| Credit: Jonathan Pozniak

There are three common causes of muscle pain, according to Troy Blackburn, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the department of exercise and sport science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. If you can identify the source of the pain, you'll be better able to treat it.

  1. Repetitive or static everyday activities, such as sitting at a computer and typing all day, are the most common culprits. Stress falls under this category, too, because it often makes you unconsciously clench and tense your muscles.
  2. Strenuous, out-of-the-ordinary exertion, like moving furniture, raking leaves, or trying a new type of exercise, may result in delayed-onset muscle soreness within 24 to 48 hours.
  3. Overusing a muscle group―for example, when you wear out your legs in a 10K race―can lead to pain immediately after the activity.

Why Stretching Matters

Stretching can help remove metabolites and bring fresh blood to the tissues, preventing or easing soreness, says Blackburn. In addition, stretching lengthens muscles and may alleviate some discomfort after vigorous activity.

It's important to stretch after exercise, but ideally you should do it throughout the day, to prevent pain and soreness from everyday causes, like stress. "I tell my clients to aim for one minute of stretching an hour," says Karen Lunda, a physical therapist in Tucson. (See exercise suggestions on the following pages.)

Research shows that the best way to stretch is to hold the position for a minimum of 10 seconds―or, better, 20 to 30 seconds, says Richard Cotton, a spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise, in San Diego. "And avoid bouncing, which can strain muscle tissues," he adds.

How Strengthening Helps

While stretching exercises will make your sore muscles feel better faster, strengthening exercises will help muscles be less prone to injury in the first place. "Strong, fit muscles can take on more stress and use oxygen more efficiently than weak ones," says Lunda.

Regular strength workouts also reduce the likelihood that you'll have a muscle imbalance that could cause pain. For example, you're less likely to get backaches if both your chest and upper-back muscles are toned enough to keep you standing erect, since one muscle group won't have to overcompensate for a weaker one. Aim for two or three weekly weight-training or resistance workouts (such as Pilates or yoga).