Stretching Before and After Physical Activity

It sounds like a broken record. Stretch before you exercise. However, stretching and warming up muscles prior to a workout of any kind is an incredibly important part of long-term muscle and even joint health. Much like a car’s engine, the muscles in our body work more efficiently when they are warmed up and primed for strenuous activity. Pushing the muscles hard before they’ve had a chance to warm up often leads to soft tissue injury, instability, and the potential for joint problems.

However, as science and medicine have learned more about the musculature of the body, we have also pivoted on when one should stretch. Stretching a cold muscle can be detrimental. If we launch directly into stretching a muscle that has been immobilized for a while – for example sitting at a desk for the day or just getting out of bed – we can create strain that leads to injury. Therefore, the first part of any exercise routine should be a quick warm-up. This can consist of a brisk walk for about 5 to 10 minutes that gets the muscles working but does not overwork them. From there, these warm muscles can be stretched more efficiently, and strenuous activity can begin.

How Long Should I Stretch?

Once you’ve done your quick warm-up, your stretch can last anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes depending on how strenuous the exercise will ultimately be. Be sure to stretch multiple areas of the body as many are interconnected, even if they don’t seem to be. For example, the hamstrings connect to both glutes and calves and any injury can cause pain along the entire leg. Therefore, don’t limit your stretching to just one muscle group.

This is particularly important as we get older. There are very few middle-aged patients of ours that don’t occasionally channel their inner 20-year-old and jump straight into activity. Unfortunately, this can end poorly. A consistent pattern can even lead to long-term joint problems and disability. In fact, a very interesting results of the pandemic has been a significant rise in overuse injuries, especially as home gyms including bikes and treadmills have become all the rage. Simply jumping out of bed and straight onto the exercise machine can lead to a visit to your doctor or orthopedic surgeon.

You shouldn’t discount stretching and cooling down after your workout as well. This helps keep your muscles relaxed and reduces the production of lactic acid that causes soreness.

The Bottom Line

Stretching can be beneficial if performed properly as part of a more complete warmup program. But be mindful of the fact that you can still injure yourself with too much exertion, no matter how much you’ve stretched.

Be honest and understand your physical abilities and limitations. You can then match your activity levels to those abilities. If you are not a highly trained athlete, you should not expect to perform like one. If you do want to eventually get there, it is important to take it step-by-step and condition your body appropriately.

If you or a loved one have sustained an injury, don’t ignore it, make an appointment with your primary care physician or one of the orthopedic specialists here at Premier Orthopaedic. We can help you find the appropriate care for your injury.