It’s not enough to build muscle and achieve aerobic fitness. You need to think about flexibility, too. Stretching can help.
You may think of stretching as something performed only by runners or gymnasts. But we all need to stretch in order to protect our mobility and independence. “A lot of people don’t understand that stretching has to happen on a regular basis. It should be daily,” says David Nolan, a physical therapist at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.
Why stretching is important
Stretching keeps the muscles flexible, strong, and healthy, and we need that flexibility to maintain a range of motion in the joints. Without it, the muscles shorten and become tight. Then, when you call on the muscles for activity, they are weak and unable to extend all the way. That puts you at risk for joint pain, strains, and muscle damage.
For example, sitting in a chair all day results in tight hamstrings in the back of the thigh. That can make it harder to extend your leg or straighten your knee all the way, which inhibits walking. Likewise, when tight muscles are suddenly called on for a strenuous activity that stretches them, such as playing tennis, they may become damaged from suddenly being stretched. Injured muscles may not be strong enough to support the joints, which can lead to joint injury.
Regular stretching keeps muscles long, lean, and flexible, and this means that exertion “won’t put too much force on the muscle itself,” says Nolan. Healthy muscles also help a person with balance problems to avoid falls.
Where to start
With a body full of muscles, the idea of daily stretching may seem overwhelming. But Nolan says you don’t have to stretch every muscle you have. “The areas critical for mobility are in your lower extremities: your calves, your hamstrings, your hip flexors in the pelvis and quadriceps in the front of the thigh.” Stretching your shoulders, neck, and lower back is also