Expert advice on warming up and cooling down

March 30, 2022

It's conventional exercise wisdom that you should warm up before physical activity and cool down afterward.  

But is this wisdom as simple as it sounds?

The benefits of warming up

In general, you should be warming up before any activity that will put more stress on your body than it's used to.  

"It's a good idea to progressively ramp up the stress on your body so that by the time you reach the intensity of your activity, you are as prepared as you could be," says Florent Thézard, wellness program leader at Manitoba Blue Cross and certified athletic therapist.

One of the main benefits of warming up is to activate your cardiovascular system. "It gets that heart beating a little bit faster allowing all those muscles to be supplied with more blood," Thézard says. With more blood pumping through your body, you'll not only help prevent injury but may experience additional benefits from your exercise regime, like stronger and more flexible muscles.

While you should be warming up before exercising, warming up before other physical activities may depend on your age and personal fitness level.  

"If you're about to move a shoebox from your attic, maybe don't worry about warming up," he says. "If you're about to help your friend move, and you're 45 and it's been maybe a couple months since you were active, that's a different story." Preparation for such activity may require a more intense or focused type of warm up.

Static versus dynamic warmups

Picture a runner warming up. If you're like many people, an image of a seated jogger reaching towards their outstretched foot will come to mind. But Thézard explains that this type of static warmup- where you're standing or sitting still and stretching- may not actually be the best type of warmup.  

"There are some studies that suggest that by doing those stretches, you could sort of relax your nervous system. Sitting on the ground and pulling on your hamstring sort of tells your brain, body and muscles to relax, that you won't be doing anything intense." he says. Static stretches before exercise can slightly increase your chances of injury, according to some research.

While any warmup is better than none, Thézard suggests doing a more dynamic warmup before exercise- one that more accurately reflects the type of activity yo'll be doing. For instance, if you're going for a run, doing lunges or walking faster than usual can get your blood pumping while still stretching the muscles that yo'll be using during your run. If you're playing tennis, arm circles will help you stretch properly. Similarly, doing wrist circles before gardening or back twists before moving heavy objects may help you avoid injury.

With dynamic stretches, yo'll want to do a few repetitions slowly in a controlled manner. If you do plan on incorporating static stretches into your routine, Thézard notes that it's a gentle stretching or pulling sensation you're after. Any pain, numbness or tingling is evidence that your stretches may be doing more harm than good.

Cooling down

You may want to finish your exercise with a quick cool down, but how effective is cooling down in reducing your risk of injury?

Thézard points out that there is no robust scientific evidence that cool-down exercises have benefits beyond simply making some people feel better, "which, of course, is a great advantage," he says. However, the perceived benefits of cooldowns, psychological or otherwise, are the reason why most professional athletes still partake in a cool-down ritual.

"So, if you enjoy cooling down, keep doing it," he says. "Otherwise, don't feel like you have to force it."

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