5 Things Physical Therapists Want You to Know About Stretching
Adding stretching into your regular movement routine has so many benefits beyond just becoming more flexible.
Stretching is as important to your movement routine as peanut butter is to a PB&J. But like a lot of people, you may view stretching as a nice-to-have — a bonus if you have a little extra time in your day — as opposed to an essential. But physical therapists will tell you that stretching is essential for a lot of reasons. In addition to improving your mobility (meaning: your range of motion and ability to get around in general), it’s also important for strength building and even helping to reduce chronic pain.
So how about we get to the facts and dispel some of the myths about stretching? Here are five facts about stretching that will change the way you think about limbering up.
Our Hinge Health Experts
Maureen Lu, PT, DPT
Julianne Payton, PT, DPT
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Why Stretching Is So Important
1. There are no hard-and-fast rules about when and how to stretch. “A lot of people have the misconception that there are a lot of rules about stretching — that you need to do it at this time, or it's only good if you do it a certain way. Even some fitness experts promote these outdated ideas!” says Maureen Lu, PT, DPT, a Hinge Health physical therapist and board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist.
The fact is that it doesn’t really matter if you loosen up a little before you exercise, or afterward, or while you’re watching Netflix at night. Any amount of stretching — even a few moments here and there — can be beneficial. “Contrary to what you might think, your muscles don’t have to be warmed up before you stretch. You’re unlikely to pull something by doing a gentle stretch even if your muscles are ‘cold.’ And you don’t need to follow a whole long stretching routine,” says Dr. Lu. “Two or three stretches first thing in the morning, or as a break at your desk, can help improve the mobility in your muscles and joints.”
2. If you want stronger muscles, flexibility is key. You might not think that strength relies on how limber you are, but it does. “If you have a limited range of motion, it impacts how much muscle you can actually access when you do strength-building exercises,” says Dr. Lu. “If you only have 50% of your range of motion, for example, you’ll only have the opportunity to strengthen your muscles within that smaller range. By improving your flexibility through stretching, you’ll get better results from your resistance training routine. A strong muscle is a flexible muscle.”
3. You can improve flexibility even if you’re not ‘naturally flexible.’ “Some people don’t stretch because they believe they’re just not flexible, and they’re never going to be, so why bother?” says Hinge Health physical therapist Julianne Payton, PT, DPT. “Maybe you’re not able to bend over and touch the floor. I've been a competitive runner for most of my life, and I have never been able to do that, no matter what I do. My hamstrings are just very tight. And that can feel frustrating, for sure. But no matter how flexible or not you are, you can make improvements that are meaningful for your body.” You might notice that it’s a little easier for you to put on your shoes, or take something off of a high shelf.
4. Stretching helps with everyday activities. “Stretching isn’t just a ‘bonus.’ It’s a legitimate form of exercise — it really counts,” says Dr. Lu. “It’s good for your body to move in different ways and in different planes of motion than you might work through other activities like walking, or swimming or lifting weights.” Stretching makes your movement routine more well-rounded. That promotes a healthier, more balanced body that’s better able to do everything from cook meals and play bocce with friends, to dust the house and work in the garden.
5. Stretching can calm down your pain cycle. At Hinge Health, we know that movement is medicine when it comes to pain. Being active helps reduce pain by helping your body become more resilient and training your pain system to be less reactive. Research suggests that stretching may positively impact your nervous system — lowering heart rate and blood pressure and reducing the amount of discomfort you feel by easing an over-sensitive pain system. “It can bring the pain levels a little bit lower so that you can gradually add in more things and more activities,” says Dr. Payton.
PT Tip: Dynamic Stretching Counts Too
“Anything that loosens up your muscles and makes you feel good can be considered a ‘stretch’ — it doesn’t just have to be a traditional static stretch, like a quad stretch, or bending over and reaching for your toes,” says Dr. Lu. “Marching in place is a stretch. So is a gentle backbend when you get up from your chair.” Dynamic stretches are exercises that involve movement of some kind, as opposed to static stretches, which you hold.
How Hinge Health Can Help You
If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program. The best part:
You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.
Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you. See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.
This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.
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Aartolahti, E., et al. (2019). Long-Term Strength and Balance Training in Prevention of Decline in Muscle Strength and Mobility in Older Adults. Aging Clinical and Experimental Research, vol. 32, no. 1, pp. 59–66. doi:10.1007/s40520-019-01155-0
Thomas, E., et al. (2021). Peripheral Nerve Responses to Muscle Stretching: A Systematic Review. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, vol. 20, no. 2, pp. 258–267. doi:10.52082/jssm.2021.258
Magawa, N., et al. (2023). The Impact of Stretching Intensities on Neural and Autonomic Responses: Implications for Relaxation. Sensors, vol. 23, no. 15, p. 6890. doi:10.3390/s23156890