The Importance of the Warm Up in Your Exercise Routine

Are there times you could safely skip the warm-up and get right to work, especially when you’re in a hurry? How important is warming up? What does it accomplish, and how long does it take? Here are some points to consider the next time these questions arise.

Why warm up?

A good warm-up raises your body temperature and gradually increases the demands placed on the cardiovascular system. By building slowly from low to higher intensity, your body has time to adequately prepare for more vigorous activity.

How important is warming up?

Warming up is always a good idea. When your metabolic rate increases slowly, your energy production systems have time to adjust. Oxygen delivery to the exercising muscles occurs more easily at higher muscle temperatures. A warm-up increases blood flow to the working muscles and improves the ability of the muscles to produce energy aerobically. This makes exercise feel easier, so you can enjoy your activities more.

A warm-up is especially important for vigorous activity. It helps to prevent the abnormal heart rhythms that sometimes occur in response to the sudden onset of vigorous exercise. A warm-up allows blood flow to the heart to increase gradually so that by the time a higher heart rate is required, the heart has adequate oxygen and nutrients to do its job.

An athlete wouldn’t think of performing without a warm-up, since muscles function better at higher temperatures. They contract and relax more quickly and move more easily. The energy production systems go into high gear, and nerve transmission accelerates, so coordination improves as well. Athletes also value the psychological benefits of a good warm-up as they prepare for their upcoming performance.

What’s the best way to warm up?

A good warm-up mimics the activity you will be doing, but at a lower intensity that gradually builds to your workout pace. It may also include other types of exercises to raise your metabolic rate and body temperature. Once you are warm, stretching exercises are designed to prevent injury.

To warm up for a brisk walk, simply begin your walk at a comfortable pace and gradually speed up after five or 10 minutes. You may stretch after the warm-up, at the end of your walk or both.

A group exercise leader may present segments of an upcoming routine for about 10 minutes, perform some limbering and stretching exercises, and then pick up the pace. Athletes preparing to play a sport might perform a general warm-up that includes low-intensity aerobic activity, calisthenics and stretching, followed by a specific warm-up with movements that mimic their event.

Is warm-up always necessary?

Aren’t there times, such as during low-intensity exercise, when a warm-up is unnecessary? Low-intensity exercise does not pose the challenges to the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems that vigorous exercise does. However, it still makes sense to start off slowly and build gradually, even if you save your stretching for after the activity.

People with cardiovascular risk factors (which includes most adults) should be especially careful to begin activity at a low intensity that takes 10 to 15 minutes to build to a more moderate pace.

Many people have old injuries that require extra care, or certain areas that seem more prone to overuse injuries, such as tendonitis. A little extra attention to these special areas before and after physical activity can provide a bit of physical therapy and prevent future problems.
When is the best time to stretch?

The best time to stretch is when muscles and joints are nice and warm. A few brief stretches after the warm-up may help prevent injury, especially in sensitive areas. A longer period of stretching (10 or more minutes) after your workout, when you are usually the warmest, will help maintain or increase flexibility.

Barbara A. Brehm, Ed.D., is professor of exercise and sport studies at Smith College, Northampton, Mass.

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