Gretchen Reynolds is wrong about stretching

If you’re a radio listener, you may have heard this story from NY Times health writer Gretchen Reynolds.  In this interview, she talks about two major points: sitting is bad for you and stretching is pointless and/or bad for you.

So let’s talk about the two main points, see just how wrong her advice is on the second point, and see what information you can use to help keep yourself healthy, happy, and pain free:

1.Sitting is bad for you.

    • Yes it is.
      • It does bad things to your blood, your brain, and the rest of your body.  Muscles atrophy when you sit, fat deposits in your brain and blood, and you end up feeling like crap. The more you sit, the more you find it hard to do other activities until you get to the point where you can’t do other activities. Move around as much as you can. Gretchen recommends getting up once every twenty minutes and walk around for at least two minutes. That sounds good and is an okay start for most people to start breaking sedentary habits.

2. Stretching is pointless and/or bad for you.

    • In her interview, she makes it sound like there’s no point to stretching. She claims that your level of flexibility is genetic and that you can’t do much to change it. She then goes on to talk about how her hamstrings have gotten tighter over the years and that that has made her a faster runner.
      • Pause for a moment and think about that. If flexibility were purely genetic, why would her hamstrings get tighter? Could it be because she doesn’t stretch? Ask anyone who’s ever done serious stretching, and they will tell you that they have had to hold stretch positions for at least a minute (if not longer) to really feel like their body responds. And they have to do it on a consistent basis to get long term change. This is a basic reality of stretching. This does NOT mean that stretching does not improve flexibility. It means that the kind of stretching most people are doing doesn’t do much to improve flexibility. I typically have people holding stretches for about a minute, and some stretches go on for several minutes.
    • She also makes the point that stretching before athletic activities is counterproductive and claims that doing 30 second stretches actually makes your muscles get defensive. Your brain is tricked into thinking you’re about to tear muscles, so defense mechanisms kick in that reduce your performance potential.
      • In some ways, this is true. Short 10-30 second stretches are TOO SHORT to do much good and will make your muscles get defensive. In addition, most people you see stretching usually hold stretches for around 5 – 10 seconds, which is even WORSE than a 30 second stretch. But if you stretch your body properly and address your unique muscle imbalances, you can actually help yourself run, walk, swim, etc. more efficiently and with lower chance of injury because your joints are moving correctly. That means your stretches have to be held long enough to create the proper change you’re looking for, and you need to be doing stretches that actually correct imbalances that you have (as opposed to the multitude of quick stretches that exacerbate most athlete’s issues).  I also talk about this in this video on “When is a good time to stretch?” 

If you haven’t listened to Stand Up, Walk Around, Even Just For ’20 Minutes’, I do encourage you to give it a listen, but make sure you listen between the lines and keep the above points in mind! There’s a lot of rightness in the interview, even if her points on stretching aren’t quite as right as they should be.


About the Author

Matt Hsu is a trainer and orthopedic massage therapist. He fought a long battle with chronic pain all over his body and won. He blends the principles he learned in his journey, empirical observations with clients, and relevant research to help others get their lives back.

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