Not all of us love getting our sweat on. But with the mental and physical health benefits of movement constantly being hyped, those of us who aren’t exactly gym rats might wonder: What if I just stretched? Would that be “enough”?
According to lululemon Studio trainer Xtina Jensen, who is a certified personal trainer specializing in stretching, barre, boxing, cardio, and strength workouts, it depends.
“Flexibility training absolutely plays a vital component in every exercise program and certainly can be used as a mode of recovery on off days,” she says. “However, as much as we all should have stretching as a regular part of our workout plan, it will serve us best when used in a balanced regimen.”
Is stretching considered exercise?
While many fitness routines incorporate stretching, you’ll often find that stretches account for just eight to 10 minutes at the beginning and end of a workout class or app-led sweat sesh. And when programs do suggest active recovery stretch days, it’s to supplement the strength and cardio workouts that fill the rest of your week.
The reason? Stretching is a beneficial form of movement, but as the single component of a fitness routine, it’s not enough to give you the health benefits that could come from more vigorous activity.
The Department of Health and Human Services recommends that American adults get 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week, or 75 to 150 minutes of high-intensity activity (or a combination), ideally spread throughout the week. They also suggest targeted muscle-strengthening activities two days per week, hitting all the major muscle groups.
Unfortunately, stretching accomplishes neither of those two goals. Of course, any movement is definitely better than no movement! But if you’re looking to really improve your fitness, it’s gonna take more a few daily stretches.
Does it matter if it’s static vs. dynamic stretching?
While dynamic stretching (where you’re moving continuously) is more likely to challenge your muscles and get your blood flowing than static stretching (where you’re stationary), neither is quite enough to cut it as your sole form of movement.
“Most research has shown that combining static and dynamic stretching not only creates more flexibility and mobility, but it can also reduce a person’s risk of injury,” she says. “But you will not find that stretching alone is a great form of exercise.”
In fact, you can even overdo it if you focus solely on stretching every day. “Too much of any one thing is not good for anyone and that same concept certainly applies to stretching,” Jensen says. “Too much stretching can lead to muscle and joint laxity, which in turn can result in injury over time.”
What if it’s an active recovery day?
Generally speaking, an active recovery day is a rest day from a strenuous workout routine such as lifting, HIIT, or race training. “Flexibility training certainly can be used as a mode of recovery on off days,” she says. “Gentle moving is great, and some days may call for something nice and easy on our bodies, such as a stretch class.”
Typically, one to three active recovery days per week is best, so you can dedicate the other days to cardio or strength-focused activities.
What about yoga?
While some people conflate yoga with stretching, anyone who’s taken a serious Vinyasa or Ashtanga class can confirm it’s working a lot more than just your flexibility.
“Yoga has gained exponential numbers in popularity because of it’s a beautiful balance of work that includes both strength and stretch in a harmonious mind-body connected synergy,” Jensen says. Take a restorative class as an active recovery option, or opt for a more power-driven flow as a standalone workout.
Try this energizing yoga flow to get both loose and strong:
Why it’s still important to stretch
Stretching might not be enough movement on its own to keep you feeling your best, but it is vital for moving through life. “Stretching can be used in so many ways and can even help reduce the risk of injury from pattern overuse (such as sitting at the computer for long periods of time resulting in tight hips), help correct muscular imbalance, and even help repair joint dysfunction,” Jensen says.
As for when to stretch, Jensen says to listen to your body. “Everything we feel is a signal, a sign, or a symptom of how we treat our body,” she explains. If you find yourself feeling tight, unsteady, or in pain, it might be time to start stretching.
And if you don’t, your flexibility will surely fade over time. “That silly saying of ‘Use it or lose it’ is true, and it certainly applies to our bodies,” Jensen says. “The body is meant to move, humans are meant to move, and we are meant to move every day in many ways. We are not meant to be still, especially when we are blessed with a body that can move.”