Stretching and Exercise:
Is Stretching Before Exercise Dangerous? When Should You Stretch?
© 2023 Health Realizations, Inc. Update
Most everyone who exercises (even those among us who may not have exercised since our high school gym class) has heard the advice to stretch. Doing so before, after and during your workout, we were told, would help to prevent injuries, reduce sore muscles and help us get a better overall workout.
As it turns out, this advice is a bit outdated. It seems that the advice was being given before anyone really knew for sure if, and when, stretching was beneficial for exercisers. So here we've all been, stretching to our hearts' content, and possibly causing more harm than good. If, that is, you've been stretching incorrectly.
Why it's Important to Stretch When You Exercise
The notion that stretching is important for anyone who does aerobic or strength-training exercise (or even for those who don't) still holds true. Stretching is enormously beneficial for your health. Among the benefits that stretching provides are:
It takes as little as 15 to 20 minutes of stretching a day to experience these beneficial effects.
When Should You Stretch? Before or After Your Workout?
If you're a regular exerciser (or if you're not, but want to, below are some tips to start exercising regularly), it makes grand sense to fit your stretching right in with your workout. But should you do it before or after exercising?
Truth be told, the jury is still out on this one, largely because studies have found conflicting results. Case in point, a study in the British Medical Journal found that stretching before or after exercising does not confer protection from muscle soreness. Meanwhile, stretching before exercising, according to the study, "does not seem to confer a practically useful reduction in the risk of injury," either.
Another review of exercise evidence, this one published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, found similar results.
"The use of stretching primarily as a way to prevent sports injury has been based on intuition and observation, rather than scientific evidence," said lead researcher Stephen B. Thacker, M.D. "The best advice is to include a combination of warm-up, strength training, plyometrics and balance exercises to lessen injury risks."
"We are not suggesting athletes discontinue flexibility training and stretching altogether," Thacker pointed out, adding that warm-ups, balance training and other activities may enhance safety and performance.
What's the bottom line? Most experts do NOT recommend stretching before exercise because your muscles are not properly warmed up yet. Instead, stretch right after your warm-up (such as walking briskly for five minutes or doing some jumping jacks) and after your workout.
At this time, your muscles are warm and more elastic, and stretching increases your flexibility and maximizes the range of motion around your joints. You should stretch all the major muscles groups that you used during your workout.
What about stretching during your exercise routine? The rule of thumb is, if you feel tight go ahead and do a gentle stretch, then get back to your workout.
15 Essential Stretches That Work 95 Percent of Your Body!
There are countless stretches, but many trainers in just one session can guide you to stretch 95 percent of your body in just 15 to 20 minutes a day.
And remember, stretching can be done any time of day, not just while you exercise, to help energize you, increase mental clarity and focus, and just to experience how good it feels!
How to Stay Motivated … and Finally Keep Your Exercise Program Going Strong
If you're fed up with the exercise "yo-yo" of starting a program strong, then quitting after a couple of weeks, there are a number of tips that can help. Here are the top 10 ways to keep you, and your exercise program, going strong.
1. Start Slowly
You shouldn't expect to hop on a treadmill and jog for five miles if you haven't exercised in years. Starting slowly ensures that your body can become more fit without getting injured. And, you'll be more likely to stick with a workout that leaves you feeling energized, not fatigued from working too hard.
2. Set Realistic Goals, and Write Them Down
Whether you want to lose 20 pounds, tone up for the summer or increase your strength, write down exactly what you hope exercising will help you achieve. Then, keep track of your progress by keeping an exercise journal. Did your pants feel looser after the first month? Are you able to walk farther and faster? Writing down your achievements is a great way to see how far you've come, and get a little inspiration when you need it.
3. Be Patient
Remember that it will take time to achieve your fitness goals. "Many people don't see immediate weight loss and say it's all for naught and stop," says exercise expert William Haskell of Stanford University Medical School.
On the contrary, studies have found that even moderate amounts of exercise can make a big difference in your health. And, in time, you will definitely see and feel a difference.
4. Do Something You Like
Exercise should be enjoyable. If it's not, you're not likely to keep doing it. There are so many ways to get exercise … biking, jogging, strength training, aerobics, dancing, yoga, etc. … that, as long as you keep in a variety, it's impossible to get bored. Make sure you consider your personality (Do you like to workout alone or in groups? Do you like to be outdoors or at the gym?) when choosing which types of workouts are best for you.
5. Incorporate Both Aerobic and Strength-Training Activities
Perhaps the most motivating thing about exercising is feeling more in shape, more flexible, and more toned. A key way to achieve these things is to make sure you are getting both aerobic and strength exercises. While doing some cardiovascular exercise, like jogging, will increase your stamina, strength training will help with your bone density, and, a new study found, can also help prevent weight gain in middle age.
In fact, the study found that women who lifted weights just twice a week prevented or slowed "middle-aged spread." So be sure you are giving your body all the possible benefits exercise can provide by incorporating aerobic and weight-lifting activities into your routine.
6. Set a Time to Do It
Your workout time should be a set part of your day, for three to five days a week. If you don't schedule it in like any other task, it is way too easy, and tempting, to put it off.
Some studies have found that people who workout first thing in the morning are most likely to stick with it. But, most importantly, you should designate a time that works for you -- whether it's in the morning, after work or during your lunch hour. Set aside the time, then don't even think about whether or not you'll workout -- just do it.
7. Consider Getting a Workout Buddy
A workout buddy can help keep your workouts regular … after all, if you're supposed to meet at the gym, you can't very well cancel at the last minute. It can also be motivating to have someone to encourage you and talk with while exercising. Plus, studies have found it to be effective. When both spouses start a fitness program, only 8 percent drop out, compared with 50 percent who start out alone, Raglin says. "That's a pretty remarkable result," he continued.
8. Support Your Workouts by Doing Other Healthy Things
Your workouts will be much more effective and enjoyable if you are feeling good, mentally and physically. That said, keeping a healthy lifestyle outside of exercising by eating a healthy diet, drinking lots of water, getting plenty of sleep and avoiding too much stress is essential to sticking with any fitness routine.
9. Have Fun
Exercising should be enjoyable. If you find that you're dreading your workouts, it's time to change to a new type of exercise.
10. Reward Yourself
In order to keep exercise a positive thing in your life, reward yourself often for keeping to your routine. You may want to take a long soak in the tub, buy yourself a small gift or simply take time to appreciate your achievements each time you keep to your workout routine for a week. Remember to keep it positive -- be gentle with yourself if you skip a workout or two, just remind yourself how good it will feel when you get back on track.
British Medical Journal;325:468
CNN: Most Americans Don't Exercise Regularly
The Detroit News: Early Workouts Can Build Consistency
Exploding Exercise Myths
Exercise: Follow Your Bliss
American Heart Association: Women May Prevent, Delay Middle-Aged Spread by Lifting Weights