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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)

Harvey Block, 78, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, said stretching helps with his balance. Sally Berk, 64, said daily stretching relieves some symptoms of her fibromyalgia, a chronic condition that produces widespread inflammation of muscles, ligaments and tendons. Joan McKinney, 76, said she hates aerobic exercise and stretching has cleared up her knee problems.

Even for the elderly, "we don't have the kinds of controlled intervention studies that we need to make a definitive statement about the benefits of doing flexibility exercises," said Chhanda Dutta, chief of the clinical gerontology branch at the National Institute on Aging. "We're not able to tell the elderly exactly the ways it can help them."

Similarly, coaches across the country wouldn't dream of putting athletes on a field, even for practice, without a battery of stretches that help them take the pounding and awkward landings of contact sports.

"As a coach, if I didn't do that and somebody got hurt, I would probably have a tough time sleeping at night," said Paul Foringer, the varsity boys' basketball and junior varsity football coach at Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg.

Foringer's athletes do a light warm-up, then spend 15 to 20 minutes stretching before each practice. "The more flexible the athlete is, the less susceptible to injury he becomes," Foringer said. "It's kind of common sense. If you take something that's taut and tough and you yank it, you're going to tear it."

But that's not what studies show. "Stretching was not significantly associated with a reduction in total injuries," according to the CDC study, "and similar findings were seen in the subgroup analyses."

In static stretching, "you're taking the muscle to the point where it naturally wants to go, and then you're taking it a little bit farther," said Meller. That produces microscopic tears of muscle fibers and does nothing to prevent injury, he said. It also may weaken the muscle slightly, increase the possibility of injury and inhibit performance, according to him and the CDC study.

For those who want to stretch, it should be done after a warm-up or at the end of an exercise routine because warm muscles are more pliable.

Research indicates that warming up before exercise is more valuable than stretching. Specifically, Meller said, you should spend three to five minutes gently putting your body through the actions you're about to perform, slowly increasing the intensity. If you're going to play tennis, he said, swing forehands, backhands and serves, and run forward, backward and laterally before you hit the first ball.

The CDC reports that a warm-up that raises your heart rate and body temperature gets your blood flowing, nerves firing and metabolism increasing to improve performance and prevent injury.

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