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The Surprising Benefits of Stretching: Live longer with just 8 minutes a day

By Dr. Alex Armitage, DNP, CNL, APRN, FNP-BC Specialist in Supportive Palliative Care, and passionate advocate for holistic well-being.


... read on!


Dr. Armitage and Coco the puppy

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Do you stretch every day?

Hmmmm... I know that I should but I don’t, and I know that I am not alone in this. But an article that I read this morning has me reconsidering. The thought of stretching before a workout feels about as engaging as the awkward chitchat that precedes a meeting; it's something you endure, knowing it will soon pass!


The data for the medical benefits of stretching have been mixed, but two recent articles are throwing stretching practice into the spotlight again and making practitioners, like myself, rethink this somewhat minimized activity.


A study from 2020 (linked below) revealed a fascinating connection between stretching and a reduced risk of dying from any cause among American adults, even after accounting for other forms of physical activity. This finding seemed like an anomaly until a 2023 study (linked below) echoed these results. In this research, adults who engaged in flexibility exercises at least five times a week saw a 20% lower risk of mortality during the study period compared to those who didn't stretch, outpacing even the benefits associated with intense aerobic or resistance training.


How can stretching, often overlooked, hold such significant health benefits?


The Unexpected Advantages of Stretching

When we talk about stretching, we're usually referring to static stretching. This involves entering and maintaining a position that stretches a muscle, aiming to enhance the range of motion around a joint. It doesn't have to be an intense stretch; even reaching the initial point of discomfort can lead to increased flexibility, according to David Behm, Ph.D., a renowned exercise scientist at Memorial University of Newfoundland.


Stretching Benefit #1: Muscle Growth!

At a glance, it may seem that flexibility training, which involves elongating the muscles, is at the opposite end of the spectrum from strength training, which focuses on muscle contraction. However, both modalities of exercise apply tension to muscles and their connective tissues, leading to a series of physiological events.


This tension is crucial for activating certain proteins within the muscle fibers, known as integrins. These integrins play a pivotal role in cellular communication, sending and receiving vital signals through the cellular membranes. It is the initiation of this complex signaling process that eventually leads to muscle protein synthesis, the fundamental mechanism through which muscles increase in size and strength—much like the process that occurs during resistance training.


Digging deeper into the science, this mechanism could illuminate the reason behind observed increases in muscle strength and muscle growth as a result of consistent static stretching. Although the gains from stretching alone are modest compared to traditional strength training, they are nonetheless significant.


But is it feasible to stretch your way to noticeable muscle growth? In theory, the answer is yes, although conventional strength training methods are more time-efficient for muscle development.


Here is something to think about though: Stretching presents a very accessible form of exercise particularly older adults and those with a sedentary lifestyle, for whom traditional strength training may be challenging or contraindicated. For individuals with mobility limitations, stretching can serve as a valuable tool not only for maintaining muscle tone and strength but also to grow and maintain muscle mass.


Let me say this again as it is quite a concept: Stretching can actually grow muscle!


Furthermore, studies have indicated that stretching can contribute to improved neuromuscular coordination, potentially leading to better overall muscular response and strength in everyday activities. This is especially important for us as we age, where maintaining independence in daily functions is a key goal.


Stretching Benefit #2: Improved Cardiovascular Health

The link between stretching and cardiovascular health is often overlooked, yet the benefits are substantial. Flexibility exercises can have a profound impact on arterial health. This relationship is critical to consider, as arterial stiffness is a known risk factor for cardiovascular disease.


The science behind this connection lies in the body's ability to maintain elasticity within the arterial walls. Regular movement and stretching can help preserve or enhance this elasticity. When flexibility is compromised, it often correlates with a corresponding increase in arterial stiffness, which can impede the efficient flow of blood throughout the body. Conversely, incorporating stretching routines into one's exercise regimen has been linked to improved arterial function. This includes reductions in resting heart rate and blood pressure, as well as enhanced vasodilation, the widening of blood vessels, which facilitates better blood flow and circulation.


The American Heart Association has recognized physical activity as a key component in the prevention and management of cardiovascular diseases, and thus, the enhancement of flexibility can be indirectly linked to cardiovascular benefits by promoting an active lifestyle.


Stretching Benefit #3: Injury Prevention

The role of stretching in injury prevention is significant, both for athletes and in everyday life. Stretching enhances the resilience of muscles by improving their capacity to handle tension. When engaging in stretching exercises, the sensation of tension typically occurs at the muscle's maximum length, which is also where the muscle is most vulnerable to injuries. Regular stretching routines enable muscles to adapt to stretching to greater lengths, which reduces their susceptibility to tears or strains during physical activities.


Enhanced flexibility leads to improved overall balance, which is particularly beneficial as we age. Better balance is associated with a decreased risk of falls, a common concern that can lead to severe injuries.


