The truth about stretch­ing

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Travel & Life - By Mar­lene Ci­mons The Wash­ing­ton Post

Myles Sch­nei­der, 74, a semire­tired po­di­a­trist who lives in Re­ston, Va., stretches for 60 min­utes, six times a week. Sch­nei­der, who also walks briskly for 45 min­utes twice weekly and runs three times a week for 45 min­utes in the deep end of a pool, spends more time stretch­ing than he does in ac­tual ex­er­cise.

An hour of slow stretch­ing may seem ex­ces­sive, but it works for Sch­nei­der.

When he was into dis­tance run­ning in his 20s, he stretched for about 10 min­utes be­fore and af­ter his runs. But he al­ways felt rushed. Since reach­ing his mid-50s, how­ever, he’s been stretch­ing in the late af­ter­noon or early evening.

“Af­ter a few min­utes, I feel more en­er­gized and no longer tired,” he said. “I also re­ally no­tice my­self re­lax­ing men­tally, es­pe­cially if I’m stressed-out about some­thing. Also, I’m cer­tainly more flex­i­ble than I was 20 years ago.”

Ex­er­cise dogma long has ex­tolled the value of stretch­ing, usu­ally as a warmup be­fore ex­er­cise or as a cool-down af­ter­ward. By not brack­et­ing stretch­ing to his work­outs, Sch­nei­der skirts the de­bate over whether slow stretch­ing — known as “static” stretch­ing — helps or hin­ders sports per­for­mance.

From the 1960s to the late 1990s, fit­ness pro­fes­sion­als firmly be­lieved that static stretch­ing was a use­ful ad­junct be­fore ex­er­cise, warm­ing up the mus­cles and, in do­ing so, pre­vent­ing in­jury. Later, how­ever, re­search sug­gested the op­po­site was true — that it caused mus­cle fa­tigue and slower sprint­ing times in elite ath­letes. This prompted many of them to aban­don it for “dy­namic” stretch­ing, which looks more like real ex­er­cise. To­day, many ex­perts think a com­bi­na­tion of both be­fore a vig­or­ous work­out or com­pe­ti­tion is the best ap­proach.

To un­der­stand the con­tro­versy, it’s im­por­tant to know what hap­pens at the mus­cles’ cel­lu­lar level dur­ing static stretch­ing.

“Our mus­cles are made of thou­sands of mus­cle spin­dles — like hairs in a pony­tail — that give the mus­cle cell the abil­ity to stretch and con­tract by slid­ing past each other in a co­or­di­nated fash­ion,” said Michael Jonesco, an as­sis­tant clin­i­cal pro­fes­sor of sports medicine and in­ter­nal medicine at Ohio State Univer­sity’s Wexner Med­i­cal Cen­ter. “Static stretch­ing pulls on the cell to the max, and can cause some stretch in­jury that takes time to re­cover, and can there­fore cause a tem­po­rary drop in per­for­mance.”

Dy­namic stretch­ing, on the other hand, puts the mus­cles in mo­tion repet­i­tively, and “is es­sen­tially pre­par­ing your mus­cle in a grad­u­ally pro­gres­sive fash­ion to do the job you want it to do,” said Ed­ward Laskowski, a phys­i­cal medicine and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion spe­cial­ist at the Mayo Clinic. “For ex­am­ple, you may want to do a front kick in mar­tial arts or in dance. So you would start with some slow and gen­tle kicks, grad­u­ally in­creas­ing speed and in­ten­sity un­til you are per­form­ing the kicks you nor­mally would.”

A com­pre­hen­sive re­view of the sci­en­tific lit­er­a­ture over the past 15 years tries to put the con­tro­versy to rest. Af­ter con­sid­er­ing hun­dreds of stud­ies, re­searchers con­cluded that a mixed warmup — static stretch­ing along with dy­namic stretch­ing — was the op­ti­mal ap­proach.

“Brief pe­ri­ods of static stretch­ing, of­ten fol­lowed by dy­namic pe­ri­ods of warmup, is a great means to pre­pare for com­pe­ti­tion,” Jonesco said. Laskowski agreed. “A com­bi­na­tion of stretches is likely best,” he said. “Static stretch­ing to en­sure equal flex­i­bil­ity side-to-side and to op­ti­mize range of mo­tion about the joint, and dy­namic stretch­ing as a prepa­ra­tion for a sport or ac­tiv­ity, es­pe­cially one re­quir­ing ex­plo­sive move­ments.”

More­over, reg­u­lar static stretch­ing — whether tied to ex­er­cise or not — con­veys a num­ber of ben­e­fits. It in­creases range of mo­tion in the joints, en­hances flex­i­bil­ity, im­proves cir­cu­la­tion and re­duces risk of in­jury, among other things. “I like to think of stretch­ing as a way to op­ti­mize the range of mo­tion about your joints,” Laskowski said. “The more mo­tion you have, the bet­ter the mus­cles can work.”

Re­cent re­search in an­i­mals and an un­pub­lished pre­lim­i­nary study in hu­mans also sug­gest that static stretch­ing helps the el­derly and those with im­paired mo­bil­ity be­cause it in­creases blood flow to the mus­cles.

“You are never too old to gain a ben­e­fit,” Laskowski said. “Our con­nec­tive tis­sue tight­ens as we get older, so stretch­ing is ben­e­fi­cial as we age.”

For op­ti­mal ben­e­fit, Laskowski sug­gested hold­ing a stretch for at least 30 sec­onds. Don’t bounce, which can cause “mi­cro trauma” to the mus­cle, he added. Many peo­ple stretch both be­fore and af­ter ex­er­cise, but given a choice, Laskowski said, he be­lieved the best time to stretch is af­ter, when the mus­cles and tis­sues are warm. Sym­me­try also is im­por­tant — equal flex­i­bil­ity on each side — to pre­vent mus­cle im­bal­ance, which can lead to in­jury, he said.

Jonesco agreed. “Be sure to do both sides, right and left,” he said. “I also rec­om­mend an­tag­o­nis­tic mus­cle pair­ing as well — front to back, for ex­am­ple, quad and ham­string.”

He dis­misses the lack-of­time ar­gu­ment some peo­ple make. “Static stretch­ing is sim­ple,” Jonesco said. “It can be done any­time with min­i­mal ef­fort. Do it while in the hot tub or shower. You can do it while sit­ting in your work chair.”

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