The power of touch: Boutique stretching thrives amid COVID

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Tara Albarron, 32, works with client Ron Bryant, 55, of Beaver Creek, Ohio, during an assisted stretching session at StretchLab in Centerville, Ohio, on March 8, 2021. Assisted stretching is intended to improve range of motion, flexibility and circulation, among other benefits. (AP Photo/Julie Carr Smyth)

CENTERVILLE, Ohio – Pandemic-weary Americans starved for human interaction and physical touch are taking advantage of a growing wellness option once reserved for Hollywood actors, rock stars and elite athletes: boutique stretching.

“It’s like a workout, but you feel way more flexible," a masked Kelly O'Neal, 51, said as her leg was being pulled across her body during a recent session at a newly opened StretchLab studio in Centerville. "I get plenty done after I get done here because you just feel like you’ve warmed up really well.” She said her legs and feet ache after her shift at a grocery store in southwest Ohio — often plus overtime because of COVID-19 demands.

Others cite some intangibles offered by assisted stretching during the coronavirus.

“It’s really nice to be touched. It is,” said Laura Collins, 39, who visits a StretchLab near her home in White Plains, New York, twice a week. “We’re being deprived of social interaction, we’re being deprived of hugs and people who are familiar, and ... it’s just so comfortable being there.”

Even before the pandemic, assisted stretching studios — with names such as Stretch Zone, Stretch Pro, LYMBR and Stretch(asterisk)d — often featured just eight or 10 widely spaced tables in a shared area they say is conducive to good air circulation.

Kory Floyd, a professor of communication and psychology at the University of Arizona, said activities that provide social interaction and some relief for “skin hunger” can help people manage stress better. A lack of casual touch — holding hands, hugging, putting one’s arm around somebody, shaking hands — can have a significant negative impact, Floyd said.

Touch, he said, “is beneficial even when we don’t have a solid, strong emotional connection to the other person" — which can be the case with assisted stretching. "We may not even know the other person, and yet we can still benefit in part from just the attention and the sense of connection that we have, but also from the touch itself.”

Loren Anthes, who follows the healthcare industry as a researcher at the Cleveland-based Center for Community Solutions, said stretch studios appear to be using a franchise model to offer lower prices for services resembling physical therapy and massage but delivered without the overhead and certifications required of skilled nursing facilities or hospitals.