How to Stretch, Warm up, and Cool Down
Suppose you were told that you only had to add an extra 3 to 5 minutes to each of your walks or 5 to 10 minutes to a workout in order to prevent injury, promote effortless movement and lessen fatigue. Would you do it?
Most people would say yes. Then they might be surprised to learn that they already know about those few minutes called a warm-up. If done correctly, a pre-exercise warm-up can have a multitude of beneficial effects on a person's workout and, consequently, their overall health.
What Happens in Your Body?
When you begin to exercise, your cardiorespiratory and neuromuscular systems and metabolic energy pathways are stimulated. Muscles contract and, to meet their increasing demands for oxygen, your heart rate, blood flow, cardiac output and breathing rate increase. Blood moves faster through your arteries and veins, and is gradually routed to working muscles.
Your blood temperature rises and oxygen is released more quickly, raising the temperature of the muscles. This allows the muscles to use glucose and fatty acids to burn calories and create energy for the exercise. All of these processes prepare the body for higher-intensity action. If you’re going out for an easy paced walk, you won’t need much of a warm-up because your exercise intensity is relatively low. However, if you’re moving into a brisk/power walk, you’ll want to get your body ready for more vigorous movement.
Specifically…a Gradual Warm-Up:
- Leads to efficient calorie burning by increasing your core body temperature
- Increases your metabolic rate so oxygen is delivered to the working muscles more quickly
- Prevents injuries by improving the elasticity of your muscles
- Allows you to work out comfortably longer because all your energy systems are able to adjust to exercise, preventing the buildup of lactic acid in the blood
- Improves joint range of motion
- Gives you better muscle control by speeding up your neural message pathways to the muscles
- Produces faster, more forceful muscle contractions
- Psychologically prepares you for higher intensities by increasing your arousal and focus on exercise
Where to Begin
Warm-up should begin with low intensity aerobic activity that utilizes the muscles you will be using during your workout. If you’re a walker, this simply means that you walk at an easy pace for the first few minutes of your walk. Then, over the course of your warm-up, gradually increase your pace. The duration of the warm-up activity will depend on the intensity of your walk as well as your own fitness level.
Flexibility exercises may be included after your warm-up, or, even better, at the end of your walk. Stretching muscles after warming them up with low-intensity aerobic activity will produce a better stretch since the rise in muscle temperature and circulation increases muscle elasticity, making them more pliable. Be sure to choose flexibility exercises that stretch the primary muscles you will be using during your workout. Great stretches for walking include: hamstrings, Achilles tendons and calves, hip flexors, abductors, as well as upper body stretches such as opening the chest and stretching the low back.
The purpose of a cool down is to lower the heart rate and metabolism slowly, which helps to avoid blood pooling, cramping or stiffness after a workout. By cooling down, you ensure circulation is maintained to vital organs so you’re less likely to become lightheaded or dizzy. The heart is also protected by cooling down because it reduces high concentrations of hormones like adrenaline, which makes upset the heart’s rhythm less likely. A great way to cool down after walking is to go at a slower pace and to stretch the muscles that you just worked.