When reading a recipe for baking cookies, the first instruction nearly always reads, “Preheat oven to 350˚.” This is so that when you bake the cookies, the oven is ready at an optimal temperature to bake them properly. When the cookies are finished and the oven is turned off, you want to make sure to wait until all of the heat is gone before storing anything in the oven again.

You properly warm up and cool down your oven before and after baking cookies; it is just as important to do the same for your body before and after exercise.

Warming up your body should take anywhere from ten to twenty minutes and can include brisk walking, stretching the whole body (lunges, partial squats, or forward bends), stretching the particular muscle groups that are going to be used, or any other movement that gets the blood moving through the body (like jumping jacks or arm circles). Your muscles are stiff from disuse prior to exercise and they need to be woken up. A warm up gives your body better flexibility and decreases that stiffness during the workout.

Warming up also helps your muscles absorb oxygen when you work out and also increases your metabolism, getting it ready to kick into high gear for when the exercise really begins. Warming up improves blood circulation as you exercise, increases heart rate (which helps support you during heavier exercise), and gives you better range of motion during the workout. All of these benefits to warming up are crucial if you are going to workout.

Just as important as the warm up is the cool down.

One of the primary benefits of exercise is the release of stress, but without a cool down period, this benefit is not realized. Taking ten to twenty minutes to cool down by doing any of the exercises you did to warm up signals to your brain that it is time to stop releasing adrenaline and cortisol. This helps your body relax and calm down.

Your muscles also need that signal to return to their normal state. When you exercise, blood generally flows away from the heart to the extremities, and a cool down period brings that blood back to the heart. If you are working out intensely and stop suddenly, you may feel light-headed and even faint if you do not cool down properly. Slowly bringing your heart rate to normal also calms respiration and prevents hyperventilation. A final benefit to cooling down is that it helps remove lactic acid slowly from the muscles; this prevents cramps and muscle spasms.

Your body deserves the benefit of a warm-up and cool-down period. Do you routinely skip one or both steps in your workout?

Image by Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources via Flickr

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