In stretching, pain doesn't equal gain; but if NO isn't producing, stretching won't help

SAN FRANCISCO – If you're a mouse, then stretching before you exercise is a good thing – even as long as two weeks before your next cheese hunt or cat run. But if you're reading this for yourself, it's a bit more complicated.

When most of us think of stretching, we're imagining at a minimum jogging, and probably something more like downhill skiing or sprints. But when University of Michigan researchers Nicole Lockhart and Susan Brooks talk stretching, their real interest is how to condition older folks' muscles so they'll eventually be willing to do even a little exercise to garner all the benefits that will follow.

"The elderly are far more susceptible to contraction-induced injury," notes Lockhart, lead author in two related papers being presented in American Physiological Society sessions at Experimental Biology in San Francisco. "Sometimes just by normal activity or a sudden movement a leg will jut out too far and they'll suffer a minor injury, but they'll be wary of further damage," she said.

Protect those muscles, as minor injuries may be cumulative

Brooks, her adviser, added: "We think that cumulative muscle injury may contribute to the loss of muscle mass as we grow old. So protecting muscles at all times is a good thing. And understanding how stretching increases resistance to injury will really help to do this."

The team had previously shown that stretching decreased muscle injury in mice when stretches were performed anywhere from one hour to 14 days (yes days) prior to exercise. But they didn't know why. What is known is that while stretching muscles produce nitric oxide (NO), a common signaling molecule. NO increases blood flow and decreases force during submaximal contractions, and also can modulate inflammation.

NO protects without stretching; but without NO, stretching doesn't seem to protect

So they tested whether the anti-inflammatory effects of NO were involved in the protection provided by stretching. And the results were: mixed. Mice were given substances that either increased or inhibited NO production. They found that increasing NO reduced inflammation and other measures of injury following exercise by half – even without prior stretching. On the other hand, when NO production was restricted, stretching an hour before exercise didn't reduce injury at all.

They also tested whether low level inflammation seen after stretching somehow primes muscles to decrease inflammation following subsequent damaging exercise. They found that when an antibody was administered that reduced the inflammation induced by stretching, no protection following subsequent exercise was observed.

Insights, but not yet answers on mechanisms of protection

"The results are somewhat contradictory," Brooks offers, "because first nitric oxide appeared to be important by inhibiting inflammation, but our second experiment showed that if you prevent inflammation you don't get the protection afforded by stretching. Nevertheless, while translating animal studies to human athletes, or elderly humans for that matter, is difficult, these studies do provide important insights into how different modes of training reduce muscle injury."


*Paper presentations: "NO is necessary and sufficient for the protection from contraction-induced injury provided by passive-stretch-conditioning," 12:30 p.m.- 3 p.m. Sunday April 2, APS Physiology Exercise Responses and Training Section 237.19/board #C773. Research was by Nicole C. Lockhart and Susan V. Brooks, Department of Physiology and Institute of Gerontology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

And, "The infiltration of neutrophils following passive-stretch-conditioning is required for protection from contraction-induced injury": 237.20/board #C774.

Funding: National Institute on Aging/NIH.

Editor's Note: For further information or to schedule an interview with a member of the research team, please contact Mayer Resnick at the APS newsroom @ 415.905.1024 (March 31-April 5); or 301.332.4402 (cell) or 301.634.7209 (office),; or Christine Guilfoy at 978.290.2400 (cell) or 301.634.7253 (office).

The American Physiological Society was founded in 1887 to foster basic and applied bioscience. The Bethesda, Maryland-based society has more than 10,500 members and publishes 14 peer-reviewed journals containing almost 4,000 articles annually.

APS provides a wide range of research, educational and career support and programming to further the contributions of physiology to understanding the mechanisms of diseased and healthy states. In May 2004, APS received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM).

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Experimental Biology is an annual scientific meeting convened by the Federation of American Societies of Experimental Biology, including the American Physiological Society (APS) and other biomedical societies. The meeting features "nominated" lectures, symposia, research presentations, awards, a job placement center, and an exhibit of scientific equipment, supplies, and publications. This year's participating Societies are APS, American Association of Anatomists, American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, American Society for Investigative Pathology, American Society for Nutritional Sciences, and the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics.

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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