I Tried Stretch Therapy & It Taught Me So Much About My Body
Paying someone to stretch you might feel like an unnecessary luxury, but carving out some time to care for your body is crucial.
When you have kids, you know that even using the bathroom in complete privacy is a luxury, let alone taking the time to care for your body. And these days, spending 20 bucks on some moisturizer at Target feels equally extravagant, which means self-care services like massages, physical therapy, and bougie workout classes might understandably be out of budget.
When I heard about these stretch therapy places that keep popping up, I had some questions. I'm privileged enough to have the flexibility in time and finances to work out regularly, so there's rarely anything stopping me from rolling out my yoga mat. But when it comes to stretching, I pretty much do the requisite brief stretch in the minutes before a live workout class or during the cooldown period and call it a day.
Don't get me wrong: I love an occasional massage as much as the next person, and I've continued the at-home yoga routine I found myself craving during the COVID pandemic. Paying someone to stretch me seemed a little… unnecessary, but I was willing to be proven wrong.
Curious if it's worth giving professional stretching a try, particularly if you experience chronic pain or don't ever exercise? A stretch pro explains why it's the self-care step — an hour away from your responsibilities — you might just need in your life.
What is assisted stretching?
In assisted stretching, a trained practitioner manually stretches your body, sometimes using equipment like massage guns or straps. So yes, that means you will be getting up close and personal with a stranger, but a good practitioner will help you feel at ease and communicate with you the whole way through — there should be no surprises or awkward moments.
The great part is that it's tailored to you and your body at that moment. I began my session at StretchLab with a mobility assessment, and my lovely flexologist, Meg, asked me a slew of questions about my body, my activity levels, and my specific concerns. Working at a computer desk all day, I expected to hear that my posture and upper body showed weakness. However, Meg's assessment and the full-body scan showed that my hips, hamstrings, and quadriceps (upper legs) actually carry the most tension and mobility concerns. Since I spend most of my time sitting (and I'm an avid indoor cycling fan), it makes sense, but I just assumed those would be my strongest areas.
Almost anyone can benefit from assisted stretching, even if you're pregnant, have chronic health concerns, or are mostly sedentary. Though it's worth noting if you are recovering from an injury, you will want to be cleared by your doctor and/or physical therapist before trying it out.
Is it like a massage?
Not really. In our session, Meg made it clear that she'd be pushing past my comfort zone to get the deepest stretch but never to the point of pain, which is important. You should also be 100% honest about past injuries or surgeries so your flexologist can modify to keep you safe.
Stretching activates the body's deep postural muscles, which helps increase flexibility, strength, and stability in the body, as Kelsey Decker, NSCA-CPT and Manager of Training for StretchLab, tells Scary Mommy. So, while physical therapy helps correct an injury or a bodily imbalance and massage stimulates the superficial muscles, "stretching is a lifestyle habit that helps maintain and enhance the body's ability to move freely," says Decker.
It's also safe to do daily, provided you've got a few minutes to incorporate it into your routine. Some benefits of stretching, per Decker: injury prevention, improved activity performance, and overall well-being. "Research has shown that increased flexibility can decrease the risk of injury," she says, which allows joints to move through an increased range of motion before incurring injury. "Research has also shown that stretching post-workout or activity is very beneficial in decreasing muscle soreness and recovery time, ultimately leading to improved performance. Lastly, improved flexibility has the potential to increase energy and decrease aches/pains from lack of movement or poor posture due to build up of life's daily activities."
All that aside, it just plain feels good to devote some time to yourself and have someone else be in tune with your body's needs instead of you tending to everyone else's needs for a change. If that means springing for a bit of luxury from time to time and popping in for a stretch session, you deserve it!
How do you start a stretching routine?
What if you simply don't have time or extra cash for stretch therapy? That's OK! Decker says you can still loosen up tight muscles and reap the benefits of at-home stretching even if you take 5 or 10 minutes a few times a week. "Taking small pockets of time for yourself is so important so you can give your mind and body a break," she notes.
As with any physical activity, you'll want to check in with your doctor before you start, particularly if you're recovering from illness or injury, are pregnant, have recently given birth, or have other health concerns. "Start slow and for short periods of time," says Decker. "Listening to your body and doing what feels good is so important. Improvements will be made over time."
She recommends these three stretches for most people's body types, abilities, and fitness levels.
Kneeling lunge: "Bring your left leg to a 90-degree angle in a lunge position with your back leg bent and knee in contact with the ground," says Decker. "Keeping your chest upright and core engaged, squeeze your right glute to keep hips inline and lean your entire body into your front left leg. You will feel a pull through your right hip flexor and maybe quad — if you have any knee issues, use a pillow or pad under your back knee. Hold for 30 seconds to let your hip flexors release, and then repeat on the other side. Our hips are constantly flexed in a sitting position due to improper body posture or overuse during fitness, and it is important to extend hip flexors to release tension and improve body posture."
Side-lying stretch: "Lying on your right side, bend your knees and bring your arms out in front of your chest like an alligator's mouth," suggests Decker. "Open your top arm away from your bottom arm and across your body until you feel some gentle tension, and hold here for a breath. Make sure to follow your top hand with your eyes as you open and close your top arm. Repeat a few times before rolling over and repeating on the other side. This movement will create mobility through your spine."
Child's pose: "Kneel on a supportive mat with your knees wide (if comfortable) and your feet together to create a 'v' shape with your body," she says. Then, "sit your glutes back towards your heels and lean your upper body forward. Walk your hands out in front of you to lengthen your spine and keep your glutes as close to your heels as possible to open through your hips. You can sit here for 30 seconds to a minute if you'd like. This provides a moment to breathe and release through your back and hips, which are commonly the tightest, most tense parts of the body."