When you think of exercise, you probably think of aerobic activities that get your heart pumping or weight bearing exercises that work your muscles. But that’s not all you need if you want to stay healthy, strong, mobile and independent, says Harvard Health.
You also need to stretch.
“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, in a Harvard Health blog.
Stretching keeps the muscles flexible, strong and healthy—all necessary for maintaining a range of motion in the joints. If muscles shorten and become tight, they aren’t able to extend all the way when called upon to do something, This puts a strain on the joints and can cause muscle damage, Harvard Health says.
The best way improve flexibility is to simply stretch regularly.
“It may have taken you many months to get tight muscles, so you’re not going to be perfectly flexible after one or two sessions,” says Nolan. “It takes weeks to months to get flexible, and you’ll have to continue working on it to maintain it.”
How To Start Stretching
Lifespan Fitness recommends warming up stiff muscles with a heat pack prior to stretching. In addition, you might want to use some form of assisted stretching, relying on stretching equipment or the help of another person.
For preventing falls, it’s important to improve flexibility in the hamstrings, quadriceps and the lower back along the hip joint.
You don’t have to stretch every muscle you have, according to Nolan. “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,” he says. It’s also good to stretch your shoulders, neck, and lower back.
One good tip from Harvard Health: Find a physical therapist—maybe at your local YMCA—who can assess your muscle strength and design a stretching program for you. If you have chronic conditions, you may need a doctor to sign off on the program first.
The Benefits of Stretching Go Beyond Flexibility
According to Lifespan, stretching can improve flexibility, increase circulation and blood flow. Overall, it improves quality of life as we age by helping to: :
Stretching for a Better Night Sleep
Stretching is an often overlooked remedy for good sleep, according to Healthline, which shows you how to do eight stretches before bed. The stretches can help you fall asleep faster and improve your sleep.
Stretching can help a person focus on their breath and body awareness, creating mindfulness, all known to contribute to better sleep. But, Healthline warns, don’t overdo any exercises, even stretching, before bedtime. It can keep you awake.
Diana Manos is a Washington, DC-based freelance writer who specializes in healthcare, technology and wellness. She is passionate about patient empowerment, natural healing methods and alternative healthcare.