We all have experience with stretching. At some point in our lives we have all purposely, or by accident, stretched our bodies in ways that may not have felt good. It may have felt like we reached the maximal range of motion of that joint. Contortionists spend years going further than perhaps most believe is possible, or even healthy. As an individual who has never been particularly flexible, I view contortionists and what they can do, as something of a miracle. The question posed by one of my students was “do contortionists have a shorter life expectancy?” It might be safe to assume that they do not, because physical activity has many health benefits. This post is going to explore this question and try to come to a reasonable conclusion.
The more physically active you are the better off you will be. There are many studies that concur with this statement, a semi-recent review of literature concluded that the worst thing you can do for your health is to not participate in physical activity (Powell, Paluch, & Blair, 2011). Interestingly, the review conducted by Powell, Paluch and Blair (2011) also noted that there is no lower or upper threshold regarding the amount of physical activity you should do to benefit your health. Essentially, something is better than nothing and there little to no evidence suggesting that too much exercise is bad for your health. Being a contortionist is definitely being physically active, so at this point, we can reasonable say that contortionists are benefiting by participating in their craft.
I can say with certainty that being flexible and stretching does have health benefits. These health benefits include, but are not limited to: (a) increased range of motion (can aid in injury prevention), (b) pain tolerance (increasing range of motion allows you to exert less force to stretch further), and (c) prevent delayed onset muscle soreness (as long as you stretch after exercise) (Costa & Vieira, 2008). One of the few detriments of stretching, which is related to but not the same as flexibility, is by doing stretches before strength activities (such as lifting weights). Stretching before strength activities will reduce the amount of force you can exert (Costa & Vieira, 2008). This does not mean those who do strength activities should not stretch or do a warm up before exercise, what it suggests is to limit the amount of full range of motion stretching before strength activities. After searching terms such as “contortionists”, “contortionists” and “lifespan”, “flexibility” and “lifespan” among many other combinations, I have concluded there is no empirical evidence to suggest if contortionists do or do not live longer than non-contortionists. What we can say with certainty is that being physically active and doing stretching exercises is good for your health.
Costa, B.R. & Vieira, E.R. (2008). Stretching to reduce work-related musculoskeletal disorders: A systematic review, Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine, 40, 321-328.
Powell, K. E., Paluch, A.E., & Blair, S.N. (2011). Physical activity for health: What kind? How much? How intense? On top of what?, Annual Review of Public Health. 2, 349-365.