Studies and opinions vary about how long one should stretch. Your age, medical condition, and tolerance are factors to take into consideration. The benefits of stretching include improved flexibility, increase in muscle performance, and a decrease in sensation of joint pain. In addition, flexibility can indirectly decrease risk for injury.
There are various mechanical theories as to how muscles become lengthened. Determining which theory is most valid could be used as a guideline to promote stretching in such a manner that supports the theory. Unfortunately, all of the theories have varying degrees of merit. Though some show improvements in the short term, none can account for the long term gains achieved by a steady regimen of stretching.
Here are some considerations regarding stretches:
Healthy Seniors: A 2001 study of 60 healthy seniors, average age 84.7, showed that 60 second stretch of the hamstring repeated 4 times once a day for 6 weeks improved hamstring flexibility better than holding stretches for 15 or 30 seconds. Benefits occur when holding it for shorter periods but 60 seconds produced the best results. In those of senior age, the tissues are less elastic, thus holding a stretch longer is more effective.
Ages 21 – 39: In a study of people between ages 21 – 39, stretching 30 seconds per muscle improved flexibility more than holding a stretch for 15 seconds. The National Academy of Sports Medicine supports 30 second stretches pre & post workouts. Interestingly some studies propose that 45 seconds or longer can actually acutely impair muscle strength, power and performance. The key piece is that the effects were only seen acutely. This is something to take into consideration if you are an athlete and getting ready to start an athletic endeavor immediately after stretching. There were no known negative chronic effects of stretching a muscle 45 seconds.
Children or Young Teenagers: One study showed effective stretching between 15 – 30 seconds in kids aged 13 – 15 years. This age range, and younger, generally is more flexible compared to most adults.
Prolonged Stretches & Repetition: In some styles of yoga stretches are held for minutes. In such cases, there appears to be an emphasis on mindfulness while stretching, incorporating breath and introspection with its own set of benefits. Repetition of stretches can also be beneficial. In one study, the hamstrings did not show benefit from stretching until the third repetition of holding for 30 seconds.
Despite the conflicting studies on the duration of holding a stretch. The overall sentiment is that the long-term benefits of steady adherence to a stretching program whether, for 15 seconds or minutes or repeating stretches lead to improved muscle performance and strength.
In physical therapy, we treat a variety of patients in degrees of recovery. There are certain target of muscles to stretch based upon assessments of posture, range of motion, strength and goals. The duration and number of repetition of stretches are influenced by pain, precautions set surgically, swelling, age, heat, circulation issues, scar tissue, and medical diagnosis such as diabetes, neuropathy and cancer. If you seek guidance on what muscles to stretch, how to stretch & the duration of stretches based upon injuries you have, please do not hesitate to reach out to us.