The Importance of Stretching to Achieve and Maintain Flexibility

Families, Food and Fitness May 12, 2010 Print Friendly and PDF

Regular stretching, as well as warming up and cooling down before and after exercise, can reduce your risk for injuries and improve flexibility and range of motion. When pressed for time, however, it’s oftentimes the element of our workout we’re most likely to skip. But including a warm-up, cool-down, and stretching routine in your exercise regimen is essential to keeping your body fit and healthy.

Warming Up

Muscles should be warm before you stretch. When you begin to exercise, the muscles you are using demand more oxygen, and your breathing rate increases to compensate. By starting your exercise at a much slower pace for about 5 to 10 minutes, you provide your body an opportunity to gradually adjust to this new demand for oxygen and blood flow to the muscles. Generally, a slow version of what you do for exercise is sufficient to warm up your muscles. In other words, if you are a jogger, you can warm up your lower body muscles by starting your workout at a very slow jog for the first 5 to 10 minutes to ready your muscles for the demand about to be placed on them.

Cooling Down

Just as important as the warm-up is the cool-down portion of your workout. Follow the same guidelines as for the warm-up; that is, for the last 5 to 10 minutes of your workout, slow your pace to allow your breathing rate to return to normal. This also helps to reduce muscle stiffness. For example, to cool down after a 45-minute jog, walk or jog slowly for an additional 5 to 10 minutes to help return your heart rate to normal. After you’ve completed your cool-down, your muscles are ready for stretching.


Flexibility relates to the range of motion of a particular joint and is different for all joints. A person can have good shoulder flexibility and poor hip flexibility. The flexibility of a particular joint depends on many things, such as tightness of the ligaments, tendons, muscles, and the shape and size of the bones in that particular joint. Good flexibility involves being able to stretch, bend, and twist, without any stiffness or pain.

Flexibility decreases with age, so that’s why it is important to spend time enhancing and working on flexibility by doing simple stretches daily or a few times a week. You are never too old to work on increasing flexibility. Stretching can help normal activities of daily living become easier, such as reaching up high to get something from a shelf, getting in and out of the car, or getting up and down from the floor or chair. Stretches should be held for a minimum of 15 seconds, repeated at least twice, and should be done only when your muscles are warmed up. Stretches should not cause any pain, but you should be able to feel a slight pull, but no discomfort. Remember to relax and breathe. Stretch both sides of your body equally. Include stretches for your shoulders, arms, back, thighs, calves, hands, and neck.

You can do simple stretches for your wrists, arms, hands, or neck while sitting at your desk or while watching television.

Keep these stretching guidelines in mind to reduce your chance of injuring your muscles and/or joints:

Picture of woman stretching

1) Don’t stretch before warming up.

2) Stay within a normal range of motion; don’t stretch beyond what is comfortable for you.

3) Don’t bounce or force a stretch.

4) Hold your stretches for 15 to 30 seconds each.

5) Do each stretch at least twice.

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.