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I can find many opinions and a few scientific articles on stretching prior to exercise, with the takeaway that it probably doesn't help and might hurt a bit for that exercise session.

I have very poor flexibility in general, and it's affecting my ability to exercise to become more fit & flexible. In other words, my flexibility is a gating factor for better health.

So, I'd like to just take a 10 minute break every hour to get off my computer & stretch, which I could make time for easier than taking an hour chunk out of my day.

However, I don't want to do something that will have no effect, and certainly not something that might have a negative effect. The only studies I can find are about the effects on the immediate workout after cold stretching, but not the effects of cold stretching on long-term flexibility.

So:

Would cold stretching ~6 times @ 10 minutes daily increase my range of motion long-term, or would that chronically weaken the stretched muscles?

Would it be better to do ex. Ashtenga, including the proper warm-up poses, for say 30 minutes daily or perhaps two 15-minute sessions daily?

  • 2
    You might want to read my response to this similar question. – rrirower Dec 8 '15 at 17:00
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    Just a small comment on nature. Our dogs stretch the first thing when they get up every morning without any intent on exercising – brentwpeterson Dec 9 '15 at 17:11
  • @brentwpeterson - that's an entirely different kind of stretch, though. – PoloHoleSet Apr 20 '17 at 21:25
  • Yes, it helps you maintain your range of motion into old age. It also helps improve blood circulation. In general, it is a good thing to do. Taking hourly breaks (to do some physical activity) from sedentary jobs is also a great thing. Something slightly more intensive like jogging in-place is also good to add to the mix. – Yogesch Mar 11 at 6:20
  • @brentwpeterson so does my cat, and also my grandfather (fit at a very old age) – Yogesch Mar 11 at 6:21
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Here's something that might help a bit. From a 2009 study:

The purpose of the present study was to investigate the long-term effects of two different stretching techniques on the range of motion (ROM) and on drop jump (DJ). DJ scores were assessed by means of a contact mat connected to a digital timer. ROM was measured by use of a goniometer. The training was carried out four times a week for 6 weeks on 10 subjects as passive static stretching (SS), and on 9 subjects as contract-relax PNF (CRPNF) stretching. The remaining nine subjects did not perform any exercises (control group). One-way Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) results indicated that the differences among groups on DJ were not statistically different (F(2,27)=.41, p>.05). ROM values were significantly higher for both stretching groups, while no change was observed for the control group. In conclusion, static and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretching techniques improved the ROM, but neither of the stretching exercises had any statistically significant effect on the DJ scores.

Specifically looking at your questions:

Would cold stretching ~6 times @ 10 minutes daily increase my range of motion long-term, or would that chronically weaken the stretched muscles?

There's certainly no evidence that stretching throughout the day will weaken your muscles. Look at people who take yoga daily: it's a lot of stretching, and there's no indication of long term weakness.

Would it be better to do ex. Ashtenga, including the proper warm-up poses, for say 30 minutes daily or perhaps two 15-minute sessions daily?

Personally I think doing yoga once a day would be a bit better, because a proper 30 minute exercise sessions throughout the day has a lot going for it. Yoga certainly would qualify, and that's a number that the American Heart Association views as being very helpful.

Lastly I would add that stretching is quite normal and natural. Animals all along the evolutionary scale stretch, and it feels good. When in doubt, if there's a motion you can do that feels good during and afterward, it's probably a good thing or at least not bad.

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    I might be missing something, but does the study mention the lack of warm-ups before stretching? – Alec Dec 8 '15 at 15:19
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    I have the full study in front of me; warmups were not a part of the static stretch group. No idea how long this link will work, but here's the whole study: docdro.id/T9JijQa – Eric Dec 8 '15 at 15:27
  • The case of doing yoga daily isn't quite analagous to many little rounds of cold stretching, if you assume they are starting with ex. sun salutations before progressing to harder stretches. I do think everything else applies to my question - great answer! – Woahdae Dec 8 '15 at 18:05
  • @EricKaufman - That's good enough for me. Excellent answer! – Alec Dec 8 '15 at 20:37
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    I disagree, the smaller breaks throughout the day more often is better than a single yoga session. Perhaps not for flexibility and the such, but there are numerous health benefits to taking a break from sitting down all day. A quick 10 minute stretch or even as little as a 2 minute walk is extremely good for your health. – Aequitas Dec 10 '15 at 0:15
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So the reason we usually see mixed results with stretching is that stretching is often used incorrectly.

Stretching to avoid injury

When you stretch to the ROM you plan on using in an activity, and you have sufficient strength throughout that entire ROM, you prevent strains/pulls.

This is because the stretch resets the muscle spindles from activating a protective measure for your joints which has the unfortunate side effect of damaging muscle. As muscle heals easier than joints, it's an evolutionary defense system. Also, slow stretches won't help if you have fast movement.

Most folks will do slow then faster action as their warm up.

Stretching that increases odds of injury

When you stretch to a ROM that is greater than the ROM you plan on using in an activity, or to any ROM for which you don't have corresponding muscle strength in that ROM, you destabilize joints and leave yourself open to joint damage.

Short stretches vs. Long stretching sessions

For your needs, which is minor ROM increases, cold sessions can work just fine. Just don't go too fast. You're mostly resetting your muscles to get out of the shortened positions you get from desk work - stretch hamstrings, get the shoulders back, spinal extensions, etc.

Most initial gains in stretching aren't actually lengthening the muscles - it's just getting the muscles to accept the lengthened positions they can normally take by resetting the muscle spindles' "normal length" settings. For nearly anyone, just getting normal ROMs for daily life can be achieved this way. Once you get around to exercising again, if you're looking for doing splits or such, then you can start looking at longer stretching sessions as being necessary.

Actual muscle lengthening takes a long process, and is usually not needed except for certain athletic specializations. Aside from the fact that muscle remodeling takes time, the other problem is that if you attempt to force a ROM beyond what the muscles can achieve, you're now stretching tendon. And unlike muscle, tendon, once lengthened, doesn't return to it's normal size - you end up destabilizing your joints, permanently.

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It wont hurt you. The type of stretching you're going to be doing on an office break isn't that intense. It's also necessary or you will loose range of motion. Nursing home patients regularly receive ROM exercises and they aren't doing any cardio.

Most of the stuff written on these fitness sites is as you noticed copy and paste. They also tend to target people who know nothing about fitness in order to sell them something.

Stretching does increase blood flow on its own. Just start slow you'll be fine.

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