Challenge to Change: Warm-up stretching

Over the past several months, we've covered all sorts of fitness and health challenges - hydration, jogging, sleep - you name it, we've probably challenged you to do it. But something we've missed thus far that's incredibly important for well-rounded health and fitness is flexibility.

For many of us, stretching often takes a back seat to your exercise routine. Many focus on stretching as something to be done only if you have a few extra minutes before or after pounding out some miles on the treadmill. After all, for many the main focus is losing weight and getting stronger - and you can get that through exercise more than stretching, right?

Well, not so fast. Although studies about the benefits of stretching are mixed, stretching certainly helps to improve strength and flexibility, which in turn can improve your athletic performance and - most importantly for the casual exerciser - decrease your risk of injury. So, it's important to focus even just a little bit on stretching as a way to get ready for physical activity, promote safety, and prepare for the workout.

There are typically a couple of times during the day that an athlete will stretch - before and after a workout. We'll talk about post-workout stretching next week, but first let's cover what to do as you warm up before a workout.

There's a growing body of research that static stretching (think: bend over and touch your toes) doesn't do very much before a workout, and even though it won't harm you, it's not necessarily beneficial. But warming up muscles to ensure you don't exercise completely cold is important.

For muscles to work at their peak, they need to be warm. And that means that when you focus on stretching and warming up before a workout, it's a good idea to raise their temperature.

The best way to do this is a little light movement. It doesn't need to be anything heavy, and it certainly shouldn't be anything too strenuous if you're simply warming up, but small movements to loosen, lengthen and warm up muscles are critical to get your body going.

Trunk twists, leg swings, light jogging, jumping jacks, and other simple movements are perfect for an easy, safe warm-up before exercise. And unless you're working out in Antarctica, focus on warming up to the point of breaking a light sweat and elevating your heart rate just slightly - those are signs that your body and muscles are ready to jump into your workout.

As you stretch to warm up, there are a few things to think about. First, slow down. You don't need to take a 30-minute warm-up before every workout, but you also need to avoid the temptation to jump right on the treadmill and go - take even as little as 5 minutes to do simple movements and stretches before your workout.

And second, avoid sudden, jerky, or full range-of-motion movements, especially if you've been sitting at work all day, or you are exercising early in the morning right after waking up. Focus on slow, gentle, and increasingly flexible and fast movements, allowing your muscles to slowly get accustomed to moving and to promote safety and avoid injuries and muscle pulls.

Now that we've got you on your way for the stretching challenge with some pre-workout stretching and warm-up exercises, best of luck with your workouts! Come back next week, where we'll discuss cool-down and post-workout stretching.

About the author: Bobby DeMuro is the Founder of No Fizz America, a non-profit dedicated to health and fitness. He is also the founder FusionSouth, a sports conditioning firm. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook .

You can listen to Bobby on his weekly radio show on Radio Exiles.

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