The Medicine Cabinet: Ask the Harvard Experts
Q: I walk with my neighbor daily. She stretches after every walk and keeps telling me I should do the same. Is stretching really necessary?
A: Your neighbor is right! You may think of stretching as something performed only by runners or gymnasts. But we all need to stretch to help us stay flexible. Like you, a lot of people don’t understand that stretching has to happen on a regular basis.
Regular stretching keeps muscles long, lean and flexible, and we need that flexibility to maintain 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 unable to extend all the way. That puts you at risk for joint pain, strains and muscle damage.
With a body full of muscles, the idea of daily stretching may seem overwhelming. But you don’t have to stretch every muscle you have. The areas critical for mobility are in your lower body: your calves, your hamstrings, your hip flexors in the pelvis and quadriceps in the front of the thigh. Aim for a program of daily stretches or at least three or four times per week.
The benefits of stretching accumulate over time as long as you remain committed to the process. It may have taken you many months to get tight muscles, so you’re not going to be perfectly flexible right away. Stick with it. The benefits of stretching accumulate over time as long as you remain committed to the process.
We used to believe that stretching was necessary to warm up the muscles and prepare them for activity. However, mounting research has shown that stretching the muscles before they’re warmed up can actually hurt them. When everything is cold, the fibers aren’t prepared and may be damaged. If you exercise first, you’ll get blood flow to the area, and that makes the tissue more pliable and amenable to change.
Proper technique is important. Hold a stretch for 30 seconds. Don’t bounce, which can cause injury. You’ll feel tension during a stretch, but you should not feel pain. If you do, there may be an injury or damage in the tissue. Stop stretching that muscle, and talk to your doctor.
(Howard LeWine, M.D., is an internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. For additional consumer health information, please visit www.health.harvard.edu.)
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Erin O’Donnell is a freelance health and science writer, parent, and graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Walks by Lake Michigan make her happy.