Stretching: Less pain, other gains

As you get older, your toes may seem farther away. Stretching to reach them can take a lot more effort than it once did. But while it may be tempting to shrug and assume that losing flexibility is just a cost of aging, it’s nothing to take in stride. It can affect your balance and your posture. It can even make you more prone to chronic pain.

For example, tight hamstrings behind your knees can cause a pelvic misalignment that makes your lower back hurt. A lack of flexibility might also make you more prone to injury.

“In general, a lot of us have bad posture and poor range of motion,” says Dr. Lauren Elson, an instructor in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School.

How can you improve flexibility?

The solution? Whether you’re an avid exerciser or spend most of your time sitting in front of a computer, stretching should be part of your weekly routine. While this may conjure images of complicated twists and contortions, the type of stretching you need may be as simple as taking periodic work breaks to lift your arms above your head and to perform some other easy movements.

“Stretching doesn’t have to be a particular program. It’s just getting out of the posture you spend a lot of time in, taking some deep breaths, and moving your joints through their full range,” says Dr. Elson.

Try the three main types of stretches described below to help improve flexibility. All are easy to incorporate into your day or week.

Stretches to combat a lack of movement

If you sit at a desk all day, you may be doing your posture a disservice. Many sedentary days can lead to neck and shoulder problems and tight muscles in the hips.

“Get out of your chair and move around for a few minutes every hour,” says Dr. Elson. Focus on stretches that move the neck, shoulders, and hips, in particular. Even simple movements — such as putting your arms above your head or squeezing your shoulders back while sitting at your desk — are helpful.

Also, pay attention to other potential trouble spots. For example, many women wear high heels every day, which can reduce the flexibility of their calves. Stretching the calves daily can help ensure that this does not become a problem.

Dynamic stretches before you exercise

In the past, experts recommended that people stretch thoroughly before exercise to limber up their joints. But this is no longer the case. Research has found that holding stretches for 30 seconds or more can actually reduce the power in your muscles, hindering your performance in the workout that follows.

Instead, try what experts refer to as dynamic stretches. These are movements that will warm you up without sapping your muscle strength. Dynamic stretches are simple movements that put your muscles and joints through a normal range of motion. Examples include rolling your shoulders, circling your arms up and around, or doing lunges from side to side. If you’re going to be running or playing tennis, you might want to focus on dynamic stretches that use movements similar to those you will be performing during your workout.

Static stretches after you exercise

“The best time to stretch for lengthening, for example if you’re trying to increase hamstring flexibility, is after a workout,” says Dr. Elson. This is the time to try your static stretches — those that hold your body in various stretching positions for a few seconds or more. Stretches should be held without bouncing, because bouncing can lead to injuries.

Choose the right level of challenge

How you stretch depends a lot on your basic level of mobility. Stretches can be done at varying degrees of intensity based on your fitness level. There are easier and more challenging versions of various stretches. Select the one that is appropriate for you.

Take cues from your body to determine the right level of challenge. When you stretch, you should feel the sensation in your muscle and not at the joint. “You shouldn’t feel joint pain when stretching. Rather, it should feel like lengthening of the muscle,” says Dr. Elson.


  1. chintala

    Yoga has taken the world by storm. More people than ever starting to do yoga to achieve health, fitness and even peace of mind with it.

    There are several different types of yoga and it can be overwhelming trying to figure out which one to do.

    Yoga Burn was created by a professional yoga instructor, Zoe Bray.

    She released this course just for women who were trying to lose weight. Running, CrossFit and other sports may be too strenuous for many women.

  2. Donald Bill

    I’m a personal trainer and have a hard time convincing a lot of myclients the importance of warming up before doing any kind of exercise. I think the biggest problem people have with stretching is that the rewards are not immediate or “apparent”, so they tend to think of them as a waste of time. I tell them yoga is technically just stretching as well, but the benefits are well documented.

    On the subject of stretching, these days I’ve been encouraging my clients to do yoga and office stretches at their desk even outside their workout routines:

    People seem to appreciate stretching as a health benefit more when they are done at the workplace when otherwise they are not being physically active.

  3. Elma Malan

    I walked 618 km of the Camino in 2018 at the age of 76. Started at St Jean Pied de Port to Burgos, then from Leon to Santiago. That was 27 days of walking. Due to not having enough time, i took a bus from Burgos to Leon ( the Maseta) stretching every night before going to bed was very helpful. I had no injuries at all, actually the walking was wonderful for my body. But do believe in stretching from time to time.

  4. jen

    This is such a good article to promote more awareness on benefits of stretching because as we get older our muscles get shorter and tighter . Stretching will help you feel a lot better physically and a personal trainer I see immediate results from stretching which makes people realise yes they need to stretch regularly

  5. Yudaes

    There is no field of practice that is little understood and studied and less as a “science” of stretching. Stretching not only does not prevent injury (a persistent myth among athletes, coaches and owners of stretching studies), but there is no evidence of their contribution to reducing morbidity or mortality. This is really an optional element in a physical training program IF someone adheres to the main basic principles: know how to do warm-up exercises for activities; work with opposite muscle groups (i.e., if you press the bench to train your chest, you also have to train the top and center of your back); and, find and use mobility exercises that allow you to move all your joints in the most complete range of motion.

  6. Ray

    A physical therapist once told my son that stretching AFTER exercise is most important. I’ve stuck to that rule, and find that after exerting myself, a simple 10 – 15 minute gentle but thorough stretch routine (created by myself and my instincts as to what feels OK and gets to all areas of concern) almost always resolves any aches or pains resulting from exercise. Never mind it’s meditative and relaxing benefits.

  7. Sharon Neufeld

    Nothing has been more profound for my aging body as is doing Somatics,
    (Or feldenkrise or Anat Baniel technique) these aren’t stretches but movements to awaken neurological pathways that have been lost due to lack of use, or trauma. They are simple involve no strain..but have worked to increase body awareness and movement habits as well as balancing the muscles to work to keep one upright and using all muscle systems. Any system that doesn’t recognize the soma.,or the body as it is aware of itself, will never be effective.. truly profound..check it out online.

  8. Bill Story

    Does anyone have study evidence that you can actually lengthen a muscle with any stretching routine. I have not seen any.

  9. David

    Just watch how your pet cat stretches periodically during the day is a lot to be learned from our animal friends

    • Cee

      That is how yoga developed, or so I read. After sitting meditations, one needed to change position. People watched how animals stretched.

  10. Treadmill Reviews

    It’s a really unique and informative article. Great work! Much appreciated, keep posting many more…. I added it to my bookmark website list and will be checking back in the near future

  11. Jim Kocjancic

    Great article. A few years ago,in my forties, I added stretching to my gym routine. It was probably one of the wisest decisions I made. I am in awe at looking at others my age and their deterioration as we should be hitting our stride in our fifties.
    My best,

  12. Vik K.

    No area of exercise science is as poorly understood and studied and as full of gaps as the “science” of stretching. Not only does stretching not prevent injury (a persistent myth amongst athletes, coaches, and the owners of stretching studios), there is zero evidence of its contribution to lowering morbidity or mortality. It is truly an optional element in a physical training program IF a person sticks to key basic principles: know how to warm up for activity; work opposing muscle groups (i.e., if you bench press for chest work, you must also exercise the upper and middle back); and, find and use mobility exercises that allow you to move all your joints through as complete a range of motion as possible.

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