Written by: Bonnie Feldman, DDS, MBA, Ellen M. Martin, Kelsey O’Donoghue
Imagine attending a workout class in which you warm up with stretching…seems pretty normal, right? Now imagine continuing to stretch for the whole class. Studios selling this concept are popping up around the nation – classes composed entirely of stretching are becoming more and more common. For most of us, stretching for a full hour seems odd, but perhaps these instructors know something we don’t. We’ve all been told how important warm-up stretching is for injury prevention, but could stretching have benefits beyond supplementing our workouts?
Important basics about stretching
Before diving into the benefits of stretching, let’s play a little game to see how much you already know (and how much of what you know holds true!). Below are listed some commonly-held beliefs about stretching – do you think they are fact or fiction?
Fact or Fiction? You should always begin your workout with stretching.
Experts at Harvard Medical School actually recommend warming up BEFORE stretching. Such warm-ups could include a walk or a light jog for 5-10 minutes, or a swim, or even a dip in a hot tub. Warming up gets blood and oxygen flowing to the muscles before stretching, because stretching cold muscles could actually promote muscle injury, the opposite of its intended effect. Next time, before you start stretching, make sure you are warmed up!
Fact or Fiction? There are two types of stretching techniques: dynamic and static.
There are a wide variety of stretching techniques, such as Myofascial Release, Ballistic, Active Isolated Stretching, etc. However, dynamic and static stretching are the most general categories. Static stretching is what you typically do at the beginning of a workout: a muscle or group of muscles is gradually stretched to the point of limitation, creating a mild and even strain, and held for 15 to 30 seconds (2-3 breaths). In contrast, dynamic stretching incorporates active range-of-motion movements, such as swinging the arms or legs, rather than holding the stretch in one position. Each stretching technique offers specific health benefits and multiple methods can be combined to reach maximum results. The end of this article points to options for stretching to help you decide what may be best for you.
Fact or Fiction? You should only stretch if you are worried about getting injured
You’re probably starting to see a pattern here, as this one is also fiction. Specialists at Mayo Clinic believe that there are more benefits to stretching than just decreasing the risk of injury. They have found that stretching improves range of motion, increases blood flow to muscles, improves both physical activity performance and daily activities and increases flexibility, which results in reduced tension.
How might stretching affect chronic conditions?
Stretching may influence and alleviate chronic symptoms that arise from various body parts. One target of stretching is Fascia, the densely-woven, soft tissue layer of the connective tissue system. Disruptions in fascia have been linked to various chronic conditions such as Chronic Lumbar Backache (1), Fibromyalgia (2), Dermatomyositis (3), Rheumatoid Arthritis (4), and many others. Dr. Robert Schleip, a leading researcher in the field of fascia and movement therapy, has discovered that many stretching techniques can positively influence connective tissue and alleviate symptoms associated with joint stability and musculoskeletal pain (5).
Stretching may also be effective for lower back pain associated with multiple autoimmune conditions, such as non-radiographic axial spondyloarthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, psoriatic arthritis and reactive arthritis. One study, conducted by Dr. Karen J. Sherman of the Group Health Research Institute in Seattle and funded by the National Institute of Health, found weekly yoga or stretching classes effective for reducing lower back pain and improving back mobility. Sherman states that “both yoga and stretching can be good, safe options for people who are willing to try physical activity to relieve their moderate low-back pain (6).”
This information shows only the tip of the iceberg. As the popularity of stretching increases, more research is studying both benefits as well as the connection to autoimmune diseases and other chronic conditions.
How can you start experiment with stretching?
One option, mentioned earlier in this article, is relatively new: stretching classes. Studios offering stretch-only classes are opening around the United States. A variety of options are available, ranging from group classes to personalized one-on-one stretching sessions. One key benefit of these classes is that they provide hands-on stretching aid from experts, who can provide you with more information and helpful advice personally tailored to your conditions. These classes may be a good option for you if you prefer to work out in a studio setting and/or are interested in learning about stretching techniques and benefits personalized to your body. You might even learn new techniques that you can implement at home!
Yoga and Pilates
Additional options, for those of you who prefer slightly more vigorous activities, are Pilates and Yoga. These exercise therapies incorporate a variety of stretching techniques within their practices. For example, yoga therapy utilizes meditation, stretching, breathing, and postures to improve physical and mental health. Pilates, on the other hand, teaches controlled movements and stretches focused on strengthening the core muscles (deep spinal and pelvic muscles, abdominals, chest, back and buttocks). Mat Pilates exercises require no equipment, but can be difficult to master, so modifications use various equipment (balls, towels, stretchy bands, rollers, etc.) and machines (reformer, magic chair, cadillac) to provide support and resistance as well as control the range of motion. Many Pilates practices incorporate barre work from ballet, as well as poses and stretches borrowed from yoga. Experimenting with both of these movement therapies may help you discern which option works better for you (if not both)!
Life can be busy and unpredictable – but the beauty of stretching is that you can do it anywhere, including in your own home! For those of you who struggle to find time for workout classes, there are still methods for incorporating stretching into your daily routine. You can register for online stretching, yoga, and pilates classes or even watch free tutorials online. One great resource is a wellness channel on YouTube, PsycheTruth. This channel has hundreds of videos and tutorials for at-home stretching options, including videos targeted to alleviate pain in specific parts of the body, such as the neck, lower-back, and hips. Alternatively, there are a variety of free mobile phone apps, such as “Stretch It” and “Start Stretching”, that also provide stretching exercises you can perform at home. These digital health tools can help you implement stretching into your busy schedule and promote positive changes in your life.
As a woman battling chronic conditions, I know how hard it can be to find the motivation to step out of your comfort zone and start experimenting with movement therapies. But the truth is, it’s the best lifestyle change I have made to improve my health. Finding the right movement therapies for my body have helped alleviate the symptoms of my conditions. I’m constantly seeking to find what works best for my body by frequently altering my diet and exercise regimes – and you should too! The only way you’re going to know what works and what doesn’t is through experimentation.
For more information of these movement therapies please visit our mind and body blog here. And don’t forget to let us know what did (or didn’t) work for you!
(1) Bordoni, Bruno, and Emiliano Zanier. “Clinical and Symptomatological Reflections: The Fascial System.” Journal of Multidisciplinary Healthcare 7 (2014): 401–411. PMC. Web. 6 Nov. 2017.
(2) Liptan G.L. “Fascia: A missing link in our understanding of the pathology of fibromyalgia”. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies. Pubmed.gov. Jan 2010.
(3) Noda, Kentaro, et al. “The Fascia Is a Target Organ of Inflammation in Autoimmune Diseases.” ACR Meeting Abstracts. September 2015.
(4) Cubick, Erin E. et al. “Sustained Release Myofascial Release as Treatment for a Patient with Complications of Rheumatoid Arthritis and Collagenous Colitis: A Case Report.” International Journal of Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork 4.3 (2011): 1–9. Print.
(5) Schleip, Robert et al. “Training principles for fascial connective tissues: Scientific foundation and suggested practical applications.” Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies. Jan 2013
(6) Sherman, Karen J. et al. “A Randomized Trial Comparing Yoga, Stretching, and a Self-Care Book for Chronic Low Back Pain.” Archives of Internal Medicine171.22 (2011): 2019–2026. PMC. Web. 7 Dec. 2017.