Believe it or not, stretching is a topic that has received some controversy in recent years in the fitness industry. Recent studies have shown mixed results about whether stretching before and after your workout decreases muscle soreness. However, there are other benefits to stretching and flexibility that go way beyond reducing muscle soreness—it turns out your yoga instructor may be on to something when they encourage you to reach a little farther or stretch a little deeper.
Here are some of the benefits of maintaining a flexible body:
1. It improves athletic performance.
Part of being fit means being able to quickly respond to changing environments and terrain, which in turn helps build different muscles in your body and keeps your mind sharp. With a flexible body, you retain greater motor control and ability to respond to your environment.
Greater flexibility also means greater range of motion around your joints, which helps you utilize the full potential of your muscles. From a sports performance point of view, imagine having a greater range of motion for your golf or tennis swing, or even a Pilates exercise. By broadening your range of movement, you are better able to utilize your muscular strength as well as gravity and momentum, to help you excel at your sport.
2. Flexibility supports functional movement.
Similarly, being flexible also gives you the ability to perform the movements you need in your everyday life—bending down to pick up a bag, lifting a baby, reaching for the phone, sweeping the floor. If you're tight and have a limited range of motion, all of these activities could potentially result in injury, especially if they're done quickly.
3. Being flexible helps prevent injury and illness.
Maintaining a limber body preps your muscles for quick and unexpected movements as well as strains during a workout. It also increases blood flow to your muscles and improves your overall circulation, which can help protect against illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease. A 2009 study in the American Journal of Physiology showed that for people age 40 and over, flexibility in the body was accompanied by flexibility in the arteries, reducing the risk for cardiovascular disease and even death.
4. It aids in good posture.
Poor flexibility places strain on your muscles and joints where there shouldn't be, which can often result in poor posture. Stretching and increasing flexibility helps to correct this by balancing the tension placed across the joint by the muscles that cross it. A stiff muscle in one part of your body may lead to overexertion and pulling on another part, changing the way you hold your body in its relaxed state and placing strain on those joints.
Similarly, gaining flexibility in the large muscles in your lower body—hamstrings, quads, hip flexors—can help reduce stress on your lower back and reduce chronic back pain. After all, all of our muscles and joints are connected and work together to produce movement.
5. Flexibility training helps you get in touch with your body.
Often when we're working out, we're going so fast or so hard that we are completely out of sync with our bodies. Stretching gives you an opportunity to continue to move and work with your body while slowing down enough to really feel what's going on. Don't underestimate the importance of this mind/body connection to your overall health and well-being.
Despite these benefits, it's important to remember not to overdo your stretching. Overstretching can raise the risk of strains, sprains, and dislocations. Listen to your body, move slowly, and breathe. A quick overextended stretch is more likely to result in injury. A gentle longer stretch (hold for at least 30 seconds) after your workout (when your body is warm) is likely to enhance your flexibility in a healthy gradual way.