Stretching is no longer just the warm-up or cool-down to exercise, it is the exercise – with serious health benefits. Here’s why you should be doing it and how.



Why is stretching important?

The majority of us fall into two exercising camps: we’re either almost completely inactive, sitting at our desks for long periods of time, or we’re working out with the scientific precision and competitive edge of a professional athlete. Either way, we’re allowing stress to accumulate in the body as muscle tension, giving many orthopedic surgeons cause for concern as they blame these extremes for an increase in bone and joint issues normally only seen in people over 60. But new studies are suggesting that embracing stretching on a bigger scale might be the key to upping strength, losing fat and even positively impacting our mental health.

What are the benefits of stretching?

A morning and evening stretch can reverse the muscle-shortening process and, like a piece of elastic, start to lengthen it again. Stretching after you wake will encourage blood to flow, sending oxygen to the body and increasing energy.

Stretching has been found to have benefits on a cellular level: a study published in the journal Nature by John Hopkins University in Baltimore found that stretching can influence whether stem cells turn into fat or bone, with stretched cells more likely to become bone cells, which in turn strengthens the skeleton. A Japanese study found that stretching, or lack thereof, can also impact your mental health (stretching releases dopamine, the ‘happy hormone’), implying that bad posture can deepen depression.

What are the best stretches to do?

The right stretch should do two things: loosen muscles to increase the range of motion and literally warm up the body – stretching is 80% more effective when the body is warm. Here are three simple techniques to start you off:

Arm-circle stretch: “This is good for gym-goers, runners and those who want to stay mobile,” says Alix Waterhouse, founder of My Method founder of My Method, which offers expert yoga and Pilates teachers to your door. Hold both arms at shoulder height, extend sideways and away from your shoulders. Make ten small backwards circles and then ten forward circles and do three sets of each.

Active quad stretch: Stand with your feet hip distance apart and reach up, lengthening your spine. Keeping your hips facing forward, raise one heel up to your glute and hold it to stretch your hamstring, then repeat with the other leg. “This stretch is particularly good stretch for runners,” says Waterhouse.

Heel drop calf stretch: “Stand with the balls of your feet on a raised object or step,” says Waterhouse. “Let your heels drop towards the ground, then gently lean forwards as far as you can go. Do this on alternate legs, stretching one calf at a time.”