For a long time, physical activity or exercise has been linked to the release of endorphins and an “exercise-induced euphoria” (Harber & Sutton, 1984). So what are the mental benefits of stretching and why does it feel so good to do?
There are several components of fitness, but a couple that are often overlooked are flexibility and mobility. As important as cardiovascular or strength training are to improving fitness, if you aren’t moving well or are in pain, this can affect how much you want to move intentionally and can negatively affect your quality of life. Stretching can be a great way to ease yourself into a fitness routine because you will see improvements relatively quickly and notice a difference in how you feel after even spending as little as a few minutes at it each day!
Aging is associated with rigidity or stiffness of the muscles and, due to increased stiffness, simple everyday tasks such as getting out of a chair, walking, and climbing stairs end up requiring greater effort to complete (Marcucci & Reggiani, 2020). Unless you are proactive about preventing muscle rigidity or stiffness through adequate movement, flexibility and mobility will decline. In fact, one study looked at the mobility of shoulder joints in 28-year-old males compared to 85-year-old males. The 28-year-olds had a 13.9% range of motion (ROM) in their shoulders while the 85-year-olds had a 5.2% ROM (Medeiros et al., 2013). This doesn’t necessarily mean that all joints decline the same way, but it does highlight the importance of exercising all the joints in a variety of ways – especially focusing on overhead movements to maintain the ability to reach into a cupboard later in life. Another study took 62 subjects over 65 years of age and found that a 60-second stretch routine five days a week for six weeks led to an increase in ROM by 2.4° in each muscle group each week (Feland et al., 2001). Think about how much better those subjects must have been feeling (which also leads to an enhanced quality of life!) with the significantly increased ROM just by adding stretching to their routines!
Feeling better is a major benefit of stretching. In general, it is not the weak muscles that cause pain or discomfort. It is the muscles that are too stiff, too tight, or spasming that cause pain. Pain comes from tension. “Stretching reduces the muscle tension, thereby reversing the cycle of tension, then tightening, and pain. Stretching has been shown to increase serotonin levels — i.e., the hormone that helps stabilize our mood, reduce stress, and overall makes us feel good — which causes a decrease in depression and anxiety” (Columbine Health Systems Center for Healthy Aging, 2021). Even a short duration of stretching exercises (roughly 10 minutes each day) has been shown to reduce anxiety and symptoms of burnout in the workplace as well as increase quality of life, vitality, flexibility, and reduce bodily pain (Montero-Marín et al., 2013). This certainly highlights the importance of stretching not only to improve flexibility and ROM, but improve quality of life by decreasing symptoms of depression and anxiety as well as relaxing the muscles and providing pain relief!
If you aren’t already taking time to stretch on your own, you may benefit from assisted-stretching. It’s a dedicated time to stretch out all of your muscles with someone else doing a majority of the work throughout a session that’s tailored specifically to you while you relax and enjoy the benefits of stretching!
Columbine Health Systems Center for Healthy Aging. (2021). The simple act of stretching. Retrieved from: https://www.research.colostate.edu/healthyagingcenter/2021/06/23/the-simple-act-of-stretching/
Feland, J., Myrer, J., Schulthies, S., Fellingham, G., Measom, G. (2001) The Effect of Duration of Stretching of the Hamstring Muscle Group for Increasing Range of Motion in People Aged 65 Years or Older, Physical Therapy, Volume 81, Issue 5, Pages 1110–1117, https://doi.org/10.1093/ptj/81.5.1110
Harber, V. J., & Sutton, J. R. (1984). Endorphins and exercise. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 1(2), 154–171. https://doi.org/10.2165/00007256-198401020-00004
Marcucci, L., & Reggiani, C. (2020). Increase of resting muscle stiffness, a less considered component of age-related skeletal muscle impairment. European journal of translational myology, 30(2), 8982. https://doi.org/10.4081/ejtm.2019.8982
Medeiros, H. B., de Araújo, D. S., & de Araújo, C. G. (2013). Age-related mobility loss is joint-specific: an analysis from 6,000 Flexitest results. Age (Dordrecht, Netherlands), 35(6), 2399–2407. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11357-013-9525-z
Montero-Marín, J., Asún, S., Estrada-Marcén, N., Romero, R., & Asún, R. (2013). Efectividad de un programa de estiramientos sobre los niveles de ansiedad de los trabajadores de una plataforma logística: un estudio controlado aleatorizado [Effectiveness of a stretching program on anxiety levels of workers in a logistic platform: a randomized controlled study]. Atencion primaria, 45(7), 376–383. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aprim.2013.03.002