We get asked a lot about whether or not stretching programs work. To best answer this, we must dig into two key areas of knowledge: peer reviewed research and our in-the-field experience in injury prevention.
What Does Research Tell Us?
As a true evidence-based practitioner, I will tell you that research is perhaps the most important part of the equation when determining the efficacy of stretching programs. When looking at the summary of research, both Choi et al and Costa et al show that there are not definitive results showing a cause and effect relationship between stretching and injury prevention (Choi & Wolletz, 2010; Costa, 2008). However, note that there is often no control group in these studies which makes definitive statements impossible. Positive outcomes from stretching programs are limited to self-reports of improvement such as better “body awareness” or physiological improvements such as improved mobility and endurance (Holmstrom and Ahlborg 2015). All studies stop short of showing that improvements in those measures result in a reduction in MSD injuries.
Considering that we define a reduction in injuries as a true and desired outcome by our clients, there was no true outcome based conclusion. One study on construction workers showed reduced pain, but the participants in that study had also underwent 8 weeks of strengthening—an unlikely format for a pre-shift stretching or warm-up program (Ludewig and Borstand 2003).
What Does Our Experience Tell Us?
By themselves, stretching programs will yield no perceivable result. They don’t address any of the three major leading indicators to an injury: Early Soreness, Ergonomics or Behaviors. In other words, while we advocate and install stretching programs, don’t expect to move the needle on repetitive and cumulative injuries with just a few minutes of static stretches (of which only 25% of any industrial population will participate in). However, if you do install a stretching program, here are few suggestions to use them to their full advantage:
- Make sure those leading the stretches are comfortable and committed
Nothing kills a program like someone leading the stretches that is not enthused, is not committed and doesn’t appear to believe that it’s worth their effort to do them.
- Take those few moments during the pre-shift routine to have a moment of “safety consciousness” where you highlight key proper behaviors or areas of concern, where leadership and workforce level set their awareness.
- That moment of consciousness is also a good time to celebrate successes. Generally speaking, things that get measured matter. So, highlighting the number of days without an OSHA recordable or a lower number of mispicks or breakage will accentuate the positive feeling associated with taking a few moments to add a little bit back to one's body.
We are advocates of stretching programs at Fit For Work. But we know that there is, at best, weak evidence-based outcomes in terms of injury reduction. No study clearly shows that instilling stretching programs actually results in fewer injuries. It will show improved self perception, but NOT fewer injuries. That is why we view stretching programs as just one part of a very complex equation.
If you’ve ever baked a pie, you may have used salt as an ingredient. But baking a pie involves many different steps and ingredients. You technically could bake a pie without salt and probably make it work. Similarly, you could also have a very effective safety program without a stretching program. However, our experience has taught us that there are certainly enough benefits to consider putting one into place at your workplace.