If stretching ranks among your list of health priorities somewhere below turning down the volume on your iPod, a new report may give you extra incentive to reach, bend and twist.
The study found that a regular stretching program may actually enhance performance, making people stronger and increasing their endurance.
"Stretching appears to do more than just increase range of motion," says study author Arnold Nelson, an associate professor of kinesiology at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.
"The extent that some people improved was surprising," he says. "Some people had fantastic improvements."
Nelson says stretching won't take the place of aerobic and strength-training programs, but it may supplement them. And stretching is a smart idea for people who are traveling and don't have a good place to work out, he says.
He also says stretching may especially benefit people who need exercise the most but are too weak to lift weights or get moving. "It's a catch-22," he says, but stretching can be a good place for them to start on a path to wellness.
Nelson believes stretching affects muscles in a similar way as strength-training but on a smaller scale. "We suspect it's activating some of the same things in the cell that exercise activates," he says.
Exercise physiologist Michael Bracko, a spokesperson for the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), says the findings offer some good news about stretching, which also can help keep people flexible, improve posture and possibly allow them to avoid some injuries and other aches and pains.
But Bracko notes that it's unlikely many people would comply with such an intensive stretching program. Participants in the study stretched for 40 minutes three times a week.
Nelson says the study was designed specifically to include a lot of stretching to see whether there was an effect. While lab research has found that stretching can boost strength in rats, the new study is one of the first to document this in people.
He says it's likely that lesser amounts of stretching offer strength benefits, too, but that hasn't been researched.
At the very least, Nelson and other experts say people should aim to stretch all major muscle groups at least once a few times a week, such as after exercising. Getting up from your desk and stretching out throughout the day also is recommended to release muscle tension. Plus, it just feels good.
Gains in strength, endurance and jumping
The study involved 38 mostly sedentary people who were divided in two groups. One group did not do any stretching exercises during a 10-week period while the other group engaged in a program that required stretching the legs for 40 minutes a few times a week. The series of 15 static stretches in the program were aimed at working all major muscles in the legs, including the hamstrings and quadriceps. Several of the stretches, for instance, required sitting on the floor with the legs out and then lowering the chest toward the legs. Participants held each stretch for 15 seconds and then repeated it three times. People in neither group participated in any other kind of regular exercise routine.
Not surprisingly, those on the stretching program improved their flexibility, demonstrated by an average 18 percent increase in the distance they could reach during stretching, according to findings published in the October issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, a journal of the ACSM.
But they also increased their strength, as measured by their ability to perform on weight machines. The amount of weight they could lift one time — their "one-repetition maximum" — increased an average of 32 percent for knee extension exercises and 15 percent for knee flexion exercises. Their muscular endurance — defined at the number of repetitions they could do at a weight that was 60 percent of their max — improved 29 percent for knee extension and 30 percent for knee flexion.
In addition, the stretching group saw more modest gains in other areas. Their vertical-jump distance increased 7 percent and their standing long-jump distance increased 2 percent.
Those in the control group saw no improvements in any of these areas, results showed.
Timing still controversial
When to stretch has become a controversial topic in recent years, with many fitness experts now saying that stretching before exercise doesn't help prevent injury and may even decrease performance. As a result, trainers typically advocate stretching at the end of a workout, when the muscles are already warm.
But Bracko, who is the director of the Institute for Hockey Research in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, says that try as he might, he cannot get the hockey players he coaches to stop stretching before a game. It's just so ingrained in them that pre-event stretching is the thing to do, he says.
Not everyone agrees that stretching before exercise is inadvisable, however. Dr. Nicholas DiNubile, an orthopedic surgeon at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and author of "FrameWork," a book about maintaining healthy muscles and joints, says studies showing that pre-event stretching doesn't prevent injury have involved mostly healthy people, not the kind that he often treats.
Aging boomers and people with pre-existing muscle or joint injuries should stretch before exercise, DiNubile recommends. "My feeling is you can never go wrong stretching before and after," he says.
But he does advise warming up first with some aerobic exercise and then stretching — and then doing the more intense activity.
"Stretching a cold muscle, I don't think that's a good idea," he says.
Think of your muscles as taffy, says DiNubile. Hard taffy will break, but warm taffy will stretch and stretch. Gauge your stretches accordingly. They shouldn't hurt. If a stretch feels like it's being forced too far, it likely is.