By Nora Tobin for Shape.com
As a fitness professional and athlete, one of the most common questions I hear is, "Do I really need to stretch?" or "What's the least amount of stretching I can do to still be worth it?" The short answer: Yes, stretching is important, and you should spend at least five minutes cooling down after every workout. Here are a few reasons why:
- You'll prevent injury and relieve pain. Stretching increases your range of motion, taking pressure off the joints and allowing the body to move more fluidly during exercise. As a result, you'll help prevent injury and/or pain that can be the product of an active lifestyle.
- You'll improve circulation. Stretching improves circulation by increasing blood flow to your muscles. Better circulation helps the body recover faster by removing waste byproducts in muscle tissue.
- You'll relieve stress. Stretching also helps calm the mind and reduce stress levels. When you're anxious, worried, or worn out, it places extra strain on the body, causing you to feel stressed. By taking a few minutes each day to unwind and relieve this unwanted tension, you will experience a sense of relief and stress will slowly start to fade away.
Do this five-minute cool-down at the end of your workout, when you wake up or before you go to bed. Hold each stretch for 30 seconds, and repeat all five stretches two to three times.
Benefits: --Improves flexibility in calves, hamstrings and shoulders --Relieves pain in the low back --Elongates cervical spine, which relieves tension in the body and head How to do it: Come onto your hands and knees with hands directly below your shoulders and knees directly below your hips. Spread your fingers wide and tuck your toes under. Inhale and lift your knees off the floor, pressing your hips up toward the ceiling. Draw your heels down to the floor or keep a slight bend in your knees. Press your hands firmly into the mat and draw your shoulder blades down. Keep the head between the arms (don't let it hang). Take deep breaths the entire time.
Benefits: --Improves flexibility in hips and quadriceps --Releases the psoas, which is part of a group of muscles called the hip flexors. Tightness of the psoas can result in lower back pain by compressing the lumbar discs How to do it: Come onto both knees and step your right foot forward. Make sure to keep your right knee over your heel and your left knee directly under your hip. Reach your left hand up toward the ceiling. Make sure to keep both hips facing forward and glutes engaged. Take deep breaths the entire time.
Benefits: --Improves flexibility in hips and glutes --Helps keep hip and knee joints properly aligned during activity and helps prevent sudden twisting --Allows for easy external rotation of the hips How to do it: Lie on your back, bend both knees and bring your left ankle over your right thigh. Lift your right foot off the ground, bringing your leg up to a 90-degree angle. Loop your hands in between your legs and slowly draw your right knee in toward your chest. Keep your head and neck relaxed on the ground. Take deep breaths the entire time.
Benefits: --Lengthens and realigns the spine --Increases flexibility in the hips and low back --Stimulates the digestive system How to do it: Lie on your back and bring both knees in toward your chest. Bring your hands out to your sides and draw your knees up and over to your left side. Keeping your shoulder blades on the ground, rest your knees on top of one another. Take deep breaths the entire time. When changing sides (after holding for 30 seconds), make sure to use your core muscles to bring your legs back to center.
Benefits: --Reduce the risk of shoulder injury by improving flexibility in the rotator cuff and posterior capsule --Improve range of motion in the shoulder (improvement in sports with a throwing or swinging motion) How to do it: Lie on your right side with knees bent. Bring your right arm to a 90-degree position out from your body. Use your top arm to slowly draw your right hand toward the floor. Make sure to apply a small amount of pressure to the arm, do not force range of motion. It's common to roll backward onto the shoulder blade, so make sure you stay directly on the shoulder. Take deep breaths the entire time. Repeat on the other side.