ground or sitting in a chair. Take 10-20 minutes to stretch two to three days a week. Then add on days until you are stretching every day. You may find that your daily stretching session turns into an anticipated reward rather than a chore. It’s your time to relax, let go of stress, and concentrate on your body.
When stretching, always practice proper form and intensity to avoid injury. If you are advanced in age or have a chronic condition like arthritis, it’s best to check with your physician or physical therapist before starting any exercise program. They can recommend a good stretching routine tailored for you.
Stretching Feels Good Because It Is Good!
It maintains and improves muscle strength, flexibility, and range of motion. It helps prevent injuries and heal from them. No matter your age or activity level, it can improve your posture, blood circulation, and mobility.
Your body knows stretching is good for you, so it gives you a treat each time those muscle fibers are stretched out. By activating the parasympathetic nervous system, stretching releases endorphins into your body that promote relaxation and a sense of well-being. It opens up your blood vessels to get rid of unwanted toxins.
Why not find some time to get in a stretch session each day? It could be meditative yoga after work or a simple set of morning stretches when you get out of bed. You never know, it could improve your quality of life. Or at the very least, just plain feel good.