Stretching is one of those activities that many think we ‘should do… ought to do’ – but is it? Apart from allowing us to move into positions that are the envy of the less bendy, does it hold any real benefits?
My scribings today come off the back of reading the article in the picture above. And while we may not all (any?) of us benefit from spending £55 on a 55-minute stretching session (yes really) – unless a sense of worthiness counts, though frankly a diminished bank balance would be more frontal in my mind – are these new ‘flexpert’s’ onto a genuine thing?
Never mind the flexpert’s, what does the science say about stretching?
When it comes to stretching, the science is somewhat vague…
1. “Static stretching before exercise may increase chance of injury. Dynamic stretching before exercise is recommended but type of stretching before or after exercise has been shown to reduce chance of injury” (ref)
So pre-exercise long-hold stretching is definitely out, dynamic stretching (adopting a classic stretch position and then bouncing gently in and out of the stretch) is kind of in, even though there is no proven benefit? That’s pretty much where we’re at.
2. “Stretching increases joint ‘range of motion’ “(ref)
But do we NEED to increase joint range of motion (ref)? It might make you the envy of your friends that you can touch your toes but does it translate to any real benefit in real life?
3. “Stretching is recommended for adults in the 65+ age group… but it’s not clear why” (ref)…
Stretching is recommended as part of a rounded exercise programme that includes strengthening, balance work and cardiovascular exercise. It’s not clear if the stretching component provides any real-life value…
4. “Stretching (all types) may help recovery from fractures and muscle strains.”
If you’ve spent time in a plaster cast or have had an injury which means you’ve been moving a body part less, then somewhat unsurprisingly(?) you may benefit from stretching this part of you.
So why bother stretching?
Does it make you feel better in some way?
If it does then arguably, carry on stretching. Culturally there is an attitude and a belief that stretching is a good thing to do and if this fits for you – or you just know that it helps – then great.
Is it a natural part of your exercise anyway?
When stretching is naturally combined with your activity or exercise e.g. Yoga, Tai-Chi, martial arts or if doing specific stretches are woven into you sport or class then you likely find that the overall effects of the exercise – strengthening, motor control, balance, stamina-improving, endorphin release, social connection, ‘me’ time, routine, sense of purpose AND stretching all combine to lift mood, improve well-being and make you feel better.
It may/may not be a good thing for YOU to do…
Science results, very crudely speaking, will take an average. Thus far science has shown little benefit to stretching for stretching’s sake. But you are not average and we all vary, for a variety of reasons, in our stretch-ability and in what we do or don’t get out of stretching. You may be able to scratch the most unreachable part of your back when most of your friends don’t get close to theirs. Your partner may be more flexible than you overall but they may have the aches and pains while you don’t, or vice versa. In fact here is what I think is the answer to the ‘is stretching worth it?’ question…
We would probably all benefit from doing a handful of specific stretches, these stretches being specific to our genes, our exercise and injury history and our lifestyle and what we now want to achieve.
Person A has a stiff ankle from a sprain 20 years ago, she recently took up running and her ankle is starting to ache. She also has some low back pain and on examination her back flexes very well and her hip extension (ability to take your leg backwards behind you) is distinctly mediocre.
To do: Not stretch her shoulders, elbows, knees or uninjured ankle amongst others – she can if she wants but they’re not giving her any problems and there’s no evidence to suggest there’s any functional aka real-life benefit to pure stretching. I will however suggest that she stretches her chronically stiff ankle and her hip flexors but definitely not do any stretching that increases her back flexion.
Person B likes climbing and has hip and shoulder pain with less-than-ideal flexibility in both areas. Person B says that he has “always been stiff”.
To do: stretch hips and shoulders (but only in the directions that they’re stiff). He can stretch other areas if he feels like it’s of benefit, which given his possible ‘stiff genes’ he may do.
Person C keeps straining his hamstrings (back of thigh muscles) and on examination their ability to stretch is rubbish – his fingers don’t get past his knees when asked to touch his toes. He doesn’t have any other physical issues and has a busy lifestyle with kids and work and doesn’t feel that he has time to stretch.
To do: definitely stretch hamstrings! Anything else? Not if he has no other problems and doesn’t have the time or motivation anyway.
Person D is genetically extra bendy….
To do: Don’t stretch – strengthen instead!
But my muscles feel tight…
A tight/stiff-feeling muscle is often not a tight or stiff muscle at all but an overactive and/or weak and lengthened muscle. If this is the case then you don’t want to stretch it but you do want to strengthen it. It’s tricky to tell yourself if this is the case but if you’ve tried stretching and it’s not helping then consult a professional.
And what’s actually going on when I stretch?
Want to know the science-y bit? What you’re actually doing is increasing your STRETCH TOLERANCE, the ability of your muscles to tolerate stretch. What you’re really developing is your nervous system and the clever little sensory organs which receive send and receive messages to and from your muscles. So the more you stretch, the more stretching and the further stretch your nerves can tolerate.
So is it worth the time and effort to stretch?
If you like stretching and it makes you feel better then carry on. The benefits of stretching are specific to the individual so don’t stop because science hasn’t shown it to be of benefit when comparing large groups of people.
If you have a problem area that also happens to lacks stretch-ability then possibly – try it and if it doesn’t help then consult a Physiotherapist.
Before and after exercise? No evidence to suggest that it helps (confession: I never stretch before or after exercise) so only if you fancy it.
“Because I’m getting old and stiff?” There’s no evidence to suggest that we get naturally stiffer as we age, only that we tend to move less and expend less effort and therefore get more stiff as a result. Stretching as part of a generalised effort which includes getting out of breath and doing strengthening and balance exercise too will probably benefit you.
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