Aging Well Partners
- Aug 24
- 3 min
The Stretching Paradox: Why Stretching Can Be Beneficial, But Also Potentially Harmful
Should I stretch? This is a question that I am asked a lot in my practice, and like many things in health and fitness…the answer really depends. People hate that answer, but to truly answer this question, we really need to understand the changes the human body goes through as we age.
ELASTIC UNTIL 20
When we are young and “vibrant”, let’s say under the age of 20, our tissues–skin, fascia, muscles, tendons, and ligaments– are generally pretty “healthy” unless we have had some significant trauma or injury. Why is this? Well, physiologically when we are younger, we move in a multidirectional fashion on a much more regular basis than in “adulthood” ―whether it is running, jumping, hopping, playing sports, playing outside, socializing with friends etc.–we are very active during this phase of life which promotes growth, tissue fluidity, blood flow, and proper nutrition to the musculoskeletal system. So, during this phase of life there is less of a physiological demand for a lot of stretching because our bodies are much more naturally supple and can recover from these activities more rapidly.
The major shift begins to occur in our late teens, early twenties, into our 30s during what I call the “adulting” phase. It is during this phase that we as a modern society get significantly less active overall. We are finishing up school and transitioning to our careers, comprising mainly of sitting–commuting in the car, sitting in class, working at our desks at the office, getting back into the car, coming home, and eating dinner and maybe some TV and going to sleep…only to wake up the next day and do it all over again. Some people, especially if they don’t have kids, continue an active lifestyle but for most we are mainly focused on our financial, work, and family life. The once active lifestyle of our youth suddenly decreases and continues to slowly diminish over time as we age. Some eventually work to get their butts back into gear as their kids get older and more self-sufficient, but our population, as-a-whole, develops many musculoskeletal and systemic ailments due to the predominantly sedentary lifestyle during the later stages of life. It becomes somewhat of a snowball effect of muscle weakness and/or stiffness…so what is the best way to break this cycle?
This brings us to the stretching paradox…PERCEIVED muscle tightness vs ACTUAL muscle tightness. To put it simply, inactivity can make our muscles and joints stiff. However, this stiffness is merely a symptom which, at a primitive level, is based on what we feel. But…symptoms can have multiple potential causes, which makes the body so amazingly tricky to figure out! For example, recent research has shown that muscle weakness can cause muscles to feel tight…weird right?
That means that no amount of stretching will ever solve the symptom of tightness if the cause of the problem is muscle weakness. In fact, continuing to stretch in this situation can compromise the integrity of your joints, and lead to instability and joint degeneration…no bueno! So, the solution in this example is not to stretch, but to get stronger! The reason why the muscles in this example feel tight is because they are working so hard to perform the activity, that they go into a chronic state of spasm.
Now to be fair, in other cases the problem is ACTUAL muscle tightness from what we call “adaptive shortening” and there are stretches and mobilizations that certainly help with that. The trick is to identify what the heck is the cause of the stiffness or tightness in the first place and solve it quickly, because let’s face it–time is precious!
SEEK PROFESSIONAL ADVICE
My best advice if you are experiencing tightness or stiffness is to get an assessment from a movement professional trained to determine the root cause and guide you in an individualized plan to improve it, because if left untreated it can potentially lead to bigger problems for you down the road!
If you follow the link below you can request a FREE pdf download of the “Top 5 Stretches to Reverse the Effects of Sitting.” These are the most common areas that I see stiffness in many of my patients and are linked to a whole host of musculoskeletal issues and diagnoses, so do yourself a big favor and start doing these TODAY!
Dr. Sean Kuhn PT, DPT, FAFS is a doctorate trained physical therapist with an emphasis and fellowship specialty in chain reaction biomechanics, who has served patients and clients spanning the entire lifespan but now largely focuses on life after 30. He owns and operates Physio on the Go, a San Diego based practice comprising of in-office holistic sports medicine services, as well as mobile neuro-musculo-skeletal care for the aging and elderly population. Feel free to visit www.phyiso-on-the-go.com for more information!