Health and fitness is a major preoccupation nowadays.  With the current emphasis on ‘looking good’, that’s not surprising and neither is it a bad thing, especially in a nation concerned with a rise in obesity.

Unfortunately, we live in an age when there are many different demands on our time.  Inevitably, workouts have to compete with a variety of other activities.  In view of this, it’s tempting to skip the less enjoyable aspects of training, like stretching, in order to get to the stuff we like, such as lifting or cardio.

This is particularly the case with post-workout stretching.  The session is done and we want to shower and get away.  However, in so doing, we are not only running a greater risk of injury, but also missing out on some potential health benefits.

The advantages of stretching after exercise have recently been called into question, but the received wisdom is that stretching both before and after training is a good idea.  Here are some reasons why.

Stretching prepares the body for exercise

These days, the majority of us have sedentary jobs.  If you’ve ever tried getting straight up from your desk and performing vigorous exercise, you’ll know how difficult and uncomfortable it can be.  Similarly, if you’ve watched a cat wake up after a sleep, you’ll see it perform a series of stretches before doing anything.  Yet, we get straight out of bed and expect our muscles to be functioning normally without any preparation whatsoever.

When we’ve been sitting/resting for long periods, our muscles become rigid.  Consequently, before we start working them, we need to prepare them.  This has several advantages – not only does stretching reduce the risk of tears and injuries, it also aids blood circulation, thereby increasing the supply of nutrients to the muscles.

Stretching will also improve suppleness.  The more flexible you are, the easier you will find it to move.

However, before stretching, you must first warm up.  Stretching cold muscles risks tears, so carry out a little low-impact exercise beforehand, such as gentle jogging, light aerobics or cycling on an exercise bike.  The time needed will vary according to individual fitness levels, but a good warm up should take around 10-15 minutes.  However, it is time well spent.

Stretching aids post-exercise restoration

Lactic acid accumulates in our muscles after exercising and the best way to break that down and reduces its effects is to perform some stretches.  This is particularly the case for those who find themselves unable to move the day after a vigorous workout or those suffering from delayed-onset muscle soreness.  Stretching after exercising may not totally eliminate stiffness, but it will definitely reduce its severity.

Another advantage of post-exercise stretching is that it represents an organised way of bringing your muscles to a halt and reducing your heart rate.  In the same way that athletes don’t just stop on the finish line at the end of a race, neither is it a good idea to stop immediately at the conclusion of a hard training session.  To do that would place additional strain on the heart, whereas stretching will help the blood return to the heart.

Working out involves repeated contractions of the muscles and, at the conclusion of a session, they can be left in a compressed state requiring us to stretch to return them to normal. If, when you finish exercise, you feel tight all over, then you really need to stretch!