3 Unconventional Reasons To Stretch

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.

Conclusions

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.

 

 

Nick Efthimiou Osteopath

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.

 

 



 

 

 

References

Stretching increases heart rate variability in healthy athletes complaining about limited muscular flexibility

Acute Effects of Stretching Exercise on the Heart Rate Variability in Subjects With Low Flexibility Levels

Acute Changes in Autonomic Nerve Activity during Passive Static Stretching

The Effect of Neural Stretching Technique on Sympathetic Outflow to the Lower Limbs

Effects of stretching on menopausal and depressive symptoms in middle-aged women: a randomized controlled trial

Immediate effect of passive static stretching versus resistance exercises on postprandial blood sugar levels in type 2 diabetes mellitus: a randomized clinical trial

Effects of passive static stretching on blood glucose levels in patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus

Twenty minutes of passive stretching lowers glucose levels in an at-risk population: an experimental study.

Stretch training induces unequal adaptation in muscle fascicles and thickness in medial and lateral gastrocnemii.

Time course of changes in vertical-jumping ability after static stretching.

The effect of static, ballistic, and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation stretching on vertical jump performance.

STATIC STRETCHING DOES NOT REDUCE VARIABILITY, JUMP AND SPEED PERFORMANCE

Aging, Fitness and Flexibility

van Damme Volvo Splits

Two of the biggest physical issues we face as we age are:

  1. Loss of strength and power (1,2)
  2. Loss of mobility and flexibility (3)

For most people, exercise is a means to improve and maintain their health and well-being (including aesthetic goals).

So it makes absolute sense to focus on preventing or minimising the loss of these physical qualities as much as possible, in order to maximise health and well-being for as long as possible.

One of the best things about the rise in popularity of Crossfit and functional training is the emphasis on explosive movements to develop power.

However, despite this increased popularity, it is still rare to see people in gyms, fitness groups and sports clubs (martial artists and dancers excepted) doing any dedicated and meaningful flexibility work (a couple of quick toe touches before a workout don’t count).

I think this stems from a few different reasons:

  • Flexibility work is hard to monetise (there is no equipment to sell for example, outside of maybe a mat and a strap).
  • Stretching well takes time – people have been sold on 30 minute fitness, which is great, I love short sessions, but not at the expense of what you need.
  • Most people don’t know how to stretch well, so they don’t feel any lasting benefits from doing it and give up.
  • Misinterpretation of the research surround stretching, especially around pre-exercise stretching and force production which has seen a preference for dynamic mobility over more traditional flexibility work.

Use It Or Lose It

Almost everyone will agree that “prevention is better than cure”, and this is especially true with flexibility training.

Like every physical quality, flexibility exists on a “use it or lose it basis”, so if you live a modern life like I do (lots of sitting, very little physically taxing work outside of exercise), then it is very easy to lose.

To combat this, it is essential to work on your flexibility pro-actively.

Optimal Vs Reality

Understanding what is optimal for physical health and fitness, and what can be realistically achieved by someone for whom fitness is a small component of their life is quite important.

For the person who exercises because they have to in order to maintain their health, but they don’t necessarily derive any pleasure from it, the minimal effective dose for flexibility is all that is needed.

This person can regain flexibility by stretching (4), can then maintain it with almost any activity that requires range of motion – for example, a gym based exercise program or tai chi practice.

Additionally, if they make an effort to squat, bend, reach and generally move more in day to day life, then maintenance is that much easier.

Fitness Enthusiasts

For people who spend a lot of time and energy into improving their physical fitness, a specific focus on stretching will be beneficial.

This can take place as part of the warm up, cool down or separate session, as there a pros and cons to each.

For the fitness enthusiast, recreational or even professional athlete, a prime focus on flexibility and it’s associated qualities – motor control and joint stability – is even more important, due to the high loads placed on the body consistently from training and competition.

I believe that stretching is the only physical quality that in relation to it’s training, the saying ‘more is better applies. – physical preparation coach Ian King, whom I have mentioned on this blog previously. (5)

Again, this is a contentious area, as most research doesn’t show a cause-effect relationship when it comes to stretching and injury prevention, but there are many contributing factors, of which flexibility is just one.

Conclusions

You don’t need to turn yourself into Jean Claude van Damme (pictured above at age 53 in a Volvo commercial), but you do need enough flexibility to reach up overhead comfortably, bend down without strain and essentially move without restriction doing the things you do in your day to day life.

If you don’t lead a physically active life, then it is more important to increase your activity – even if you don’t exercise – than worry about specific stretching.

Once you are active, a focus on stretching can really complement whatever it is you are doing.

 

This post is a re-worked version of my May 2016 newsletter. You can sign up below to receive all future editions, plus my upcoming (and FREE) guide to stretching.

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.

 



 

References

(1) Strength and muscle loss with aging process

(2) Age associated loss of upper extremity strength and power

(3) Flexibility of older adults and the influence of physical activity

(4) Purely my opinion, eccentric exercises can also be very helpful.

(5) King, I., Legacy – Ian King’s training innovations, King Sports International