Enzyme activity plays an essential role in many physiological processes and diseases such as pulmonary emphysema. While the lung is constantly exposed to cyclic stretching, the effects of stretch on the mechanical properties of the extracellular matrix (ECM) during digestion have not been determined. We measured the mechanical and failure properties of elastin-rich ECM sheets loaded with static or cyclic uniaxial stretch (40% peak strain) during elastase digestion. Quasistatic stress-strain measurements were taken during 30 min of digestion. The incremental stiffness of the sheets decreased exponentially with time during digestion. However, digestion in the presence of static stretch resulted in an accelerated stiffness decrease, with a time constant that was nearly 3 x smaller (7.1 min) than during digestion alone (18.4 min). These results were supported by simulations that used a nonlinear spring network model. The reduction in stiffness was larger during static than cyclic stretch, and the latter also depended on the frequency. Stretching at 20 cycles/min decreased stiffness less than stretching at 5 cycles/min, suggesting a rate-dependent coupling between mechanical forces and enzyme activity. Furthermore, pure digestion reduced the failure stress of the sheets from 88 +/- 21 kPa in control to 29 +/- 15 kPa (P < 0.05), while static and cyclic stretch resulted in a failure stress of 7 +/- 5 kPa (P < 0.05). We conclude that not only the presence but the dynamic nature of mechanical forces have a significant impact on enzyme activity, hence the deterioration of the functional properties of the ECM during exposure to enzymes.