Most people associate stretching with sports or physical exertion. You likely pictured runners or swimmers limbering up or shaking out their bodies before the pistol starts the race.
While stretching does enhance physical performance (e.g., athletes limbering up before a race), it’s important to note that stretching, in general, and in any setting, is a good thing. David Nolan, a physical therapist at Massachusetts General Hospital, agrees with this notion. In an article published by Harvard Health Publishing, Nolan proposed that stretching needs to be a regular activity that everyone should do daily.
What Effect Does Stretching Have On The Body?
From the cardiovascular system to the nervous system, stretching helps us in many different ways. For instance, imagine that you’ve been sitting at your desk all day, staring at your computer for hours at a time. Maybe you’re a writer who happens to be writing about stretching. After a few hours of this activity, you’ll notice stiffness in your shoulders and at other joints in your body. Research indicates that this is rather common in individuals that spend more than 75% of their time sitting and working.
In such instances, doctors advocate that even stretching for as little as 3 minutes per hour of continuous sitting or standing can help counter everyday fatigue and aches.
How Does This Relate To Sleep And Stretching?
Now we come full circle, because what is sleep if not a period of continuous inactivity? On average, humans sleep for eight hours per night. During this time, muscles lose their natural tension or “tone” that they otherwise maintain in their relaxed state. Similarly, when we sleep, our bodies continually lose water, mainly through breathing out water and sweating, and our muscles are the first organs to lose that water. This loss of tone, along with dehydration, is what makes us wake up feeling stiff.
This is why we default to stretching when we wake up. Stretching helps us regain muscle tone and relieve us of that feeling of stiffness. This phenomenon of stretching when we wake up is referred to as pandiculation, and it isn’t just common to humans, but other mammals as well.