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The following is an excerpt from the book The No Sweat Exercise Plan
by Harvey B. Simon, M.D.
Published by McGraw-Hill; January 2006;$21.95US/$29.95CAN; 0-07-144832-2
Copyright © 2006 Harvey B. Simon, M.D.

Why Stretch?
There are four reasons to stretch: improved physical functioning, a better sense of well-being, a reduced risk of injury, and an improved mental outlook.

You’ll be able to see for yourself that stretching can improve physical functioning. Because you’ll stand taller and move more gracefully, you’ll look better. Daily activities as simple as bending down to pick up a newspaper will be easier, so you’ll feel better. Stretching will also help you feel less sore after a day of golf or gardening. Your balance will improve, reducing the risk of the falls that can be so devastating (see Chapter 7). And as your body functions more efficiently, you’ll gain self-confidence and a sense of well-being.

Feeling better is one thing; being healthier is another. Improved functioning would be reason enough to stretch, but virtually all physical therapists, trainers, and coaches are quick to give you a second reason: a reduced risk of injury. A widely quoted 2004 study, however, has cast doubt on that purported benefit.

The study was performed by a team of four scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They conducted a computerized search of the world’s medical literature and identified 361 investigations of stretching and health. However, only six of these studies met modern scientific standards for validity, and the new report is based on a meta-analysis of these few trials. It concluded that “there is not sufficient evidence to endorse or discontinue routine stretching before or after exercise to prevent injury among competitive or recreational athletes. Further research, especially well-conducted randomized clinical trials, is urgently needed.”

Many press reports summarized the research with headlines to the effect that stretching does not work. That’s not accurate. In fact, the study concluded that there are not enough data to draw any firm conclusion. I agree, but a look at the meta-analysis itself raises additional considerations. The subjects in all six experiments were healthy, active young men, either football players or military recruits. Twenty-something guys are usually quite flexible, so it’s no surprise that stretching appeared to add little benefit. Let’s await research on fifty- and sixty-something folks before we come to any conclusions.

Throughout this book, I’ve tried to base my recommendations on current scientific evidence. On the few occasions when I use clinical and personal experience to give advice, I’ll let you know. And this is one such situation. Until there is good evidence to the contrary, I’ll stick with the belief that regular stretching can reduce the risk of injury. Conventional wisdom is . . . wise.

In any case, there is a final reason to stretch: to reduce mental tension and promote relaxation. It’s another recommendation based on traditional wisdom, but in this case, the tradition dates far beyond the locker room, all the way to ancient India, where the practice of yoga originated.

Many of the stretching exercises I’ll recommend later in this chapter are based on the less-demanding postures (called asanas) of hatha yoga, the form that is most popular in the United States today. Hatha yoga also involves disciplined breathing and meditation. But even without these elements, stretching itself can help relieve tension; as your muscles relax, so will your mind. In fact, a modern method of stress reduction uses progressive muscular relaxation without the stretching to improve mental health.

Stretch before and after exercise to warm up, cool down, and (I think) reduce your risk of injury. And consider a little stretching when you are tense and uptight. Many people find that a few minutes of stretching first thing in the morning helps start the day well and that a few minutes at bedtime promotes peaceful sleep. If you agree, try standing up from your desk for a little discreet stretching when you’re tense, and use a similar approach to take the edge off travel, which is edgy enough in our modern world.

Stretch for health. It’s the smart thing to do.

Copyright © 2006 Harvey B. Simon, M.D.