While many people prioritize exercise for good health, we often overlook a regular stretching practice. But if you’re treating stretching like an afterthought, you’re missing out on all the big body benefits that it can bring, particularly for healthy aging. Yep, stretching — especially before bed — is a boon for longevity as it touts plentiful perks from easing stress and improving sleep to reducing inflammation among many more. Here, Jake Harcoff, a certified strength and conditioning specialist, explains the benefits of stretching before bed, plus which bedtime stretches are best.
7 Benefits of Stretching Before Bed for Healthy Aging
1. It Eases Stress
“I find that a key ingredient missing in most people’s fitness routine is some sort of strategy for managing the accumulated stress of everyday life.” “Unfortunately, the world we live in today is full of negative stressors, which chronically place many of us in the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for our fight or flight responses),” he explains. The problem is that prolonged stress (and lack of proper stress management) can contribute to inflammation in the body, which can have a major effect on healthy aging (more on this later). But the simple act of stretching before sleep can help slash stress. That’s because “stretching has a profound effect on stimulating the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for resting, digesting, and healing the body.”
And that’s why “a mindful stretching practice before bed is an effective tool to help ground us and inhibit the sympathetic nervous system for better health,” he says.
2. It Reduces Inflammation
“When inflammation becomes chronic, it can lead to many negative outcomes, especially as we get older.” Indeed, chronic inflammation plays a role in many diseases such as heart disease and stroke, cancer, diabetes, obesity, and more. Fortunately, “stretching regularly can be very impactful on decreasing inflammatory markers in the body.”. Gentle stretching at a low intensity “can help you relax and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which has an inflammatory regulating response on the body,” he explains.
But keep in mind: The level of intensity makes a difference. “Stretching at higher intensities can be traumatic to the stretched tissue, which would have an opposite inflammatory effect,”
3. It Can Improve Your Sleep Quality
Along with creakier joints and a slowed metabolism, getting older also brings a lesser quality of sleep. Yep, age is linked to a tougher time falling and staying asleep, according to the National Library of Medicine. Making matters worse, winding down before bedtime can be a real challenge for many people, especially if you’re all keyed up from the day, and your body remains in a sympathetic state (i.e., flight or fight mode). “With the myriad of stressors that we have to deal with today, it is imperative for healthy aging that we manage our stress levels, so that the body can rest and repair, especially while we sleep when most of these processes take place.”
As we know, stretching is stellar for stress management. And that means that it can also positively affect your sleep. “Many sleep experts talk about turning off screens and suggest implementing a mindfulness practice before getting into bed, where I think stretching shines as a tool for relaxation and mindfulness.” Again, that’s because light stretching can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms your body.
4. It Lowers Your Risk of Injuries (Including Falls)
Stretching can also help us steer clear of injuries into our golden years. Here’s why: Stretching increases the force-length relationship of your muscles. That means your muscles can both produce and manage a greater amount of force at various lengths, he explains. And as a result, this can help decrease muscle and tendon-related injuries. What’s more, “longer muscle lengths may allow for the body to more effectively maintain balance and avoid falls, which is especially more important as we age.”
Our risk of taking a tumble increases with age. In fact, every year, one in four older Americans will fall, and a fifth of these falls will cause serious injuries, such as broken bones or head trauma.
5. It Increases Blood Flow
“Since stretching can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which results in dilation of the blood vessels to the muscle, stretching would theoretically increase blood flow to the muscles as well,” Harcoff says.
That’s especially important because some older adults deal with blood flow-related health issues. For example, “as we age, blood pressure can be a concern for many people, therefore stretching regularly to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system might be a great strategy for some.”
6. It Decreases the Frequency and Severity of Leg Cramps
As you age, you’re more likely to experience nightly leg cramps, i.e., painful, involuntary muscle contractions that usually occur in your calf, foot, or thigh. Case in point: 33 percent of adults over the age of 60 will suffer at least one nocturnal leg cramp bimonthly. While these sudden muscle pains can happen to people at any age, leg cramps are more common in older folks because the tendons (the connective tissues that attach muscles to bones) shorten as you grow older, per the Cleveland Clinic.
In addition, the frequency and severity of leg cramps also relate to poor hydration levels and nutrition deficiencies. And since older people are more likely to be dehydrated and lacking in certain essential nutrients, this puts them at a greater risk. The good news is that one of the benefits of stretching at night is that it may alleviate leg cramps. A small study published in the March 2012 issue of the Journal of Physiotherapy found that stretching before hitting the hay helped reduce the frequency and severity of leg cramps.
How to Stretch Before Bed
To stretch for relaxation, stress relief, and recovery, Harcoff suggests picking five to 10 stretches and holding them for approximately 30 to 60 seconds each. So, what stretches should you choose for the best benefits? “If I decide to stretch before bed, I am most likely to stretch whatever feels the tightest, i.e., usually whatever muscle group I trained that day or the day prior.” That means if you went hard on leg day, show your lower body some extra TLC and concentrate on stretching your major muscles, such as your quads, hamstrings, hips, and glutes.
Additionally, “stretching the psoas muscles [the long muscle in your back that’s located in the lower back area and stretches through the pelvis to the femur] might effectively lead to greater relaxation in the body before bed.” That’s because the vagus nerve (the nerves of your parasympathetic system) attaches to your psoas via your diaphragm and the medial arcuate ligament. And the vagus nerve, when stimulated, can have a profound effect on relaxation and bring us into a parasympathetic state, he explains. Some good psoas stretches include the runner’s lunge, glute bridge, and modified extended side angle pose. And remember, no matter which stretches you select, they should all be gentle and easy on your muscles. “The level of stretch intensity should be about 60 percent of your maximum stretch.” “In other words, stretch until you find the first point of discomfort and then back off just enough until that discomfort is no longer felt,” he explains.