Is Stretching the Unsung Hero of Fitness? A Closer Look at Its Surprising Benefits


For many, stretching is akin to the awkward small talk before a main event – a necessary but often underappreciated part of a fitness routine. Some even question its necessity, with research suggesting that pre-workout stretching might actually hinder performance by weakening muscles.

However, recent studies are turning this notion on its head. A 2020 study revealed that stretching was linked to a lower risk of all-cause mortality among American adults, even after accounting for other forms of exercise. This finding was echoed in a 2023 study among Korean adults, where those who engaged in flexibility exercises at least five times a week had a 20% lower risk of dying during the follow-up period compared to non-stretchers. Surprisingly, this benefit slightly surpassed that of aerobic exercise and resistance training.

The Unexpected Advantages of Stretching

When we talk about stretching, we typically mean static stretching – holding a position to challenge a muscle and improve joint flexibility. According to David Behm, PhD, an exercise scientist at Memorial University of Newfoundland, you only need to stretch to the initial point of discomfort to see increases in flexibility. But the benefits don’t stop there.

1. Strength Enhancement

Contrary to popular belief, flexibility and strength training share a common ground: both apply tension to muscles and connective tissues. This tension activates proteins that trigger a cascade leading to protein synthesis, which is how muscles grow and strengthen. Although stretching won’t replace strength training for muscle growth, it can be particularly beneficial for older or more sedentary individuals.

2. Reduced Arterial Stiffness

Stretching isn’t just about flexibility; it also has cardiovascular benefits. Poor flexibility is associated with arterial stiffness, but stretching can improve arterial function, lower resting heart rate and blood pressure, and increase vasodilation. Enhanced mobility can indirectly boost cardiovascular health by making movement more efficient and encouraging more physical activity.

3. Improved Performance

The impact of stretching on athletic performance is debated, but sports massage therapist Joe Yoon believes that improved range of motion can lead to better performance and reduced injury risk. To avoid potential performance impairments, it’s recommended to limit stretching to less than 60 seconds per muscle and combine it with active warm exercises.

4. Fewer Injuries

Stretching increases flexibility in areas where muscles are most vulnerable, allowing for safer force generation during explosive movements or changes in direction. For non-athletes, enhanced flexibility can improve balance, reducing the risk of falls and the severity of injuries if they occur.

Integrating Stretching into Your Routine

While stretching can be as complex as you want it to be, Yoon advocates for simplicity. A full-body flexibility routine is ideal, but starting with just one or two stretches for problem areas can still be beneficial. For instance, the puppy pose can alleviate a stiff back when done consistently, even if just for a few minutes a day.

Consistency is key – a little stretching every day is more effective than sporadic, longer sessions. Stretching one area can also have a positive impact on others, thanks to the interconnectedness of our bodies. For example, improving upper back flexibility can enhance shoulder mobility, and lower-body stretches can benefit the knees and lower back.

This interconnectedness might explain why stretching is linked to a reduced mortality risk. Beyond increasing flexibility and improving balance, stretching has a “global effect” on the body, enhancing cardiovascular function and even leading to small gains in strength.

In summary, while stretching might not be the most glamorous part of a fitness regimen, its benefits are far-reaching and significant. Whether you’re an athlete or just looking to improve your overall health, incorporating regular stretching into your routine can have profound effects on your physical well-being.