The True Impact of Stretching
So, stretching… how many of you do it? Be honest. Maybe you stretch daily, or just when you work out, or maaaaybe you don’t stretch. It turns out that stretching is more popular in theory than in practice if you can imagine that.
Check out these numbers gathered by a survey done by The National Library of Medicine in 2021:
· 9.7% of people surveyed stretched daily
· 26.5% of the respondents said they stretched every workout
· 43.3% stretched 1-5 times a week
· 15.6% only stretch 1-5 times a month
· 4.9% responded saying they only stretched 1-6 times a YEAR!
This survey was done through a questionnaire with 3546 completed forms. So that doesn’t exactly represent the whole world and is a small sample, I get that. It’s awfully hard to get data from a survey that is inclusive of enough people to know what EVERYONE does. So, for now we will just go off what we have. But still, the data that we do have says that stretching is pretty underused.
I know that we all KNOW to stretch, I don’t think I have ever talked to anyone that doesn’t know what stretching is or that doesn’t believe it is beneficial; but we seemingly don’t actually do it that much. I am not equipped to know why, I’m sure that there are many professionals who study the psychology behind stretching and what people know about stretching and why they don’t do it as much as (most of us) know we should.
So, one more time, how many of you stretch and how often? This question, and the survey numbers, make me want to dig in just a tad deeper. For this article I want to learn about what stretching does for you. I also want to know the answer to one of my biggest questions:
Does stretching actually prevent injury?
For my whole life it was pounded into me over and over that I needed to stretch to keep from getting hurt. My soccer coaches, gym instructors, parents, and just about everyone told me this. So, is that really true?
What happens in your body when you stretch?
When you engage a muscle your body increases blood flow to that area. Blood vessels around the area that you are targeting widen and allow more blood flow to pass through and your heart responds by sending more blood there.
More blood flow means more oxygen to that area, the muscles work more efficiently and feel better creating motion following this reaction of blood flow and oxygen to the area.
It’s not all different from going for a walk, or any movement for that matter, when you walk your body engages its muscles and sends more blood flow through the veins delivering more oxygen. Our whole body feels better when we move because of this. Stretching is a way to target different areas and get this effect to that targeted area - we can stretch our back and send more blood flow through those specific areas, it feels good!
The other thing that stretching does for you is increase your mobility. When you move a muscle, you engage it and your body, while sending more blood to that area, is exercising that movement and will be more mobile there.
For example, if your shoulders are in the same position a lot and are seldom asked to practice other movements, say like being straight forward on a desk for writing and typing, the mobility to move your shoulders into other positions begins to be hindered. When you stretch your shoulders you body will respond by improving their overall mobility to reach other positions more freely.
If you stretch an area regularly, this process will continue to improve upon itself and you will be more mobile in that area, more flexible if you will (though the difference between mobility and flexibility is a conversation for another time, stay tuned for that someday!).
What does stretching not do in your body?
I want to dispense of a notion that is commonly stated here: when you stretch you are not LENGTHENING your muscles. If you regularly stretch an area, that does not result in that muscle getting longer, or softer, or more pliable, or whatever word you want to use.
The tendons and fibers in your muscles and ligaments elongate very slightly during a stretch and right after a stretch. Which, as mentioned earlier, does increase mobility, but there is no permanent lengthening. Many studies of biometrics have been done on this with humans, animals, over long periods of time, and short periods of time and there is no proof of long term lengthening happening in muscles.
Back to what is happening in your body again…
Nervous systems get engaged when you stretch because there are nerve endings almost everywhere in your body, including on muscles and tendons. When your nervous system gets engaged those nerve endings send signals to your brain to register pain or resistance if you are at the end of your current range of motion.
When your nervous system learns new ranges of motion or is practiced at going further, the signals that the nervous system sends to your brain start to quiet down and you will be more “flexible” (using that word again because that is what we as a culture call ‘having more mobility’, but I know a conversation is coming some day on the difference between mobility and flexibility – okay I will stop bringing that up).
Some experts posit that the reason why babies are so flexible is because their nervous system is still developing and hasn’t yet created a blueprint for the bodies range of motion yet. I am not an expert on the development of babies, so just throwing that out there – but it does make sense and would back up the understanding of nervous systems and stretching.
Bottom line is your stretching does two things: increases blood flow to an area and engages your nervous system. And that is why stretching improves your flexibility, not the lengthening of muscles.
Does stretching prevent injuries?
Did the words my coaches always told me about stretching so I that wouldn't get hurt have any merit? Well, yes and no.
There is a little bit of truth to the relationship between stretching and preventing injury, but I believe it’s overblown a bit. Here’s the role stretching plays in injury prevention:
· By increasing your range of motion, you are less likely to over extend or feel pain in a particular movement.
· Stretching, like all forms of exercise, can build muscular strength in an area as well. And muscular strength is a big factor in avoiding injury.
Let me explain why stretching does not directly prevent injuries… the most common forms of injury are:
1. Joint injuries – this is when either a force is being put on the joint in which the ligament wasn’t ready for or when a movement is made when, again, the ligament was not prepared for the force it took to make that movement.
And 2. Muscle injuries – these happen when the force being put on the muscle was greater than the muscle was able to handle, or the muscles ‘partner’ muscle was not strong enough to maintain balance and the remaining muscle was being asked to bear more of the force than it was equipped to do (essentially coming down to a muscle overuse or a muscle imbalance).
Stretching doesn’t help either of these situations. Stretching your leg, for example, doesn’t make the ligaments stronger or create muscle balance in different parts of your body.
That said, what stretching does do, is get blood flow and oxygen to your body to prepare and aid your body in getting stronger and addressing those situations.
So, let’s sum it up here, and say it clearly so that to make sure none of that was confusing.
The short of the answer is no, stretching does not help you avoid the most common types of injuries. It does contribute to living a healthy lifestyle and maintaining an overall healthier body that is holistically more prepared to avoid injury and recover from injury if it does occur.
Someone who stretches a lot, but neglects other areas of fitness, is not more prepared to avoid a potential injury just because they stretched. But someone who stretches often in conjunction with other healthy actions, is contributing to an overall preparedness – same as eating lots of fruits and veggies can help you be healthier, i.e. prepared.
Let me say what I am not saying; I am not saying “don’t stretch because it doesn’t help you avoid injury”. I am saying learn what stretching actually does for you and telling you to focus on stretching for those other benefits. Include stretching in a holistic healthy lifestyle to better equip yourself overall and to avoid any type of adversity.
That’s what I’m saying.
I hope this helps you know what stretching actually does and helps you give stretching the attention within your routines that it deserves. But do so with eyes wide open knowing that you are contributing to your healthy lifestyle in a more impactful way than merely stretching before doing an activity that has a presumed higher risk of injury.
Stretch regularly, eat healthily, get stronger. All of those actions need each other.
Want more stretching talk? Listen to the Simple(ish) Fitness Podcast where we have a full conversation on the topic!