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Stretching has been experiencing something of an image problem. For years, the benefits of stretching were considered to be related only to flexibility. Thanks in part to a better understanding and appreciation of anatomical variation among bodies, flexibility is no longer as coveted as it once was. Lately, you’re just as likely to see an Instagram post that celebrates joint stability, strengthening work, or active mobility as you are to see contortionist-style yoga poses.
As someone who isn’t drawn to stretching, I found that shift to be a relief. Gentle stretches never generated enough sensation to maintain my interest and deep, passive stretches or long, active holds usually left my joints feeling achy and unstable. In fact, five years ago I stopped stretching altogether.
But recent research suggests stretching could have health benefits far beyond range of motion. Some studies associate stretching with heart health, healing from injury, even enhancing the body’s response to cancer. Research has yet to discern if there is a significant correlation and if it depends on stretching actively (as in vinyasa yoga) or more passively (as in Yin Yoga), but here’s what we know at the moment.
3 (surprise) health benefits of stretching
1. Cardiovascular health
In 2020, research published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health suggested that regular stretching may improve cardiovascular health in adults over 40 by reducing arterial stiffness, resting heart rate, and blood pressure. Researchers involved with the meta-analysis concluded that stretching may help prevent plaque buildup in the arteries and prevent the progression of atherosclerosis.
2. Reducing inflammation
A study published in the Journal of Cellular Physiology concluded that regular stretching during the process of healing from soft tissue injury reduced the development of excess scar tissue and fibrosis. This suggests that stretching could enhance the healing of connective tissue and resolve excess inflammation related to injury. Given these findings, stretching would be worth considering as part of the treatment protocol for internal tissue injuries involving fascia. The authors of the study specifically cited yoga as a suggested form of stretching.
Another study indicated that regular stretching might improve inflammation regulation in connective tissue. Inflammation is part of the natural healing cycle of injured or infected tissue, causing it to feel hot, swollen, and sore. However, if it continues over time, it can cause changes in posture or movement habits. Stretching was suggested as a helpful addition to existing pharmaceutical treatments for chronic inflammation.
3. Supporting the immune response to cancer
A recent study offers hope that regular stretching could play a role in cancer treatment and prevention. Researchers found that daily stretching was shown to reduce tumor size by 52 percent in the absence of any other treatment. The rather astonishing results could be due to interactions between stretching, chronic inflammation, and the immune response. While this research has yet to be extended to human patients, it appears that stretching could potentially be a low-cost, gentle, and noninvasive supplement to traditional cancer treatments.
See also: A 15-Minute Stretching Routine
About our contributor
Rachel Land is a Yoga Medicine instructor offering group and one-on-one yoga sessions in Queenstown, New Zealand, as well as on-demand at Practice.YogaMedicine.com. Passionate about the real-world application of her studies in anatomy and alignment, Rachel uses yoga to help her students create strength, stability, and clarity of mind. Rachel also co-hosts the new Yoga Medicine Podcast.