En español | If you tend to think of stretching as an entirely optional area of fitness, you're not alone. “People want to do cardio and strength training because they burn belly fat, help them lose weight and keep them toned,” says Jorge Cruise, fitness trainer and author of bestselling fitness books such as 8 Minutes in the Morning. “But stretching doesn't seem to have the immediate payoff that the other two do, so they'll say, ‘Forget it — it's not worth it.'"
In fact, staying limber gets only more important as we get older and our bodies start losing flexibility, a process that happens naturally. As early as our 30s and 40s, the fluid lubricating, and cushioning, our joints tends to decrease, leaving them stiffer. Years of strains and sprains also take their toll. “These mishaps can evolve into scar tissue, which can cause us to become overly tight in any area where a strain has occurred,” says Michele Olson, senior clinical professor in the Department of Sport Science and Physical Science at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama. “If you are overly stiff, you start to move in aberrant patterns, which can put undue stress on the body parts doing double duty to compensate.”
Over the years our muscles, tendons and ligaments also tend to shrink and tighten — more so if you're not active — further limiting our range of motion. “You'll hear people say, ‘It was great until I hit 50, then everything went to pot,'” says Steve Lischin, co-owner of Great Jones Fitness in New York City, who adds that while it might seem sudden, this sudden inability to touch your toes actually came from years of neglecting your flexibility.
Now the good news: You can get much of that range of motion back. In fact, studies have shown that incorporating a stretching routine can increase flexibility in as little as four weeks, potentially leading to a long list of benefits. For starters, staying limber can take the ouch out of everyday activities — from pulling on your socks to giving a quick glance over your shoulder before backing out of the driveway — and can reduce the stress and strain you experience during workouts, reducing your risk of injury.
Getting those kinks out can help improve the range of motion for those with arthritis, in particular, or send blood coursing to your muscles to aid with circulation. What's more, “It may promote posture stability and help you stay balanced, particularly when coupled with resistance exercise,” says Olson. And if you do take a nasty tumble, having flexible muscles will help you move more easily to brace yourself for the big hit.
How little you can do
You don't have to contort yourself into a pretzel to reap benefits. Just how bendy you need to be depends on your lifestyle. “The American College of Sports Medicine recommends at least 10 minutes of stretching a minimum of two times a week for older adults, although greater gains can be made with daily flexibility exercises,” says Sarah Smith, a physical therapist and assistant professor in the Department of Physical Therapy at the University of Delaware.
"Tie stretching to something in your routine — a prompt that reminds you to do it, so it becomes a habit,” advises David Geier, an orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist based in Charleston, South Carolina. “For example, limbering up while waiting for the water to heat up for your morning coffee."
Ideally, you want to focus on stretching all the major muscle groups: your upper body (shoulders, neck and arms), your back and your lower body (hips, thighs and calves). But you don't have to do an entire stretching routine or an hour-long yoga class to reap benefits. It can be a simple move that targets a problem-prone area — in the 50 and older demo, that's often the lower back. You'll even get results simply by practicing good posture, says Cruise. “When you're hunched over in an inward position all day, you're contracting everything. You've got to make an effort to counterbalance that and open up your body. Standing tall, with your chin up, shoulders back and chest out allows your body to open up and create this balance. You can even do it at your desk.”
Embrace the stretching habit, even just a little, and you'll find it might just be the most pleasurable part of your workout, loosening up your body, as well as relaxing your mind. “It's all about this freedom of movement,” says Cruise. “Feeling strong, youthful and really good in your skin.”
How to limber up the right way
Forget what your high school gym teacher told you. “There's no consistent research showing a benefit to stretching prior to exercise,” says Janet Hamilton, an exercise physiologist and founder of Running Strong in Atlanta. In fact, a 2013 review found that static stretching, when done before working out, leads to decreases in muscle power and performance. Stretching after a walk around the block or any other exercise is the ideal time. You also don't want to push it when it comes to stretching — don't bounce. You should feel resistance but not pain.
Breathe easy. Resist the urge to hold your breath as you stretch, which prevents oxygenated blood from reaching your muscles, making it harder for them to relax. “Breathing normally through a stretch will make it easier,” says Geier.
Hold it right there. Try staying in each stretch for 30 to 60 seconds to get maximum benefits. “If you maintain an active lifestyle, and stretching is already a part of your regular routine, you will benefit from holding each stretch longer,” says Smith, who suggests setting the timer on your phone to let you know when it's time to transition out of each move. However, says Olson, some professional trainers and physical therapists have noted improvements or maintenance of range of motion with just 10 seconds per stretch.