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Now That's a Stretch! (And It Won't Hurt a Bit)

You try to touch your toes ... and don't quite make it past the ankle bone.

Aging baby boomers, seniors, and even tight-hamstringed youths all can suffer from a lack of flexibility. But your toes don't have to remain out of reach, no matter what your age. A group of trainers in New York City have adapted flexibility techniques they've used to train Olympic-class runners in their quest to increase agility for ordinary folks.

Their idea isn't revolutionary: Stretching warms up the muscles and increases range of motion. But their execution is.

The traditional stretch would involve bending over and, say, touching your toes, then holding the stretch, even when it's uncomfortable. Pushing further and holding longer is indeed intense, says exercise physiologist Jim Wharton, a former Olympic running coach who runs a clinic in New York. But, he believes, the long, hard stretch is counterproductive. That burn felt during intense stretches brings on the myotatic – or stretch – reflex. That ultimately forces muscles to contract or tighten as a defense mechanism.

Instead, Wharton prescribes a gentle routine: a half-hour of stretches held for one to two seconds, aimed at isolating different muscle groups. Repeating each stretch multiple times is what brings flexibility.

"To see improvement, you have to do it every day," explains Tom Nohilly, a trainer at the Wharton clinic. "It's like any other learning curve. The muscles are learning to do something new."

The system of active-isolated stretching is not new. Nurses in England used the same fundamentals to rehabilitate soldiers during World War II. And in the 1950s, exercise kinesiologists at the University of Illinois studied the technique and began using it in sports medicine.

There is no evidence-based research to suggest that the short and sweet stretch is more beneficial than other kinds of stretches. But it sure can't hurt. Many elite runners have embraced it. And so have Wharton's current clients.

Albert Gordon, 70, used to go to a trainer who pushed him past his edge in hour-long sessions.

"I'd come out a beaten puppy," says the retired investment banker. Now he does Wharton's stretches, and he says it's helping him meet his top goal: "I want to stay upright!"

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.