Medicine For People!

July 2017: Stretching


hamstring muscles
By B. Geurts, upload by Erik1980 - Own picture by B. Geurts, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Every doc, every dentist, every counselor has their canned pitches. My canned pitch for exercise emphasizes three things:

  • Aerobics: critical for your heart and lungs, important for brain health as well as the health of your muscles and joints.
  • Strength training: your automobile's engine never gets more powerful, but your body's engine can. Climb Mount Townsend 20 times, and you will find that you arrive the top faster each time. Ride your bicycle up hills each day, and those hills gradually flatten out.
  • Stretching: the subject of today's newsletter.

Why Stretch?

When we do not stretch our muscles, they tend to shorten.

Take the case of Mary (not her real name, of course), a screen printer, who spent most of the day slightly bent over performing her art and her task. The hamstring muscles at the back of her thighs had to spend most of the day holding her in that slightly bent-over position. They had little chance to relax, to shorten as in a squat, to lengthen as in a toe touch.

Our hamstring muscles look something like this:

hamstring muscles


These muscles shortened in Mary. The muscles in front of her pelvis and thigh, the quadriceps and psoas muscles, shortened as well. You can see the psoas muscles here:

psoas muscles


and the quadriceps here, in the front of the thigh:

quadricep muscles


The normal ease of movement in Mary's midsection gradually went away. When she walked and her legs went forward, her shortened hamstrings pulled almost imperceptibly on her knees and on her pelvis. Similarly when her legs went back, she experienced a slightly unnatural movement where her back muscles and spine joined the pelvis. She developed low back pain.

It made sense to her that her back hurt, given her job.

Fortunately, Mary chose to see Lee Feetham, a massage practitioner, about her pain. Lee told her that when a muscle is maintained at the same length for too long, it can begin to act like a tendon, which can't get longer or shorter. But we weren't designed to have tendons connecting our pelvis to our knees.

Lee's intelligent fingers went to work helping relax Mary's muscles. Lee also suggested exercises to stretch and condition these muscles. Mary did so and incorporated the exercises into her daily life.

Her back pain went away.

Some years ago I had to laugh when a carpenter friend returned from work, smiling and saying that the day was great, except that he had come home as usual with "achin' bacon." Aching bacon afflicts people in most kinds of work. Food servers with their cargoes of food, surgeons twisting into position over a patient, truck drivers securing their loads, office workers stationary in their chairs, all can develop aching bacon.

Energy Stretch

Dwayne Russell worked as a plumber at Port Townsend Paper for many years before become a fitness trainer and starting The Gym with his wife Fran. Dwayne had been a powerlifting champion for the West Coast and Fran was trained in ballet and dance. Their skills matched a need at the paper mill. At that time, the mill was spending over $300,000 each year in health care for mill workers with strains and sprain injuries. Such injuries occurred about 800 times in an average year.

Fran choreographed an 8-minute program called Energy Stretch which these mill workers used at the beginning of every shift. Over a 2-year trial, the 800 injuries per year were reduced to 50 injuries per year.

Dwayne and Fran outlined this program on a local television program that we recorded as part of our Doctor Talk series. At this link you can see Fran and Dwayne's description of this program along with a demonstration of stretches for the hamstrings, quadriceps, psoas, and many other important muscles.

Developing Good Habits

While your humble correspondent has no background in powerlifting or ballet, part of my job does involve steering people towards life habits that improve their health.

One thing people do is incorporate little "tricks" into their lives. For example, If-Then plans help people stick to good health habits. In the case of moderating sweets, for example, they might make and follow a rule that they will not allow themselves a sweet except at the end of a healthy meal.

In the case of repetitive individual exercise, such as running or stretching, many people find that when they do it first thing in the morning, they are more likely to get it done. They know if they don't do it then, it ain't gonna happen later. If you've found a different trick that works for you, keep it up!

Other people have particular exercises or stretches they do while brushing or flossing their teeth, or while watching a favorite television show or listening to an audiobook.

Plenty of bad things can happen to us without us doing anything wrong. Still, when I walk down the street and see people with a hitch in their giddyup, I know many of them would not have suffered that hitch with proper medical care and exercise habits.

So, stretch!

Thank you to

Thanks to:

Lee Feetham ((360-) 643-1953) for the idea for this newsletter and for her excellent work as my massage therapist.

Thanks to Fran and Dwayne Russell of 24 Hour Gym (360-385-3674) for the Energy Stretch routine, which I still do several times a week (in the morning!). Click here to obtain a copy of their Energy Stretch video or and poster.

Thanks to Author and professional editor Jody Bower for the If-Then link and for consistently making this a more user-friendly newsletter.



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Medicine for People! is published by Douwe Rienstra, MD at Port Townsend, Washington.