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The MisFits: Debating the benefits of static stretching

Joan McKinney, 76, front, at a stretching class at the D.C. Jewish Community Center.
Joan McKinney, 76, front, at a stretching class at the D.C. Jewish Community Center. (Susan Biddle For The Washington Post)

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By Lenny Bernstein
Thursday, October 29, 2009

It's been a long, hard day at the office, and you need a good workout to blow off all that stress. But before you hit the free weights, the stationary bike or the elliptical machine, you spend 10 minutes carefully stretching all those stiff muscles, just as every coach, trainer and physical therapist has advised for as long as you can remember.

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The question is why.

There's no evidence that you'll prevent injury. In fact, some people believe you're more likely to cause one.

You won't stave off muscle soreness.

You won't perform better, except possibly if you're going to do gymnastics or ice-skate. There's some reason to believe you'll do worse than if you hadn't stretched.

"There is not sufficient evidence to endorse or discontinue routine stretching before or after exercise to prevent injury among competitive or recreational athletes," concluded the National Center for Injury Prevention Control, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in a 2004 study that may be the most thorough look at the research on stretching.

Before you go out and tear a cold hamstring, let's back up. Research and anecdotal information attribute many benefits to stretching: reduced muscle tension, improved circulation, pain reduction and management. Perhaps most important, stretching helps us maintain range of motion as we age, allowing older people to continue with the activities of daily living.

The question is whether "static stretching" -- the most common type, which involves holding a muscle in one position for a defined period of time -- has been misinterpreted, or oversold, as a preventive for what ails you.

"People believe all kinds of amazing things, and it changes every 10 or 15 years," said William Meller, a physician and associate professor of evolutionary medicine at the University of California at Santa Barbara, who sees even less value in stretching than the CDC does. The merits of stretching are "not based on any science. It's based on word of mouth. It's spread by coaches, spread by trainers, [by] all kinds of different people who have an interest in pretending to be experts."

According to Julie Gilchrist, a medical epidemiologist who helped conduct the CDC study, "it's probably important that we maintain some norm of flexibility throughout our life spans, but I don't think anyone has really defined what that [norm] is.

"Our belief is there are probably people who would benefit from stretching. But then the question is who should stretch, when to stretch," how much to stretch and, most important, what benefits can be expected.

There was no argument about those benefits recently in a darkened dance studio at the D.C. Jewish Community Center near Dupont Circle, where instructor Lisa Glassman led 13 people in their 50s, 60s and 70s through an hour-long stretching and strengthening class.


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