Is stretching the new fitness trend you should try?

Is stretching the new fitness trend you should try?

December 10, 2018

At StretchLab in Venice, Calif., the calming whines of Bon Iver fill a space filled with cushion-topped tables and abstract art. A “flexologist” (a StretchLab term for trainer) pushes my leg across my body to open up my hip in a way I haven’t in years, before contorting my body into a number of other positions that soothe my quads, calves, back and shoulders, with the aid of a foam roller that’s flat on one side.

I’m enjoying a stretch session, a wellness activity once relegated by some to the end of workout sessions, now emerging as a national fitness trend in its own right.

StretchLab opened in 2015 in Venice as one of the first places to offer one-on-one sessions that strictly focus on stretching; it is like a massage where the therapist moves your limbs instead of kneads your muscles. That location, according to flexologist Sarah Gittler, sees plenty of clients with “discretionary incomes” who come to feel better after a flight or after a workout to get something similar to a post-workout stretch session from a personal trainer. 

But the appeal of stretching isn’t limited to upper-class Californians (25 and 50-minute StretchLab sessions range from $29 to $95 a piece, depending on duration and location). More than 100 StretchLab locations, starting in New Jersey and Idaho, are expected to open across the country in 2019. 

In the last few years, stretch classes with trainers, mobility equipment and often big-price tags have also been offered at a variety of other standalone boutiques, big gyms and massage studios. Stretch U, Kika Stretch and StretchOut Studios have multiple locations with one-on-one stretching. Equinox is launching Best Stretch Ever in January. Crunch Fitness started its Relax & Recover Program, complete with trainer-assisted static stretching and foam rollers, in October. Massage Envy has offered assisted stretching called Streto Method since July 2017.

According to fitness class booking app ClassPass, restorative classes were the fastest-growing 2017 gym trend, with a 16 percent increase in reservations for stretching and other recovery classes that year.

Lawyer/screenwriter Saul Jansen co-founded StretchLab with his trainer Tim Frost, because he valued their cool-down sessions and thought, “We should open a place where we could just get a stretch.”

“Even when we opened three and a half years ago, people were saying, ‘What is this? Why would I do this?’” Jansen said. But, he reasons, athletes have been stretched by trainers forever, and pros like Novak Djokovic and Tom Brady have helped popularize prolonged stretching and recovery. Now, everyone from high school athletes to senior citizens are getting stretched.

Don Schmolder, a 58-year-old chiropractor from Manhattan Beach, Calif., has been going to StretchLab weekly for the last few months.

“I have plantar fasciitis, it seems to be improved just by stretching and being more flexible,” he said. “I think it’s just good for you. Stretching beyond the active range. “

Physical therapist Rick Rafael sees the appeal of stretch programs. At his SportsFit practice in Santa Monica, he offers similar professional-led stretch programs to help clients who need to gain mobility and flexibility. However, stretching “may be a waste after a certain amount time,” he warns. “Overdoing it could end up putting too much stretch on a muscle and causing injury.

“Just like anything else, you can go get a massage from someone who doesn’t know how to do it and can injure you. The risk factor is always there.”

At StretchLab, I have a 25-minute session, which feels relaxing and leaves me zen. I’m standing up straighter than I was yesterday and walking out feeling good about putting my wellness first. I’m even tempted to go across the street to Cafe Gratitude, a place known for its healthy, yet pricey, plant-based food. Then, I remember that financial health is important, too.

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