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The mental and physical benefits of stretching: What this essential part of your workout does for your brain and body

January 6, 2023, 11:00 AM UTC
Cropped shot of an unrecognizable athlete sitting alone and stretching before a run on the track
Stretching can lead to improved flexibility as well as a better mood.
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After a challenging workout, the last thing you probably want to do is spend five to 10 minutes stretching, but doing so can result in much-needed physical and mental health benefits. But why is stretching important and how often do you need to do it? We talked to a few experts to learn more.

“Stretching helps keep us mobile. We are born super mobile as babies and young children, but lose this as we grow into adults,” explains Maillard Howell, a personal trainer and owner at Dean CrossFit in New York City. “When we stop stretching, we lose capacity in movement. Decreased capacity in movement means we are able to move less; we are functionally less able to do everyday stuff like pick up a pen from the floor, scratch our back, or even climb stairs efficiently.”

Why stretching is good for your body

“When you think about exercise, most people participate in some type of aerobic activity that improves their cardiovascular endurance. Most people are doing weight training to help maintain lean muscle mass and to build strength,” says Chris Travers, an exercise physiologist out of Cleveland Clinic Sports Health in Cleveland, Ohio. “Those are two very important elements of a fitness program, but there’s also a third element, and that’s your flexibility and mobility, which is most often the one that’s neglected.”

At minimum, Travers suggests doing a structured flexibility program at least three times a week for about 30 minutes each session. This can include exercises such as yoga, tai chi, barre, or Pilates.

“With certain stretches, like yoga or tai chi, it’s getting you in a more relaxed state,” says Travers. “It’s going to get you to decompress and bring your stress level down and get you in a better frame of mind.”

Some additional health benefits of stretching include:

“Stretching is going to help with physical and mental relaxation and relieve muscle tension and soreness. It’s also going to help reduce the risk of injury,” says Travers. “Some people are naturally more flexible than others, but no matter whether you can touch your toes or you’re barely able to get your hands halfway down to your shins, you should be working on your flexibility and mobility because the more sedentary you are, the more your muscles are shortening, which in turn is causing you to be more tight.”

Why stretching is good for your brain

In addition to helping you feel relaxed, stretching increases your body’s levels of serotonin, which is the hormone that can help stabilize your mood and reduce stress. A study found that implementing stretching exercises at work also reduced anxiety and exhaustion while increasing vitality and mental health.

Add stretching to your everyday routine

There are two main types of stretching: static stretching, where you hold a stretch for a certain amount of time, typically between 15 and 30 seconds; and dynamic stretching, which incorporates more functional movements. But you’ll want to make sure you’re properly warmed up before stretching so as not to injure yourself. 

“Dynamic stretching is moving through a range of motion to help prep muscles and ligaments for performance and should be done before workouts,” explains Sonya Robinson, a Chicago-based National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) certified personal trainer and fitness nutrition specialist.

To build upon healthy habits in the new year (and year-round), Travers suggests adding a short stretch to your movement when your fitness tracker’s stand reminders goes off. 

“You get up, you maybe go for a quick walk to fill up your water bottle or get a cup of coffee, you come back and do a seated hamstring stretch or a standing version,” he says. “Now you’re adding some of these habits into your daily routine and it’s not taking up more time in your already compressed schedule.”

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