I vividly remember my first brush with yoga. A new class had recently been added to the fitness schedule at City Hall and, being a high schooler with a driver’s license and nowhere to go, I decided to cruise into town to check it out. I had some experience with Pilates at that point and imagined yoga to be something similar. Instead, I spent 45 torturous minutes on a stinky blue, gym-issue mat, slipping around in my socks with a group of ladies five times my senior, watching the clock incessantly until we were finally dismissed. As I walked out, I remember thinking two things: 1) “I’m never do that again!” and 2) “Why would anybody sign up for a class where all you do is breathe and stretch?!”
My view of yoga has softened quite a bit since then. I fully appreciate any opportunity I can get to breathe and stretch after almost 6 years of teaching and 12+ years of practicing. While my teenage self may have questioned the methodology of yoga after that first class, today there is mounting evidence from the scientific community that suggests taking time to breathe and stretch is in fact a worthwhile endeavor that supports our long-term health in at least three ways.
1. Supports Healthy Mobility
First and foremost, stretching helps to keep the connective and muscle tissues within the body pliable and strong by encouraging proper length-tension relationships, this is the ability of muscle fibers to optimally lengthen and contract to produce and reduce force. This prevents excessive wear and tear around a joint, encourages better range of motion and access to strength, and ultimately reduces the risk of pain and injury1. A 2004 study published in the Journal of Athletic Training found that static stretching noticeably improved hamstring flexibility of high school students after performing a single 30-second stretch three times per week for six weeks2.
2. Relieves Stress
Setting a few minutes aside to breathe and stretch throughout the week also proves to be just as beneficial to the mind as it is to the body. Stress relief, a happy side-effect of stretching, has long been touted by the yoga community as one of its many benefits. A 2013 study conducted by researchers at The University of New Mexico helped shed some scientific light on that post-yoga “ahh” feeling by looking at how mindful stretching and deep breathing affects those suffering from symptoms of PTSD. After two 60-minute guided sessions per week for eight weeks, participants of the study showed reduced cortisol (one of the main hormones associated with the stress response) levels and improved PTSD scores3. Even cooler, researchers noted a sustained reduction in cortisol levels in participants 16 weeks after their guided sessions had ended! The implication is that intentional stretching and breathing can be very useful in helping us manage stress in the long term!
3. Encourages Healthy Blood Pressure
If that’s not enough of a reason to make stretching a regular part of your routine, perhaps the health of your heart is! Most recently, scientists explored the effectiveness of dedicated muscle lengthening exercises relative to blood pressure. Their findings, published in a 2021 issue of the Journal of Physical Activity and Health, show that daily stretching (five days per week at 30 minutes per day) is more effective at reducing blood pressure than walking, the prevailing physical prescription doctors often recommend to patients with high blood pressure. The reason why: stretching your muscles also means stretching the blood vessels that wind through them, thereby reducing stiffness within arterial walls and easing tension that would otherwise limit blood flow. Combined with cardio activity, stretching can be a powerful tool for maintaining, or improving, healthy cardio-vascular function. Encouraging, right? I think so! You can even put this concept into practice with my 20-minute, on-demand video FOCUSED on Stretching for Healthy Blood Flow.
It’s reading studies like these and integrating their discoveries with my approach to yoga and fitness that gives me a greater sense of purpose on my own mat and a dedication to crafting the types of classes that will benefit my clients most in the long-term. Movement is important, burning calories is important, but so is taking time to slow down, unwind, and stretch. 15 years after that initial class, my question is no longer, “Why would anybody sign up for a class where all you do is breathe and stretch?!” Instead, my question to you is simply this: why wouldn’t you
1 Harvard Health Publishing, 2019 ‘The Importance of Stretching’2 Nelson, Russel T., Brandy, William D., 2004 ‘Eccentric Training and Static Stretching Improve Hamstring Flexibility of High School Males’, Journal of Athletic Training, Vol 39, No 3, pp 254-258.
3 Kim, Sang Hwan; Schneider, Susan M., 2013 ‘PTSD Symptom Reduction With Mindfulness-Based Stretching and Deep Breathing Exercise: Randomized Controlled Clinical Trial of Efficacy’, The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, Vol 98, No 7, pp 2984-2992
4 Ko, Jongbum; Deprez, Dalton, 2021 ‘Stretching is Superior to Brisk Walking for Reducing Blood Pressure in People With High–Normal Blood Pressure or Stage I Hypertension’, Journal of Physical Activity and Health, Vol 18, No 1, pp 21-28.