You’ve probably heard how important it is to stretch after a workout to lengthen your tired, tight muscles and improve flexibility. Contrary to popular belief, stretching doesn’t permanently change the length of the muscles you stretch. The benefits are temporary and your muscles return to their original length within an hour after a stretch, yet stretching makes your muscles more tolerant of being stretched when you do it consistently over time and this enhances joint range-of-motion. Also, stretching has some surprising health benefits you might not be aware of. These benefits go beyond the most common reason people stretch, to improve flexibility. Here are five other things stretching can do for your health. Some of them may surprise you!
Lowers the Risk of Blood Clots
When you’re working at your desk for long periods, stretching can be a lifesaver. When you sit without moving your legs, blood pools in your extremities, and blood pooling increases the risk of a blood clot forming that could move to the lungs, a life-threatening situation. When you stretch your legs, you boost blood flow and the return of blood back to your heart so there’s less pooling in your legs. This lowers the risk of a clot forming.
Keep this in mind when you’re sitting for longer than an hour at a conference or traveling. If you can’t get up and walk around, stretch your calf muscles every 30 minutes or so. If you’re taking birth control pills or hormonal supplements, your risk of blood clots is higher, and it’s even more important to stretch. When you can’t take walk, stretch!
May Lower the Risk of Heart Disease and Stroke
Can stretching your legs reduce the risk of stroke and heart attack too? That’s what a 2020 study suggests. For the study, researchers asked one group of participants to stretch their legs in one of four ways for five days. The other group did no stretching. The results? The subjects who stretched their legs had greater blood flow to their lower extremities, and by the end of the study, lower blood pressure than when they started. Stretching seems to improve how blood vessels function, a phenomenon that may lower the risk of a clot forming that causes a heart attack or stroke.
Offsets Some Effects of Aging
You lose muscle strength and size as you age, but if you don’t weight train, you also become less flexible too. With age, joint range-of-motion decreases as tendons and ligaments shorten and become stiffer. The quantity of synovial fluid that lubricates the joints drops too and this further reduces flexibility. As you become less flexible, you take shorter strides when you walk and your walking speed slows. Regular exercise and stretching help reduce the age-related loss of flexibility, so you can continue to do the things you enjoy without discomfort or limitations.
Stretching certainly feels good, but can it boost your mood? Some research finds that stretching stimulates endorphin release. Endorphins are hormone-like chemicals released by the brain and nervous system that soothe pain and improve mood. You’ve probably heard runners describe the “runner’s high” they get when they run a certain distance. Researchers believe endorphins partially explain the feelings of peace and oneness with the universe that runners feel. Stretching also activates your parasympathetic nervous system, the rest-and-relax component that makes you feel calmer. When you’re feeling anxious, stretching could help you reclaim your calm.
Reduce the Risk of Muscle Cramps
Have you ever been running or doing HIIT training and experienced a painful muscle cramp? They’re quite common and can put a damper on your workout. The good news is stretching your legs may lower your risk of developing one. Stretching increases blood flow to your muscles and that lowers the risk of a painful muscle cramp developing.
Stretching can also help you stop a muscle cramp in its tracks. If you develop a cramp in a calf while running, stop, and flex your toes toward your head to lengthen the muscle. Continue stretching until the pain subsides. If you get a cramp at night in bed, do the same thing. While holding your knee straight, pull your toes up toward your head to stretch out the muscle and relieve the cramp. Also, make sure you’re drinking enough fluid. Dehydration increases the risk of muscle cramping. If you’re prone to leg cramps during exercise, hydrate during exercise with an electrolyte-rich drink. Calcium, sodium, and potassium imbalances may contribute to muscle cramps during exercise. Also, warm up thoroughly before each workout.
The Bottom Line
Now you know how stretching can do more than just increase flexibility. Don’t do static stretches until the end of your workout, as there’s some evidence that stretching beforehand can reduce the force with which your muscles can contract and also reduce power capabilities. Instead, do a whole-body warm-up to raise your core body temperature. Once your workout is over, cool down and do static stretches. But stretching isn’t just for after exercise, you can do it any time of the day and now you know why you should.
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- Bisconti, E. Cè, S. Longo, M. Venturelli, G. Coratella, E. Limonta, C. Doria, S. Rampichini, F. Esposito. Evidence for improved systemic and local vascular function after long‐term passive static stretching training of the musculoskeletal system. The Journal of Physiology, 2020; DOI: 10.1113/JP279866.
- Effect of aging and exercise on the tendon Rene B. Svensson, Katja Maria Heinemeier, Christian Couppé, Michael Kjaer, and S. Peter Magnusson. 21 APR 2017https://doi.org/10.1152/japplphysiol.00328.2016.
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