Stretching may not seem as important as aerobic exercise, but it's an essential part staying fit and healthy.

Ready, Stretch, Flex: Why Flexibility Is More Important than You Think

When you focus on fitness, it’s probably aerobic activities like walking, running, and cycling that come to mind. But it’s important to pay just as much attention to flexibility training. Limbering up provides a host of benefits, including injury prevention, stress release, improved mobility, and enhanced athletic performance. Stretching also helps maintain good posture, which in turn is key to preventing back and hip pain.

So spend five to ten minutes in the morning or evening doing a few basic stretches (yes, you can do some of them in the shower) and you’ll see the benefits almost immediately. Here are the basic components of a simple stretching routine.

Go Long

Try extending body parts that may be hunched up from prolonged sitting, such as hamstrings and upper back. Do this sequence of stretches, moving slowly and methodically. Breathe as you stretch, and try to hold the position rather than bounce. If you feel pain, ease up and relax – stretching may give you a twinge, but it shouldn’t hurt.

Take It from the Top

The neck, shoulders, and upper back are areas where most of us carry a lot of tension, particularly if we spend a lot of time on the computer. To address this, pause every few hours and do these simple neck stretches to loosen the trapezius and scapula muscles.

Do the Side Step

Moving side-to-side engages stabilizing muscles, leading to better control and protection for when you’re moving straight ahead. Lunges are another way to develop strength and stability, helping maintain balance as we age.

Turn, Turn Turn

Slowly rotating your hips and shoulders can increase your mobility and core control. Stay in a range of motion that’s comfortable. If one side feels tighter than the other, go slower and do a few more repetitions on that side.

Loosen Up

Massaging a muscle that is chronically tight may increase blood flow to the muscle and help reduce tension. Gently knead the area with your hands, or use a foam roller.
If you have the time, taking a few minutes to do a dynamic warm up may enhance your fitness and sports performance.

If you prefer to work on flexibility in a class setting, consider yoga, Pilates, and tai chi. Having an instructor to model technique can help ensure you’re doing moves properly and hold you accountable.

Ready, Stretch, Go

Before you exercise, warm up with at least 5-10 minutes of walking to help naturally loosen the muscles first. Whether it’s cold or hot out, your body still needs a warm-up to prepare for aerobic activity, reduce injury risk, and perform well. Focus on large muscles groups (hamstrings, quadriceps, shoulders, calves, and back), and don’t forget to stretch both sides evenly.

Melanie Haiken writes about health, wellness and fitness for national magazines and websites. She specializes in discovering and reporting the latest research on diet, nutrition, fitness, weight loss and other health-related topics. Her award-winning stories have appeared in Fitness, Shape, Health, Forbes, and other respected magazines. She also contributes health stories to numerous Kaiser Permanente newsletters and other publications.