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Exercising for flexibility

Fitness experts suggest that along with regular aerobic exercise and strength training it’s important to include stretching exercises too. Combine all three types of exercise and you’re building a body that’s fitter, stronger and more supple — a healthy and useful body to have.

What’s so good about flexibility?

It improves your range of movement so that you can bend, stretch, reach and twist more easily. This is especially important for anyone with a sedentary job — sitting all day limits the range of movements we do. Stretching also helps to improve your balance, counteracts muscle tension and stiffness and may help to relieve stress.

How often should I stretch?

To increase or maintain flexibility and reduce muscle tension, Sports Medicine Australia’s injury prevention program Smartplay suggests a 15–20 minute stretching session two to three times a week.

When should I stretch?

It’s important to warm up before you stretch — this delivers blood to your muscles and reduces the risk of injury. Smartplay suggests a two to three minute jog which raises a light sweat as a warm up before a stretching session.

Good opportunities to stretch include:

  • After a regular exercise session. It doesn’t matter if it’s after a walk or run or playing sport. If you do exercise classes at the gym or community centre, stretching exercises are usually included at the end of the session.
  • While watching TV at the end of the day. Along with improving flexibility, some stretching time can help you unwind. Just remember to warm up your body first by walking around and pumping your arms or jogging on the spot for a few minutes to get the blood to your muscles to increase their ability to flex.
  • While you’re at work. Try to fit in a few five minute stretch breaks at work — especially if you spend the day sitting at a desk. It’s a good way to break up sitting time.

What’s the best way to stretch?

Sometimes you’ll see people making bouncing movements as they stretch. This is called ballistic stretching but many fitness experts suggest avoiding bouncing as it may cause injury. A better way is static stretching — this means you slowly stretch a muscle until you feel resistance, but not pain — remember that if you feel any pain, stop.

Tips for stretching from Smartplay include:

  • Hold each stretch for 10 to 20 seconds without bouncing
  • Repeat each stretch 2–3 times
  • Stretch gently and slowly and keep breathing as you stretch
  • Stretch to the point of tension — but not to the point of pain.

For a guide to stretching exercises you can do at home, see the Further Information section below.

Will stretching before or after exercise prevent injury or soreness?

Not necessarily. Although stretching before and after a workout is often recommended to prevent injury, new Australian research suggests that it doesn’t significantly reduce injury. However, Smartplay suggest you should still include stretching as part of your cool down after exercise. A five to 10 minute stretching session emphasising the major groups of muscles you have just used can help your body get rid of muscle waste products and help reduce soreness and stiffness.

What about yoga, Pilates or tai chi?

These are all good moves for flexibility — and have other advantages too.


This is a system of exercise originally developed in the 1920s to rehabilitate people with injuries. It uses slow, controlled exercises done either on a mat or on special Pilates equipment to strengthen muscles and improve flexibility, posture and balance, especially through the core of your body.

Pilates also helps strengthen the important ‘corset’ muscle (transverses abdominis muscle) that swaddles your body between your ribs and your hips. Keeping this muscle strong also helps protect your lower back and improves posture.


Although yoga originally evolved as a spiritual practice, it’s also used as a way to improve flexibility. Like Pilates, yoga helps strengthen your core abdominal muscles – the transversus abdominis muscle – that helps supports the spine and lower back. Yoga involves a number of different postures called asanas. Moving into and holding these postures also helps develop muscle strength. As with Pilates, these movements help counteract the inflexibility and muscular weakness of hours spent sitting at a keyboard or behind a steering wheel. Yoga may also help reduce stress.

There are many types of yoga including:

  • Ashtanga and power yoga — faster-paced forms of yoga
  • Iyengar yoga — a slower yoga style
  • Bikram yoga — also known as ‘hot’ yoga. This is done in a room heated to around 40 degrees Celsius.

Because there are so many different yoga styles, it’s often best to shop around and give each a try to find the one that suits you best.

Tai chi

Originally developed in China as a martial art, tai chi has evolved into a gentle form of exercise which suits people of all ages. It involves doing a series of slow graceful movements. Because each movement flows into the next, the body is constantly moving — but at a gentle pace. Tai chi appears to improve flexibility, balance and strength, especially in older adults.

Further Information

University of California Berkeley Foundations of Wellness. The Home Stretch.


Harvard Health Letter. Good for the mind, but how about the body? [online] Boston, MA: Harvard University. c2000-2010 [accessed 23 Aug 2010] Available from:

Jamtvedt G Herbert RD Flottorp S et al. A pragmatic randomised trial of stretching before and after physical activity to prevent injury and soreness. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2009; doi:10.1136/bjsm.2009.062232

Mayo Clinic. Tai Chi: discover the many possible health benefits. [online] Mayo Foundation for Medical Research and Education. c1998-2010 [last updated 8 July 2010, accessed 23 Aug 2010] Available from:

National Centre for Complementary and Alternative Medicine Tai Chi: An introduction. [online] Bethseda, Maryland: National Institutes of Health. 2006 [last updated Apr 2009, accessed 23 Aug 2010] Available from:

Olson MS Williford HN Martin RS et al. The energy cost of a basic, intermediate, and advanced pilates’ mat workout. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 2004; 36(5): S357.

Smartplay. Fact sheet: Warm Up / Stretching. [online] Kidman Park, SA: Sports Medicine Australia (SA Branch). [accessed 23 Aug 2010] Available from:

Taylor-Piliae RE Haskell WL Stotts NA et al. Improvement in balance, strength, and flexibility after 12 weeks of Tai chi exercise in ethnic Chinese adults with cardiovascular disease risk factors. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. 2006; 12(2): 50–58.

University of California Berkeley Foundations of Wellness. The Home Stretch. [online] Palm Coast, FL: Remedy Health Media. c2010 [accessed 23 Aug 2010] Available from:

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This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

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Last published 31 October 2010