Some organizations rely on stretching, exercise, and conditioning programs (alone or in combination with other interventions) to prevent musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). This relies on changing the physical condition and capabilities of each individual employee and is heavily dependent on many variables that are outside an employer’s control, including employee willingness, interest, and participation; an individual’s physical condition and pre-existing conditions; and the design of the exercises to match workplace demands.
Many studies have been conducted to evaluate the effects of stretching on the performance of athletes; the results of most have been generally negative. However, the workplace and physical condition of employees (and an employer’s control of employee physical condition) are different from athletes. In general, studies on the impact of stretching on preventing MSDs have found the results not very compelling, provided mixed findings, and suggested that future studies are needed. A summary of the most current studies is provided in our position statement, The Effectiveness of Stretching on Preventing MSDs.
Although some companies mandate stretching before and during work, many find it a challenge to get employees to participate in (and continue with) these workplace stretching and wellness programs. In an early study on the effects of exercise on MSDs, Silverstein et al. (1988) found that only 41% of the study group participated in the exercise program daily, while 28% had discontinued all participation.
Exercise programs alone will not reduce MSDs. Proponents of stretching and conditioning identify that these fitness-based approaches are effective only when combined with other interventions. Reported returns on investment from stretching programs vary greatly. Hess and Hecker (2003) concluded that the “cost benefit of stretching in workplaces where ‘time is money’ is negative.”
In the United States, employers who use exercise and stretching to manage MSDs must ensure they are promoting preventive exercise, not therapeutic exercise. OSHA’s interpretation of therapeutic stretching is: “If a physician or licensed health care professional recommends therapeutic exercise in response to a work-related injury or illness, the case is considered to involve medical treatment and the case is recordable.”
Mandatory stretching fits well for organizations that have limited ability to change the setup and configuration of the workplace, the flexibility to interrupt work and devote time to exercise, a strong team culture, and a strong commitment and investment in employee wellness and fitness.