Fitness: Is stretching a waste of time? - Republik City News
Health and Fitness

Fitness: Is stretching a waste of time?


Ryan Poehling leads stretching exercises at a Laval Rocket practice in October. Gymnasts, hockey players and swimmers all require different levels of flexibility.

Dave Sidaway / Montreal Gazette

The last time I wrote a controversial column about stretching, I got a record number of readers questioning the rationale behind eliminating stretching before a workout. That was 20 years ago, when stretching was an integral part of almost all warmups. Nowadays, not only has stretching disappeared from most pre-workout routines, American exercise scientist James Nuzzo is recommending removing stretching as one of the foundational pillars of physical fitness.

Nuzzo doesn’t believe stretching is irrelevant. He just wonders why trainers still prescribe stretching exercises for healthy individuals who want to improve their overall fitness, and why evaluating flexibility is still part of the curriculum of fitness tests delivered in schools and fitness clubs.

To be clear, the type of stretching in question is static stretching, which requires holding stretches for 10 to 30 seconds. Dynamic stretching, also called range of motion exercises, are movement-based and don’t require any one position to be held for any length of time.

“Static stretching does not clearly and consistently improve health and function,” Nuzzo said in a recent online edition of Sports Medicine. “Moreover, flexibility can be maintained or improved by exercise modalities that cause more robust health benefits than stretching (e.g. resistance training).”

Stretching was once heralded as an important element in preventing sports injuries and post-exercise soreness, but many of its fitness and health benefits have been debunked. Current Canadian and American exercise guidelines make no mention of stretching in their recommendations for pursuing a healthy, active lifestyle. Yet assessing flexibility still remains part of most fitness testing protocols, and the American College of Sports Medicine still recommends stretching all major muscle groups two to three days a week, claiming “flexibility training will help to improve balance and postural stability.”

Flexibility testing is done using the sit-and-reach test, which entails sitting on the floor with both legs extended out in front of the body and reaching toward the toes. Flexibility is assessed based on how far the fingers can extend toward the toes. A single measure of flexibility, the sit-and-reach test evaluates range of motion in the hamstrings and lower back. Since flexibility differs from joint to joint, it’s possible to demonstrate a lack of mobility through the hips, hamstrings and lower back but still score in the upper percentiles for flexibility through the shoulders or ankles.

Nuzzo performed a scientific review to see if acing the sit-and-reach test has any health or functional benefits, including fewer injuries, reduced risk of falls among the elderly, a longer life, superior athletic performance, improved aerobic capacity, muscular strength or body composition or a better quality of life. It turns out that whether flexibility is great, good or mediocre, there is little impact on any of these measures of health and fitness.

In fact, when it comes to static stretching, there are plenty of reasons to be cautious. Stretching temporarily reduces the amount of power the muscles can deliver, thereby reducing overall gains in speed, strength and power. But Nuzzo says there’s another good reason to forget about prescribing stretching as part of a general fitness program: it’s a waste of time.

“Time previously dedicated to stretching can be reallocated to activities that cause more robust health benefits, including improved flexibility,” said Nuzzo.

Strength training exercises that move a joint through its full range of motion can improve flexibility. In fact, studies have shown weight training has the potential to increase sit-and-reach scores by 10 to 25 per cent. Aerobic exercise boosted sit-and-reach scores by 10 to 17 per cent. While those scores are lower than the improvements in flexibility gained through static stretching (nine to 43 per cent), they’re in the ballpark.

Keep in mind that greater flexibility isn’t always a goal worth pursuing. Joint hypermobility has been associated with joint pain and a greater risk of injury. A healthy joint is strong and flexible enough to perform sport-specific movements with efficiency and power. That means gymnasts, hockey players and swimmers all require different levels of flexibility. The same goes for a hockey goalie, kicker in football and martial arts aficionado. Each sport has its own requirements when it comes to what kind of stretching delivers the best possible performance with the lowest risk of injury.

So, should you stretch or not? The choice is yours. If your yoga class makes it easier for you to get in and out of a squat, bend over to pick something up off the floor or skate from end to end during your beer league hockey game, then stick with it. Or if your physiotherapist suggests improving flexibility or range of motion in order to improve movement patterns or fend off specific aches and pains, go for it. For everyone else who is otherwise healthy but feels guilty about avoiding stretching, consider this a hall pass.



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