Need a massage? Try a stretch

Sports trainers extend their trade to flex stiff-necked desk jockeys


Like the professionals at Thai massage and shiatsu salons, sports trainers are turning the practice of muscle-stretching into a business.

“I want people to first try stretching before going to a doctor,” said Megumi Komine, manager of Sutorecchiya-san, a stretching salon that opened in Ebisu, Tokyo, in early September.

Backache, stiff shoulders and other types of pain that come from holding the same position for a long time can be relieved by stretching, she said.

Thanks to the convenient location and its unique service, the salon has been attracting about 20 customers a day, said the manager. It was started by freelance sports trainer Toshiyuki Kawai, who wanted to start a business offering “partner stretching,” in which a trainer helps an athlete stretch muscles, to nonathletes.

Customers, mainly men in their 40s and 50s, can choose from 30-, 60- or 90-minute sessions, which cost ¥3,150, ¥6,300, and ¥9,450, respectively. In the 60- and 90-minute sessions, trainers give massages in addition to partner stretching. Customers are less likely to feel pain because the trainers ask how much pressure to apply.

“Exercising muscles is very important,” said Komine, who worked as a nurse for more than 10 years. Noting that people lose muscle as they age, she said stretching “enhances muscle flexibility and helps improve blood circulation.”

Partner stretching, she maintained, is even better because it enables one to “put more pressure on muscles and stretch them to various angles while a customer is relaxed.”

According to Komine, holding the same posture for a long time makes people tired because it hinders blood circulation.

“But after our partner stretching, customers sweat even though they’re just lying down, and they have a better complexion,” she said.

Hoping to improve the health of nonathletes, former Olympic coach Yoshihito Nagahata has been providing partner stretching for eight years at Sutorecchi Juku in Toda, Saitama Prefecture.

“Not many people recognized the effects of stretching (eight years ago),” said Nagahata, who worked at a short-lived stretching salon in Tokyo’s Chuo Ward that opened in 2000. “I guess they thought stretching is just painful, so it was hard to attract customers.”

Most customers back then were athletes-turned-salarymen, he said.

After the salon closed, he opened his own and established the Japan Stretching Association in 2005 to help increase the number of stretching trainers.

Every week, about 20 to 30 people ranging in age from their 20s to 60s come to the salon for stretching. The younger customers come mostly to improve their flexibility, while the older ones want to maintain their health, he said. A 30-minute session costs ¥3,000, while 60 minutes is ¥6,000.

“Bonesetters also come here to learn an easy stretching exercise that people can do on a bed” because it can be used as treatment, he said.

According to Nagahata, muscles tend to shrink, especially when stimulus from the brain decreases, leading to bad posture, which worsens blood circulation. Inevitably, less oxygen is circulated throughout the body and brain.

“This is why you need to do stretching to put your body back to a normal condition,” he said. “Even cats and dogs stretch their bodies.”

Not yet as well known as yoga or pilates, partner stretching is gradually catching on. “(Partner stretching) is a popular treatment here,” said Takashi Kaji of the sales promotion and marketing division of Hotel New Otani Makuhari, where the service has been offered to guests and members of its gym since 2000.

The guests say stretching is good because it improves blood circulation, he said, adding the major customers are men in their 50s and 60s.

Meanwhile, Nagahata said it would be even better if people knew how to maintain their health by learning how to stretch by themselves.

For example, if you have stiff shoulders, contract them slowly before stretching the muscles, he advised.

“There are many things we can do before going to massage or stretching salons, but Japanese are not taught much about body maintenance at school,” he said.