Stretching is most commonly thought of as a way to increase flexibility.
What is often overlooked, is that stretching has other benefits, which are equally important to most people – especially those who feel tight, wound up and stiff as a result of a busy and stressful lifestyle.
Previously, I have discussed why flexibility is important for both fitness and ageing well. In essence, if we don’t use it (range of motion), we lose it, and stretching can help us regain lost range of motion. However, long term, our habitual activities will play a bigger role in maintaining adequate range of motion, which is why it is important to move regularly and in a variety of ways.
I have also looked at why mobility training (including stretching) doesn’t always work to improve flexibility, if you are stiff because you lack stability and control in a certain range of motion.
Because stretching doesn’t seem to do what people originally thought it did (lengthen muscles), it has been dismissed as ineffective and a waste of time by some trainers and clinicians.
This overlooks the following benefits:
Stretching Relieves Stress
This is one of my favourite reasons to stretch, particularly in the evening, when I’m winding down for bed.
Stretching stimulates the autonomic nervous system (ANS), shifting it towards the “rest and recover” parasympathetic state, and away from the “fight or flight” sympathetic state.
For most people, anything that helps them become more balanced in the ANS is a win.
Shifting towards a more parasympathetic state helps with:
- Sleep quality
- Recovery from exercise
- Mental health
- Tissue healing
- Digestion and elimination
Whilst meditation, breathing exercises and even prayer can help reduce stress and improve ANS balance, I like to prescribe stretching for most people, because mentally it is easier to “do something”.
Focusing on the stretch, including breathing is a form of mindfulness meditation, which potential physical benefits as well.
It’s worth mentioning, that a lot of “tightness” is simply a physical stress response – it’s considered protective by the brain.
So, if nothing else, stretch, particularly in the evenings, to reduce stretch and calm both your body and your mind.
Stretching Can Help Manage Blood Sugar Levels In Diabetics
Diabetes is a growing problem in Australia and much of the world.
Type 2 diabetes (non-insulin dependent) is becoming more and more prevalent, and is primarily a lifestyle condition.
The challenge for most people with type-2 diabetes is managing blood sugar levels, particularly after meals.
There is a large amount of research that shows exercise can help manage blood sugar levels, both throughout the day and immediately after meals.
A recent study out of India looked to compare the effects of stretching and resistance exercise on post meal blood sugar levels.
What they found, was that both forms of activity reduced post meal blood sugar levels – returning them to fasting levels.
However, there was not a significant difference between the groups.
This is important, because passive stretching is easily performed at home, doesn’t require any equipment (save for maybe a stretching strap) and can be performed by people who may not easily perform other exercises (like walking or resistance exercise) due to health complications.
The Real Benefit: Improved Cellular Energy Production?
Impaired cellular energy production (mitochondrial dysfunction if you must know) is implicated in a range of conditions. Most relevant to me as an osteopath, is fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome.
If these conditions are affected by impaired cellular energy production, and stretching helps improve cellular energy production, can stretching help with these conditions?
If you’re interested in the science:
A study showed that passive stretching increases heat production and oxygen consumption in muscles. This leads to an increase in the metabolic activity in these muscles thus causing reduction in the blood glucose level due to the incorporation of glucose transporter type-4 (GLUT-4) into the stretched muscles. Stretching increases the level of nitric oxide by single passive stretch of 20%. Nitric oxide also influences the incorporation of GLUT-4 thus facilitating its activity. PSS is also known to alter the microcirculation thereby reducing tissue oxygen exchange. This resultant ischemia facilitates the translocation of GLUT-4 into the sarcolemma. Additional related studies on PSS demonstrate an increase in glycogen breakdown at the cellular level and support the effectiveness of PSS in reducing blood sugar level by stimulating the activity of protein kinase B, further improving glucose uptake by the stretched muscle cells.
What this is saying, is that stretching helps cells use glucose (sugar) and oxygen, which is aerobic metabolism. This produces energy and heat.
It might be a long bow to draw, but I think there is definitely potential for people with chronic conditions that cause low energy/high fatigue to benefit from stretching as a form of exercise that doesn’t aggravated their symptoms too much.
Stretching Can Cause Muscle Growth
Years ago I used to read a lot of strength training/body building forums. This was before social media became the force it is today, and so discussions would carry on over longer periods of time, reaching a quite a level of depth.
