Q: How important is it to warm up and stretch before exercise?
A: Warming up before exercise is very important for people of all ages to reduce the chance of soreness or injury and to prepare your cardiovascular system for exercise. Older adults and those who have been inactive should be especially sure to make time for this vital element of physical activity. You can do a slow and easy version of whatever type of exercise you’ll be doing as your warm-up, whether that means walking, swimming, dancing, tennis or working with weights. Pay special attention to warming up when exercising outdoors in cold weather. Even if your body as a whole feels warm, make sure the muscles in your arms and legs, which may be exposed to the wind and cold, have moved enough to feel warm. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, muscles are more elastic and ready to be stretched when they are warm, so warm up first and then stretch. As one option to stretch the muscles you’ll be using, simply move them through the full range of motion you’ll be using during your exercise. Another option is called a static stretch; you gently stretch each muscle you’ll be using to the point of feeling slight tightness, and then hold that position for 10 to 30 seconds without bouncing.
In addition to the pre-exercise warm-up and stretch, the cool-down and after-exercise stretch are important. Take five to ten minutes of low-intensity movement to help your body settle back down to its normal state. Then while your muscles are loose, general stretching with focus on the muscles you just used will decrease chances of muscle soreness, and help improve and maintain the flexibility that makes all life activities easier. Try these flexibility exercise from the National Institutes of Health SeniorHealth website that show twelve major muscle areas which all benefit from stretching regularly, from neck and shoulders, through back, arms and each area of the legs.
Stretching Made Easy provides examples of stretches that can be done just before exercise and while sitting at your desk during work. Give them a try!