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What Is It About Stretching That Makes It Feel So Good?

All that twisting and turning makes my mind and body feel a billion times better. But why?

Whenever one of my personal training clients opted to forego the customary stretching session that was intentionally built into our one-hour training blocks by the intelligentsia at Bally Total Fitness, I never questioned them. Without hesitation, I would scrounge up some additional resistance exercises to fill the remaining 10 to 15 minutes of the hour they’d paid for.

For all the benefits of stretching, I absolutely dreaded it whenever it was required of me, and I would never have begrudged anyone for wanting to avoid any sort of static stretching activity at all costs. Even so, I’ve always reluctantly acknowledged one inescapable detail about stretching: Both my mind and body always felt significantly better after I’d engaged in it. And as boring as stretching activities undeniably are for people like me whose minds crave constant motion, yoga classes remain overwhelmingly popular despite the general lack of movement within them, and the post-yoga sensation of inhabiting a freshly stretched body is a big part of that.

Why does stretching feel so good?

A trio of reasons are typically cited. The first has to do with the basic flow of blood. The simple act of stretching boosts the flow of blood to the muscles that are being elongated. As your limbs are extending, your heart is forced to increase the quantity of blood it pumps throughout your body, delivering more oxygen to those muscles and accelerating the elimination of metabolic waste. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s one of the benefits associated with working out in general; stretching can basically provide blood-flow benefits akin to cardiovascular and strength-building activities.

The second reason stretching will leave you feeling like a superior version of yourself has to do with its ability to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls your rest-and-digest and feed-and-breed functions, while simultaneously tamping down your sympathetic nervous system, which controls your fight-or-flight response. And so, rather than leaving you in an aggressive or combative mindstate, stretching is more likely to leave you totally relaxed.

Finally, there is some evidence that stretching generates endorphins in your body for the purpose of pain relief. However, the best evidence for this to date has involved a study in which 15 minutes of stretching proved to be every bit as effective at reducing pain in menstruating women as eight-hour doses of 250-milligram capsules of mefenamic acid, an anti-inflammatory pain reliever. This sounds promising, but I tend to take study results very literally; unless your pain is of the menstrual variety, don’t bank on it being solved by stretching just yet.

It sounds to me like stretching is worth it just for the mental and physical benefits!

I have to admit, that all sounds pretty good, but on a personal note, it’s always been difficult to get stretching to comport with my fast-and-furious weight-slinging attitude. For someone who grew up during the heyday of Street Fighter II, any form of yoga-based stretching that wouldn’t enable me to extend my legs to kick someone clear across a room or spit fire out of my mouth was entirely unappealing to me. But as age has slowly begun creeping in, I’ve started to see the appeal of renewing both my mind and body by stretching my limbs instead of punishing them.