Regular readers of mine will not be surprised to hear that I love to stretch. I find myself wriggling around every day, gently testing range of motion in my muscles and joints, exploring my body through movement. I find it helps my body feel energised and my mind calm. As an osteopath, I prescribe stretches on a daily basis, and my patients come back reporting that the stretches help their injuries and improve their movement patterns.
So you can imagine the mild sense of panic I felt this week as I was reading a New Scientist article that questioned whether we even need to be stretching at all!
The opening paragraphs noted that scientific research hasn’t definitively found that stretching prevents injury, and it doesn’t seem to be a factor in helping us live longer either.
So if stretching doesn’t prevent injury, nor does it contribute to longevity, what is the point of it, and why does it feel so good?
Well, for starters, it helps us undo the effects of our modern convenience tool, the chair. Sitting for more than 4 hours a day has been shown to significantly reduce hip flexibility. Sitting at a computer busy on a keyboard also impacts our upper backs and shoulders. Stretching regularly can undo these effects and bring us back to a good baseline level of flexibility.
Maintaining a half-decent baseline of movement is important for day-to-day tasks, but what if you enjoy fitness training or sport? Do you need to stretch more?
Thankfully, you don’t necessarily need to stretch for longer periods of time, but you may need to think about how you stretch.
My favourite line of the New Scientist article was a quote from exercise scientist James Nuzzo. He says, “we need to get it out of our minds this notion that stretching holds a monopoly on the lengthening of tendons and muscles”. Ah, now this is right up my street. There are plenty of ways to get more flexible, and it turns out the traditional way of holding stretches (like trying to touch your toes) is a pretty inefficient way to get there. A much better way, particularly when it comes to sport, is to use movements that mimic the thing you are about to do. Use lots of variations and gradually increase the range of motion. You can even add load to the stretch to enhance it.
So if you are a footballer, you need to use running, agility drills and kicking-type movements. If you are a weightlifter, use squat variations for your hips and hang from a bar for your shoulders.
It turns out stretching has other benefits too. Interestingly, the act of taking our body through full range of motion doesn’t just help our musculoskeletal system; it also helps our arteries. The mechanism isn’t fully understood yet, but it seems that stretching also improves the elasticity of our blood vessels, and this can help prevent heart disease.
I breathed a sigh of relief when I read that stretching does speed up recovery from injury too. While traditional stretching doesn’t necessarily prevent injury, it can speed up recovery when one is injured because it helps turn off the inflammatory response in the tissues. So my patients haven’t been lying to me; it really does help!
Thankfully, to get these benefits of improved flexibility, a healthier cardiovascular system and speedier recovery from injury, you don’t need the Instagramable forward bend where you can rest your head on your shins; you just need a consistent, gentle movement practice that tests your boundaries a little. You don’t need to be top of your yoga class, but it would help everyone to have a practice two or three times a week that keeps them mobile.
And lastly, I don’t need any scientific research to tell me that connecting with my body through movement just feels good! Not only for my body, but also for my mind. I feel calm, grounded, connected. These abstract words that don’t neatly fit into a scientific paper. No matter what the science says, I know I will have a mobility practice for the rest of my life, and I hope you do too.