We’re often asked to help our clients to develop and deliver stretching programs, customized for the work that their employees are doing. Do these programs work? We’ve been trying to investigate this question using “before and after” survey data. Clients start out with great enthusiasm, administering the baseline survey, implementing the program, and promising to send us follow up data. But we’re still waiting.
What does the research suggest?
While the research on pre-shift stretching programs is mixed, some studies provide encouraging insights:
- A meta-analysis conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (Robertson et al. 2007) examined the effectiveness of workplace stretching programs in reducing musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). The analysis encompassed various industries and found that stretching programs were associated with a significant reduction in the incidence of MSDs among employees.
- A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (Shariat et al, 2018) investigated the impact of a pre-shift stretching program on reducing work-related musculoskeletal discomfort. The results indicated that employees who regularly participated in the stretching program experienced a decrease in discomfort levels and reported improved overall well-being.
- The Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health published a study (Larsson et al, 2009) focusing on the effects of stretching exercises on the prevention of low back pain. The findings revealed that regular stretching exercises, when performed before work, were associated with a reduction in the incidence and severity of low back pain among employees engaged in physically demanding jobs.
- A systematic review published in the Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation (Heiden et al., 2016) examined the effectiveness of workplace interventions, including stretching and strengthening exercises, for preventing work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WRMSDs). The review found that interventions combining stretching and strengthening exercises were more effective in reducing the incidence of WRMSDs compared to stretching alone.
- A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (Pasanen et al, 2009) investigated the effects of a workplace-based strengthening program on muscle strength and work-related outcomes. The results demonstrated that employees who participated in the strengthening program experienced improvements in muscle strength, reduced fatigue, and increased work performance.
- The American Journal of Industrial Medicine published a study (Krause et al., 2000) focusing on the impact of strength training exercises on the prevention of lower extremity injuries in the workplace. The findings revealed that employees who engaged in regular strength training exercises had a lower risk of lower extremity injuries, indicating the potential protective effect of strengthening programs.
These studies suggest that incorporating strengthening exercises alongside stretching programs can provide additional benefits, such as improved muscle strength, reduced fatigue, and enhanced work-related outcomes. By targeting the specific muscles and joints used in job tasks, strengthening exercises can contribute to better overall musculoskeletal health and reduce the risk of work-related injuries.
What are the pros and cons to consider in designing such a program?
Arguments in favour of a stretching program:
a. Low Risk: A stretching program is unlikely to cause harm to employees, even if it doesn’t yield the desired outcomes. In fact, it can foster interaction, communication, and camaraderie among employees, leading to additional benefits beyond the physical aspect.
b. Scalability and Customization: The complexity of a stretch and strength program can be “taylor’d” to specific needs and experience. Starting with off-the-shelf stretching and strengthening posters (like these) can provide a basic foundation. By studying the nature of the work and identifying relevant muscles and joints, appropriate stretching and strengthening exercises can be selected or researched to target strained muscles, alleviate joint stiffness, and strengthen relevant muscle groups.
c. Access to Expertise: A wide range of health care professionals and ergonomists are qualified to assist in developing effective stretch and strength programs. Leveraging an existing relationship with a consultant or clinic can enhance the program’s quality and impact. Of course, ergonomists, who typically have a kinesiology background AND are familiar with the workplace and its demands, are uniquely positioned to help you with a program that bridges these two fields of study.
Arguments against may include:
a. Participation Challenges: Running the program before the start of the shift may pose difficulties in engaging employees.
b. Cost: If the program is conducted during paid working hours, it is crucial to assess the production time utilized and its associated costs. None of the studies cited above explored the cost-benefit of the programs that were implemented. While stretching programs are often viewed as low-cost initiatives, 3-5 minutes of paid time adds up, and impacts productivity.
c. Job Fit vs. Worker Fit: Ergonomists emphasize the importance of “fitting the job to the worker” rather than “fitting the worker to the job.” A stretch and strength program helps workers meet the job demands. Most ergonomists, with kinesiology backgrounds, possess the expertise to develop stretching and strengthening programs. However, our goal is to integrate these programs as one component of a comprehensive musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) prevention program, rather than relying solely on them as the cornerstone solution. We hope that you are concurrently working to identify hazards and improve job demands!
So, do stretching programs work?
Probably, but they are not free, and probably not even “low cost”. If you’re considering a workplace stretching program, think about including strengthening exercises as well. We can help you to develop and deliver a stretch and strength program, and we’d love to collect baseline and follow up discomfort scores, and cost data, to explore whether the program has a positive overall impact. We’ll be particularly thrilled to help you do this, if you can assure us that you’re ALSO working toward improvements to your jobs.
Heiden B, Weigl M, Angerer P, Müller A. Association of work-related factors with occupational safety and health outcomes in healthcare workers: A systematic review. J Occup Rehabil. 2016; 26(2):147-79.
Krause N, Ragland DR, Fischer M, et al. Psychosocial job factors and return-to-work after compensated low back injury: A disability phase-specific analysis. Am J Ind Med. 2000;37(2):115-42.
Larsson H, Tengvar M, Östgaard HC. Acute effects of a workplace exercise program on postural control, trunk position sense, and trunk muscle activity in patients with chronic low back pain: A randomized controlled trial. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2009;39(11):853-63.
Pasanen K, Parkkari J, Pasanen M, et al. Effectiveness of a worksite exercise program with respect to perceived work ability and sick leaves among women with physical work. Scand J Work Environ Health. 2009;35(6):404-12.
Shariat A, Tamrin SBM, Arumugam M, et al. The effects of a stretching and strength training programme on physical discomforts for office workers: A randomized control trial. J Occup Environ Med. 2018;60(7):e348-55.
Robertson MM, Amick BC, DeRango K, et al. The effectiveness of worksite interventions to prevent musculoskeletal disorders and injuries of the back, neck, and upper extremity: A systematic review. Am J Prev Med. 2008;34(3):ES106-23.