When I told my 12-year-old daughter – a keen gymnast – that I was about to spend an hour getting professionally stretched, she looked at me in horror. “Stretching is the worst,” she said. “It’s going to be so painful.” Needless to say, I felt more than a tad apprehensive about it.
I shouldn’t have been. While there were definite moments of discomfort as I discovered just how inflexible some parts of me are, the experience was far from painful. In fact, the hour flew by as I was stretched in all directions.
Afterwards, I hardly recognised my body. The knots I thought had taken up permanent residence in my shoulders had eased, and I walked out feeling like I’d had a really good cry, a massage, and a gentle workout all in one.
That’s a familiar response for Margie Lane, a stretch therapist and owner of A Good Stretch. She says most people tell her they leave feeling like they’ve had a deep tissue massage.
So what is assisted stretching? As its name implies, it’s about stretching – but like you’ve never done before. Most of the session is done lying down while your therapist guides you into positions and helps you hold them.
Lane also uses a technique known as proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF), which involves stretching a client and then asking them to “resist” that position by pushing against her hand. That deepens the stretch while activating the antagonist (opposite) muscle.
Ideally, each stretch is held for about 30 seconds. Lane also peppers her sessions with blissful bouts of massage and encourages deep belly breathing throughout.
The most obvious benefit of assisted stretching is its impact on flexibility and mobility. Lane says that when you stretch, you’re creating “tiny micro-tears in the muscle”. That sounds ominous, but it’s actually positive.
“In the same way that when you have a facial you stimulate the collagen, micro-tears stimulate the muscles to repair, and that creates a longer and a stronger muscle,” says Lane. The deep belly breathing also helps, steering you away from the frantic “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system, and into the calming, parasympathetic nervous one instead.
Recent research adds weight to the health-boosting effects of stretching. Published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health, it found an eight-week stretching program was better than brisk walking for those looking to reduce high blood pressure levels.
But you don’t have to book an assisted stretch session to gain benefits. Lane speaks of the value of stretching at home, though she does caution there are important “dos and don’ts”.
If you’re planning to do a static stretching session (when you hold a stretch for a period of time), you need to warm up first, by going for a walk or doing a workout, she says. Then, aim to hold each stretch for at least 20 seconds, and a full minute for maximum effect. You can dedicate lengthy chunks of time to stretching if you like. But Lane says it’s also helpful to do a few quick stretches every 40 minutes or so.