Whether you exercise daily or only once in a while, make stretching part of your regular routine. Stretching increases the range of motion of your muscles and joints, including the joints in the neck and back. Increased range of motion translates to better flexibility.
As much as I believe that stretching is good for you, the evidence that stretching either before or after exercise actually prevents injury is mixed.
Even if stretching has not been proven to reduce injury or the aches and pains from exercise, stretching does improve your flexibility by increasing your range of motion. As we get older, we tend to lose range of motion in our joints and spine because the elasticity of body tissues decreases. Stretching can't stop the physical changes, but it can slow the rate at which range of motion declines. With stretching, you will recapture some flexibility and take better advantage of what your joints are designed to do.
Stretching should be done when your muscles are warm. You should not stretch before exercise, especially if you are competing in an event. Stretching just before you start can decrease athletic performance, most likely related to mild muscle injury. Warm up to get limber by starting your exercise routine at a lower level of intensity, which will not stress your muscles, tendons, and ligaments like stretching will. You can go through a separate stretch program if you don’t plan to exercise immediately afterward. I prefer to stretch after I am finished with my daily exercise, rather than doing it a separate time. Other people prefer to warm up and get limber for about 10 minutes, stretch, and then proceed to the rest of the aerobic or resistance workout. When using free weights or resistance machines, you can save time by stretching the muscle group you have just worked as you prepare for the next set of repetitions. For instance, if you just finished working your triceps, stretch them while you are resting before the next set.
With a few simple rules, you can safely increase flexibility in your neck, back, shoulders, hips, arms, and legs:
The term stretching is most often used synonymously with what is just one type of stretching, called passive or relaxation stretching. It is passive because you are supporting the part of your body being stretched by holding onto a stable object, leaning against a wall, or lying on the floor. Sometimes you will get the support from contracting muscles that are not involved in the stretch.
Passive stretching is relaxing and feels especially good after completing a vigorous exercise session. Start the stretch using little effort, letting your body weight help you lean into the stretch. Hold it for about 10 seconds, and then back off the stretch. Take a breath. Then slowly stretch a little deeper. Hold the stretch for 20 more seconds.
Active stretching is more challenging. With an active stretch, you are engaging and working the muscles that oppose the stretch. For example, if you are sitting and fully extend one knee, you contract your quadriceps (muscles in the front of the thigh) to hold the knee out straight, while your hamstrings (muscles in the back of the thigh), stretch. You only need to hold an active stretch for 10 to 15 seconds. Active stretching is best performed independently of other exercise.
Not enough time is the usual excuse that I hear when I ask patients why they don't exercise. If your time for exercise is limited, stretching should not be a priority. Instead, use those five to 10 minutes for a good warm-up, some extra strength training or balance exercises. These will do more to prevent injury.
Howard LeWine, M.D. is chief editor of Internet publishing, Harvard Health Publications. He is a clinical instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital. Dr. LeWine has been a primary care internist and teacher of internal medicine since 1978.