One interesting discussion was started by a man with the screen name DoggCrapp (real name Dante Trudel), who came up with an interesting and very effective style of training that was quite counter to the popular high volume routines that were considered standard bodybuilding approach.
I mention this, because Dante was ahead of his time in a few areas. One was the effect of stretching on muscle growth.
Here is a quote from him:
Extreme stretching can have myriad benefits if done correctly: recovery, fascia size and potential hyperplasia, which is still only theory.
What is interesting, is that more than a decade later, researchers have demonstrated that prolonged stretching can increase muscle size.
Here is an excerpt from the abstract:
This study demonstrates that stretch training is a viable modality to alter muscle architecture of the human gastrocnemius through lengthening of muscle fascicles, decreasing pennation angles, and increasing muscle thickness
Now, I wouldn’t get excited and think that stretching is all you need to grow bigger muscles.
I would suggest that this is reason enough to include stretching as part of an overall fitness program – hypertrophy is a potential benefit, even if the effect is small.
The other effect of stretching, particularly longer holds, is the potential change in muscle architecture. Chronically shortened/stiffened muscles have a lower growth potential as their cross sectional area is decreased. Additionally, a flexible muscle has a higher activation potential (muscles that are stretched first demonstrate high motor unit activation). This is why Dante focused on stretching: in addition to the potential muscle growth, he observed that the bodybuilders with the best respective muscles also had the best flexibility in those muscles.
This isn’t just value for athletes, bodybuilders or people looking to bulk up. It can be a helpful way for people in pain to load their muscles and help them grow.
For example, someone with knee pain might not tolerate compressive loading, but they find that they can stretch their thigh muscles without pain. If that person has lost muscle size and strength in the process, this could go some way to helping that.
Stretching Does Not Impair Speed And Power
One of the big arguments against stretching, especially before any form of sports of exercise, is the negative effect of stretching on power.
This has been documented in multiple studies, which have been the basis for widespread dismisal of pre-training/event stretching.
However, as with many things in the training world, there was a massive over reaction. This had lead to programming mistakes that, over the long term, lead to worse movement quality and potentially injury.
Firstly, the documented power drops were minor – nothing for the recreational athlete or gym goer to worry about.
Secondly, the effects were transient, lasting about 15 minutes. Interestingly, there are some studies that show an equal drop off in vertical jump height between groups who stretched and groups who rested. This suggests that there is more to the decrease in power than stretching – perhaps lowered nervous system activity is involved?
Thirdly, recent research suggests that stretching might not have any negative effect as once thought.
Although it’s far from conclusive, I see this as a reason to stretch – you’re unlikely to negatively impact your performance in a meaningful way, unless you’re approaching the world record in a power event.
With no negatives, there are potential positives to pre-training and event stretching.
Improved flexibility, even if transient, can be helpful.
However, going back to the first point in this post, getting into a more balanced autonomic state may help performance.
Ask any elite athletic if they prefer to be jittery and overstimulated, or calm before an event.
You’ll probably get a split of answers, but what will be common is they will want to have focus and clarity. A balanced ANS provides that.
So stretching can improve joint range of motion and balance the ANS in the short term – both desirable prior to training and competing.
Stretching has copped a bad rap in recent years based on the fact that it doesn’t do what we thought it did (lengthen muscles) and that it isn’t as effective at reducing injury as strength training (I have my thoughts on that below).
However, there are many reasons to stretch – including these 3.
More importantly, stretching has stood the test of time – from martial arts to yoga – flexibility training in the form of stretching has been trialled by humans for long periods and found to be beneficial.
Whilst some will always want double-blind randomised controlled trials to justify everything they do, with stretching, the risk is low, the cost is negligible (maybe a mat and a strap) and the potential returns are high. To me, it’s a no brainer that stretching is at least worth trying.
If you want to implement stretching into your daily routine, subscribe to my mailing list below and I’ll send you a copy of my 40 page eBook ‘Active Stretching’. This covers the theory and practice of stretching in simple terms, with colour photographs and descriptions of how to stretch each muscle group.
This blog post was written by Dr Nick Efthimiou (Osteopath), founder of Integrative Osteopathy.
This blog post is meant as an educational tool only. It is not a replacement for medical advice from a qualified and registered health professional.