Stop, Drop, and Stretch
By Meredith Cox, Health & Wellness Columnist
You have just finished a grueling workout, have basically zero energy left, and cannot wait to get home, sit on the couch, and eat your heart out. However, this point in time is one of the most important parts of your workout. The idea of a cool down to end your workout may be the last thing on your mind right now, or it may seem insignificant or not beneficial. But actually, taking those extra ten minutes after exercising to stretch, unwind, and just breathe are so important to maintaining overall physical health.
Stretching, whether after a tough cardio session, or even just for 10 minutes during your lunch break, has been shown to improve flexibility, increase the range of motion of your joints, and even aid in injury prevention. As a result of continuous stretching, you should experience better flexibility, which may help physical performance in many exercises such as walking, running, and biking.
Stretching also increases blood flow to muscles and joints. Your muscles need ample oxygen and nutrients, which is delivered via blood. Thus, stretching makes sure all muscles are being cared for properly and receiving enough nutrients in order to rebuild and strengthen. The increase in blood flow also helps muscles recover faster, with less soreness. This is where dynamic stretching comes into play. These moves are especially favorable if stretching seems boring. Try incorporating some movement into your poses, including lunges with a side twist, walking knee-to-chest holds, high kicks, and side shuffles.
Be sure to hold your stretch. Try not to rush through the process. Hold each stretch, whether it is a toe touch, quad pull, or hip flexors, for at least 60 seconds on each side of your body. Also, try to stretch two to three times a week in order to maintain and improve upon your flexibility. You should feel tension, not pain, when you are holding a stretch. A little pulling is okay, and it means you are testing your muscles. However, if you start to experience shooting or stabbing pains when stretching, slowly end and release the stretch, as it may indicate a torn muscle.
Finally, stretch in order to be proactive. Those who maintain flexibility, balance, and coordination through regular exercise and stretching are less prone to injuries, including muscle strains and tissue tears. The increased range in motion leads to more resilient muscles and joints, and less injuries. When muscles are used to being elongated through stretches, they retain these elastic properties that allow for more fluidity when performing common exercises and sporting activates.
So the next time you go to walk out of the gym or leave the practice field right after exercising, take just ten minutes to stretch out your muscles. It will relieve tightness and you probably will not be as sore walking up that flight of steps the next day!