Is the need to stretch a myth? Anat Baniel thinks so. In fact, she thinks you might be hurting your body by stretching before that workout.
Baniel is author of “Move into Life: The Nine Essentials for Lifelong Vitality.”
Baniel’s opinion is that stretching works against the way our brains and bodies are supposed to work. She says muscles are not built to stretch; rather, they are built to contract, or shorten and then to relax.
When trying to stretch one’s hamstrings by touching one’s toes, people tend to push hard to be able to reach their toes, she says. When the short muscle is overstretched, in an effort to elongate the muscle, this activates the stretch reflex. This reflex protects the muscle from tearing.
She says every muscle has a nerve ending inside the muscle which senses when the muscle is being pulled too hard. If the stretch reflex doesn’t function properly, the muscle could tear. The brain and the body are working against each other. Baniel says the brain was telling the muscle to shorten, while the body wants the muscle to lengthen.
“What’s important to understand is that the muscles don’t decide whether they contract or don’t contract. What happens to the muscles is decided by the brain. The brain sends signals to the muscle to contract when it needs to,” Baniel says.
In terms of scientific research, Baniel says, there is research that shows stretching can reduce the level of athletic performance, not prevent injury and be harmful to the body. When we feel the need to stretch, because our muscles feel tight or stiff, she says that was because there are some muscles that continue to stay contracted when our brain should have told the muscle to let go. She says the key was to retrain our brains and make our bodies as good as our brains.
“The brain is the CEO of our body,” Baniel says. “We need to wake the brain up. We want a vital, vibrant brain that can create new connections for us throughout life.”
Not everyone shares Baniel’s assessment that stretching is bad. Philip Gallagher, assistant professor in the health, sports and exercise science department at Kansas University, recommends stretching and says it’s beneficial to increase range of motion and flexibility.
He says every time a person exercises, a little micro-trauma is placed on the muscle, which causes signals to go to the muscle telling them to repair themselves and adapt to that stress. The next time the muscle encounters that stress it will be able to handle it better. As a result, it causes the muscle to repair itself each time a person exercises.
Gallagher says there’s no evidence to suggest that stretching is harmful to the body.
“If you’re talking about the general public, just trying to be healthy, stretching is great,” Gallagher says.