How Stretching Became Big Business
It’s not just for athletes and the elderly anymore. Stretching is having a moment — especially among millennials.
We’re gonna start with a criss-cross position and stretch the hips out,” coaxes Emeline Lotherington from my laptop as I contort my body to mirror hers. I sink into the pigeon pose as she sighs with happiness. “This pose [has] been rocking my world!” she says.
Dance instructor Lotherington’s how-to YouTube video, “Do the SPLITS,” has over 271,215 views and counting, and the comments section is illuminating. Viewers’ reasons for attempting the flexibility milestone range from wanting to improve their dance skills to “just for bragging purposes.” The video comes with instructions to watch the video and practice the moves daily in order to achieve the center and side splits over time.
In Western Australia, 26-year-old Nadine Hoey rarely goes a day without stretching. She sets herself monthly challenges, posting updates on Instagram for accountability. She started small with goals like 30 days to touch her toes, then 30 days of pigeon pose, before leveling up to #30daystosplits. She favors a pastel aesthetic in her posts; the Nashville filter, pink and gray sweats, with her hair loose to her waist. But there’s a serious reason for her stretching.
“I fell off a horse at 15 and broke my back,” she says. It left her with chronic pain and debilitating spasms. She tried everything to make it go away: medical massages, acupuncture, chiropractors, and orthopedic surgeons. “My [orthopedic] specialist said there was nothing I could do to get better.” But through watching YouTube videos and taking classes like Pilates, Hoey says she learned that stretching helps alleviate her pain. The discomfort never completely goes away, but it fades from white heat to a low burn.
New brick-and-mortar businesses are cropping up around stretching, too. Since around 2015, thousands of “stretch studios” — StretchLab, LYMBR, StrechU, Motion Stretch — have opened in cities across America. Stretch studios merge the hands-on aspect of physical therapy with the chicness of boutique fitness classes, with the goal being to optimize the average person’s flexibility. At most studios, each visitor gets a personal stretch coach. Limbs are rotated and acclimated to a range of motion that’s greater than you could reach on your own.
Stretch studios are part of the overall boom in the fitness and wellness space. In 2017, American fitness and health clubs made $30.01 billion, according to data analytics company, Statista — a 50% increase since 2004. Rich Barton, the founder of Expedia, recently invested an undisclosed amount in Seattle startup Stretch 22, and the stretch studio LYMBR has raised $5 million since 2018.
“[Stretching] is the one thing nobody tells you you’re doing too much of,” says Anthony Geisler, the CEO of Xponential Fitness, who acquired the StretchLab in late 2017. Geisler says the StretchLab’s appeal among people of all ages was a big selling point for him — his other brands include PureBarre and ClubPilates. “Recovery is the next massive wave [of business],” he says. StretchLab trainers are called flexologists — a term the company trademarked in 2016. “The average StretchLab will do higher revenues than Club Pilates,” Geisler says. He did not disclose the revenue from the StretchLab, but Club Pilates made over $59 million in 2017, according to Franchise Times.
Even the spa service giant Massage Envy is investing in stretching. In June 2017 they added a stretch class to their roster (though stretching is still a small part of the chain’s offerings, as the classes make up less than 5% of all the company’s services).
Stretch specialist Diane Waye says she supports stretching for pain relief, but she’s cautious about things like the splits challenges I’m doing. “The word ‘stretch,’” she says, “is kind of Wild West.” Waye is a veteran stretcher — she opened her San Francisco studio, Stretching By the Bay, about 20 years ago — and she’s confounded by stretching’s Instagram fame. “We saw this with yoga; when something gets popular so much springs up around it, and it’s not as educated or scientific as one might wish.”
Waye practices a form of active isolated stretching. When I attended a private session with her, she manipulated my limbs to extend their range of motion. Each position was held for two seconds, to limit stress on the muscles and boost circulation. She grasped my thigh and rotated it — around 5% more than I could have done unassisted. “Stretching should feel comfortable,” she says. “We’re working with your nervous system, rather than overpowering it.” Bottom line: If it hurts, she says you’re doing something wrong.
Waye treats clients of all ages — including some unnamed Golden State Warriors — but says a growing number of people under age 40 are seeking her services. “They’ve been slouched over computers coding for years, and they’re getting proactive.” Twenty years ago, she rarely saw anyone in the 20–30-year old range.
Waye’s services are not cheap: A one-hour session with her costs around $160 — though she does provide a free 30-minute intro session — and she doesn’t take insurance (some plans will reimburse 60–80%, she says). The high cost of personalized stretch specialists may partially explain the popularity of stretching chains like the StretchLab, which charges about $55 for a 30-minute session (prices can vary depending on location).
Iwent into my own month of stretching open-minded. I stretched 28 days out of 30 for at least 10 minutes a day, and my routine included one-on-one sessions at stretch studios, a variety of YouTube videos, and active isolated moves adapted from my session with Waye. I often used props: yoga bands and straps to intensify the stretch, and yoga blocks to help lower me into the front-facing splits. I gritted my teeth as Cassey Ho, the chipper host of Blogilates made splits-ing look easy (5 million views on YouTube and rising), and winced as I followed Corrina Rachel’s PsycheTruth splits tutorial (13.6 million views so far). I clicked on Lilliana Ketchman’s splits video (459,000 views) and quickly clicked out when I realized she was 10 years old and the whole experience would just depress me. To track my progress, I took a bunch of poor-quality iPhone photos and used an online protractor to measure my angle from the floor.
By the end of the month, I never made it into the splits, though I got significantly closer. And while I’d still like to get there, the end goal has become less important. Though I haven’t hit the split milestone, I can now touch my toes easily, and sometimes I can even press my palms to the floor.