Moreover, in instances where falls occur, having more flexible muscles and joints can be instrumental in absorbing the impact, thereby reducing the severity of any resulting injuries. This absorption capacity is an essential factor in preventing injuries and ensuring quicker recovery if injuries do occur.


Making Stretching Work for You

Choose a straightforward approach to flexibility training, emphasizing the basics over more elaborate routines. If you see online exercise programs, they will often dazzle you with complex routines, but the reality is that if you sign up with a personal trainer they will start with the basics every time. My recommendation is that a simple, consistent routine focusing on key areas can provide significant benefits without requiring a significant time investment.

Consistency in stretching, even in small doses, can lead to notable improvements in flexibility, strength, and cardiovascular health. This interconnectedness of benefits suggests that stretching's impact on reducing mortality risk may stem from a combination of improved mobility, balance, and cardiovascular function.


The act of stretching, which we have all so often underestimated, holds a profound potential to enhance our overall health and well-being, underscoring the importance of incorporating it into our daily routines.


Putting Stretching Into Practice: 5 Simple Stretches

Many, many stretches can be found for free online, on YouTube, and some apps can walk you through a basic stretching routine. You should not have to pay to learn some simple stretches. Here are five easy and accessible stretches that almost anyone can incorporate into their daily routine. These stretches are designed to be simple yet effective, targeting key areas of the body that often hold tension or stiffness. They can be particularly beneficial for individuals over 50 or those managing serious illnesses, aiming to improve flexibility, reduce discomfort, and enhance overall well-being.



Dr. Armitage: Neck Side Stretch

1. Neck Side Stretch

This stretch helps relieve tension in the neck and shoulders, areas where many people accumulate stress.

  • How to Do It:

  • Sit or stand with your spine straight.

  • Gently tilt your head towards your right shoulder, aiming to bring your ear close to the shoulder until you feel a stretch on the left side of your neck.

  • Hold this position for 20-30 seconds.

  • Slowly return to the starting position and repeat on the other side.




Dr. Armitage: Seated Forward Bend

2. Seated Forward Bend

Ideal for loosening the hamstrings and lower back, this stretch is great for those who spend a lot of time sitting or have lower back discomfort.

  • How to Do It:

  • Sit on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you.

  • Inhale deeply, and as you exhale, slowly bend forward at the hips, reaching towards your toes. Go as far as comfortable, aiming to feel a gentle stretch in your hamstrings and lower back.

  • Hold for 20-30 seconds, then gently return to sitting upright.




Dr. Armitage: Torso Twist

3. Torso Twist

This stretch can help improve spinal mobility and relieve tension in the back and torso.

  • How to Do It:

  • Sit on a chair or on the floor with your legs crossed.

  • Place your right hand on your left knee and your left hand behind you for support.

  • Gently twist your torso to the left, looking over your left shoulder. Keep your spine tall and your hips facing forward.

  • Hold for 20-30 seconds, then slowly return to the center and repeat on the opposite side.



4. Upper Arm & Shoulder Stretch

Dr. Armitage: Upper arm and shoulder stretch

This stretch can help alleviate tightness in the shoulders and upper arms.

  • How to Do It:

  • Sit or stand upright with a straight spine.

  • Extend one arm across your body.

  • Use your opposite hand to gently press the arm closer to your chest, ensuring you don’t press directly on the elbow joint.

  • Hold the stretch for 20-30 seconds, feeling a gentle pull along the shoulder and upper arm.

  • Slowly release and repeat on the other side.



5. Calf Stretch

Dr. Armitage: Calf Stretch

Great for people who are on their feet a lot or experience calf tightness.

  • How to Do It:

  • Stand at arm’s length from a wall or a sturdy object.

  • Step your right foot back, keeping it straight, and press the heel firmly into the floor.

  • Bend your left knee and lean forward towards the wall, keeping your back straight, until you feel a stretch in the calf of your back leg.

  • Hold for 20-30 seconds, then switch legs.





Implementation Tips:

  • Consistency is key. Try to incorporate these stretches into your daily routine, even if only for a few minutes a day.

  • Listen to your body. Stretch to the point of mild discomfort, not pain. If a stretch causes pain, ease up to a more comfortable position.

  • Breathe deeply and relax into each stretch, allowing your body to gently extend its range of motion over time.

These stretches are designed to be accessible to a wide range of individuals, including those with limited mobility. By incorporating these simple exercises into your daily routine, you can work towards improved flexibility, reduced tension, and a greater sense of well-being.



My Challenge To You

Let me state this again: Stretching can reduce your risk of dying from all causes. Stretching can build muscle, and improve balance, circulation, and cardiovascular health. And the truth is that most of us can spend 8 minutes a day stretching without too much inconvenience.

Before you blow this practice of daily stretching off as too simple or simplistic, try stretching for 8 minutes a day, 5 days a week for 4 weeks and see how you feel.


It’s just a few minutes a day. And we can ALL do this!

Worth a shot, right? You might be pleasantly surprised.

Let me know your thoughts on our Facebook page!


Happy toe-touching!


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