To stretch or not to stretch, that is the question. At least that would be Hamlet's question before going out for his morning run around Elsinore castle and people have been asking that same question ever since. I'm raising the question now because with the new year approaching, many of you will be resolving to begin an exercise program for health and weight loss.

I've been exercising since the early '70s and have heard trainers and other experts recommend that it is essential to stretch before exercise, while other experts recommend that the critical time for stretching is after a workout. To confuse matters even more, I've even been told to "warm up" before I begin stretching. So, now, we need to warm up before we warm up?

Warming up means getting the muscles ready to do the exercise intended when the muscles will be working at their maximum. Getting the muscles ready is important to avoid injuries.

When you want to warm any part of the body you can cover it up with blankets or you can get more blood flow to that part most notably with gentle stretching. Increasing the blood flow allows more oxygen to be available to the muscles, and this includes the heart, which if you recall is also essentially a big pumping muscle. The increased blood flow to muscles brings much needed oxygen and other nutrients for the increased metabolism that will be occurring, and the increased blood flow away from muscles carries away the toxic by-products of that increased metabolism to be eliminated by the lungs, kidneys and liver.

So what is the best way to warm up? In general, a quick and easy warm up is to perform the intended exercise at a lower intensity. If you speed walk for exercise, take the first five minutes and just walk at a more leisurely pace. If you jog or run for exercise, start by walking at a comfortably brisk pace. If you lift weights, start with lighter poundage before just heaving your max. It is easy to get this pattern into your exercise routine. A different recommendation for warm up is the inclusion of gentle static stretches. Static in this case doesn't mean sticking your finger in an electric socket. Here it means slow and steady. Ease into a stretch until you feel the tension, not pain. Avoid any bouncing movements and hold the stretch for about 10 seconds. Inhale deeply and as you exhale slowly try to move into the stretch a little more and then hold that for another 10 seconds or so and then release. Repeating these stretches three or four times doesn't take long, but will definitely help in the long run avoid serious muscle strains.

Stretching at the end of a workout routine is also recommended for the same reasons. Increased blood flow to muscles that have been exercised brings the oxygen again for recovery and carries away the by-products of the increased metabolism, namely lactic acid. It is the lactic acid that contributes to the muscle soreness we experience the day after muscles were stressed. Stretching after exercise then helps alleviate that soreness. You will also discover that you are more flexible and can stretch further than you did when you began your routine. And, since muscle fibers have a memory, you'll find yourself a bit more flexible the next time you begin your routine.

• Agnes Oblas is an adult nurse practitioner with a private practice and residence in Ahwatukee Foothills. For questions, or if there is a topic you would like her to address, call (602) 405-6320 or email Her website is

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