Ask Dr. Dave: Should You Stretch Before Exercising?

Is stretching really necessary before working out? Or, more specifically, is there anything that could have been done before your weekly Meetup flag football game that might have prevented you from feeling like you were run over by 17 trucks for the next four days?

All right, I’m going to be honest with you. This week’s question may have come from a personal… friend… who may or may not be on day three of feeling like 17 trucks ran over me…er, him.

Let’s say you’re trying to get back into playing organized sports so you can be in shape, the kind of shape you pretended you were in when you played intramurals in college. What’s the best pre-game strategy to prevent injuries?

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Turns out experts have known for years that stretching alone before exercise does nothing to prevent the hurt. Yes, even when done in a circle with a loud count to 10 in unison.

Warm-ups offer some advantages in reducing injuries. In order to qualify as an injury-reducer, a 20-minute warm-up prior to exercise should include the following three components: 1) some jogging or other aerobic exercise to increase body temperature 2) stretching that’s specific to the sport you’re about to play, and 3) time spent lightly practicing the movements you will be doing in the game.

Pre-game warm-ups offer athletes a slight reduction in injuries versus not warming up, but comprehensive programs that last months may show the most benefits.

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An analysis of several stretching studies published this year in the journal BMC Medicine found that stretching, strengthening and balance exercises, sport-specific agility drills and landing techniques done for longer than three months at a time helped cut down on lower extremity injuries.

Now you may be thinking, “Did I remember to lock my apartment this morning?” Or, more relevant to our discussion, “Do I have time for not only a game a week, but also a non-game day warm-up?” Yes and yes.

Actually, I can’t possibly predict the answers to either of those questions, but I do think if you’re playing a weekly sports game of any sort, you should dedicate at least a half-hour on non-game days to some version of a warm-up.

As for what to do when you are limping around for the next four days because every muscle in your body hurts, I’ve found that making up a story about getting hit by 17 trucks works better than the truth of a pick-up football game.

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Dave Margolius is a physician in San Francisco, California. He is originally from Cleveland, Ohio, and attended Brown University for undergrad and med school. He is currently doing his residency in internal medicine at UCSF. His main interests are in health policy, improving primary care, and healthcare for all.