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 do it every day.
Have you ever eased into a stretch and felt that “Ahhh” moment? It’s that hurts-so-good feeling that makes it so enjoyable. Have you ever wondered why that is?
It’s all about the physiological changes that take place inside your body. Similar to getting a massage, stretching can expel toxins, get the endorphins flowing, and it’s something you can do at home every day.
Whether you’re an athlete or not, stretching will improve your overall health.
The 7 Key Benefits of Stretching, Simply Put
Before we go into the science of how let’s talk about stretching and why it feels so good? Whether you’re an athlete or a senior citizen, everyone can benefit. It helps to:
- Maintain flexibility
- Support muscular health
- Promote a full range of motion
- Reduce injury risk
- Recover from injury
- Improve circulation
- Stress Relief
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, they would become short and tight. It is so beneficial for our health that our bodies do it involuntarily. This involuntary stretching is called pandiculation , it happens in the morning when you first wake up and stretch out; to help fluid that has built up in your torso and head redistribute.
How Stretching Works
Muscles are composed of bunched-up strands of 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 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, you help heal damaged tissue. It also elongates the individual fibers little by little, giving you greater mobility 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 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, but mitigating the this reflex leads to greater flexibility. You can do this by holding a pose for 5-30 seconds or leaning in deeper.
What Happens When You Stretch
So, at the biological level, why does stretching feel so good? There are four significant factors to thank for it:
- 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.
- It can activate your parasympathetic nervous system . This system, which controls your rest and digestion functions, can invoke a feeling of calmness and relaxation. Static stretching is best for this.
- You release 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. 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 muscle tightness is 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, there is benefits of stretching. Let’s talk about the good things it does for you.
During stretching, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over the sympathetic nervous system. During parasympathetic activation your heart rate slows, blood pressure lowers, and intestinal and gland activity increases. This brings on a sense of tranquility.
Improves Blood Circulation
Stretching can positively affect your circulatory system, both in the short term and long term. As I mentioned earlier, stretching 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 stretching can cure. It will release those fibers from their contracted state, and it gets the blood flowing again.
After a marathon session at your desk, stretching can be a little reward that puts your body back to rights. It can also relieve soreness after a bout of physical activity, after a game or a challenging workout.
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. 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. It helps to relieve tension and allows for better circulation, which can reduce stress . Many people use stretching as a method of grounding to relieve panic attacks, curb depression, and promote mindfulness. During any pose, 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. It has an analgesic effect , meaning that it relieves pain.
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.
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 can 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 these tissues to their full length and hold it for a few seconds, it elongates. Taking time everyday for this is beneficial 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 elongate those muscles can do wonders for your posture. Poor alignment can develop over time because muscles become weak from disuse.
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 , standing straight can make you feel more confident and alert, improving your overall sense of wellbeing.
Stretching for Athletes
Stretching can help you see better athletic performance and prevent common sports injuries like Tennis Elbow. It loosens up your muscles so that you avoid tears and strains. And 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 will help get you warmed up without overexertion. Advanced stretching techniques like ballistic stretching can be done for sport-specific workouts that include jumping or kicking.
Static stretching can be added at the end of a workout as a way to cool down. This type of slow and concentrated stretching helps you to recover faster. That way, you don’t feel so sore after a grueling training session.
Starting a Stretching Routine
Our anatomy consists of a lot of different muscles. So it can seem daunting to do each one every day. Don’t worry; it’s okay to just focus on the ones that are crucial for mobility.
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 two to three days a week. Then add on days until you are doing it every day. You may find that your daily session turns into an anticipated reward rather than a chore.
When stretching, always practice good stretching techniques and intensity to avoid injury. If you are advanced in age, have concerns about stretching or have a chronic condition like arthritis, it’s best to check with your physician or physical therapist before starting any exercise program.
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 fibers are stretched out. By activating the parasympathetic nervous system, stretching releases endorphins into your body that reduce your level of stress and promote 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 work or a simple stretches done in the morning 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.