Stretching isn't just for when you exercise. Taking a few stretch breaks throughout the day offers tremendous benefits. Besides making it easier to reach a top shelf or bend to tie your shoes, it gives you more energy and helps you function better mentally.
Plus it's easy to do: The only equipment you need is you, it doesn't take much longer than a good yawn, and you can do it just about any time, anywhere. Big bonus: If you do it regularly, the next time you lie about your age, people just may believe you!
Look and Feel Younger
Starting in your 30s, your body's connective tissues—muscles, tendons, and ligaments—start to shorten and tighten, losing elasticity, says Marilyn Moffat, PT, PhD, past president of the American Physical Therapy Association and professor of physical therapy at New York University in New York City. Even more than aging, poor posture (such as slumping while you sit, stand, or walk) causes tightening and impedes bloodflow. Over time, this can create a buildup of calcifications (those hard knots most of us have in our upper back), not to mention a hunched, aged look and restricted movement.
But despite the damage you've done, and no matter how old you are, flexibility can be regained by stretching regularly—and improvement can be seen within weeks. When you stretch, you actually lengthen the muscles and tendons. This is what increasing flexibility means. When a muscle is flexible, it enables the joint to completely flex, extend, and move in multiple directions (known as range of motion)—whether it's to throw a baseball or turn a car's steering wheel.
Enhanced flexibility and movement range also affect your life in ways you don't realize. In one study, participants age 60 and older increased their everyday walking speed by simply stretching regularly—nothing else.
10 Commandments of Stretching
- Follow a program that is specific to your activities and needs.
- Stretch regularly, at least three times a week.
- Warm up before stretching.
- Stretch only to the point where you feel tension in the belly of the muscle, not pain in the joint.
- Hold each stretch for 15 to 60 seconds.
- Do each stretch 2 to 4 times.
- Stay relaxed.
- Breathe throughout the stretch.
- Progress in a slow, controlled manner.
- Don't bounce.
Following are a day's worth of stretches recommended by Jo Fasen, MPT,OCS,CSCS, clinical manager of physical and occupational therapy at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. Do them all for a stress-relieving, invigorating routine, or do individual stretches for specific problems. If you don't see improvement after a month of consistent stretching, or you still have pain, see a physical therapist.
7 AM—Reduce stiffness and energize your day (also may relieve back pain)
Kneel on your hands and knees with your head, neck, and back in alignment. Keeping your shoulders relaxed, lower your chin toward your chest, pull in your belly, and round your back, like a cat arching. (Where you'll feel it: throughout your back and shoulders.) Hold, then slowly return to the starting position. Next, arch your back, creating an inward curve with your butt lifted toward the ceiling and your head looking up just slightly. (Where you'll feel it: throughout your back and abdominals.) Hold, then repeat the sequence.
10 AM—Relieve stress and improve mental focus
Sit on the edge of a chair with your pelvis tilted slightly forward toward the floor and your legs spread as wide as comfortable. Slide your chin back so that your ears align over your shoulders. Lift your chest, and squeeze your shoulder blades together and down away from your ears. Reach both arms wide and slightly behind you. Your palms should be facing forward, fingers spread. Don't arch your lower back. (Where you'll feel it: chest, shoulders, and upper back.) Hold, then repeat.
1 PM—Prevent soreness after a lunchtime walk (also reduces hip pain)
Stand with your feet a few inches apart and one leg about 1 to 2 feet in front of the other. Bend your knees, making sure your front knee is directly over the ankle. Your back heel will come off the floor. Keep your posture upright as you tuck in your abdomen and butt and tilt your pelvis. Hold. (Where you'll feel it: front of hips.)
3 PM—Prevent an afternoon slump (also eases neck pain)
While sitting in a chair, hook your right hand, palm facing you, on the back of the seat next to your right buttock. Hold on as you lean forward. Keep your shoulders back, and drop your left ear toward your left shoulder. Then roll your chin forward, and hold. (Where you'll feel it: right side of neck.) Repeat on the other side with your left hand.
6 PM—Calm anxiety
Stand straight with your feet shoulder-width apart, hips facing forward, and abs tight. Gently twist your trunk to the right, and hold. (Where you'll feel it: abs, sides, and back.) Return to the starting position, and repeat to the left side. Next, gently lean to the right as you reach your left arm up toward the ceiling; curve it slightly overhead, palm down. Keep your shoulders down and relaxed. Hold, then repeat to the left side. (Where you'll feel it: sides of your torso.)
8 PM—Look younger and feel confident on a special evening out (also improves posture and muscle tone)
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your abdominals tight. Keeping your back straight, bend at the hips and knees, reaching your hands toward your feet and through your legs, if comfortable. Hold. Caution: Do not do this part of the stretch if you have back pain. (Where you'll feel it: butt and thighs.) Next, use your hips to straighten up, reaching your arms overhead and just slightly behind you. Hold. Don't arch your back. (Where you'll feel it: chest, upper back, shoulders, and abs.) Repeat the entire sequence.
10 PM—Relax and prepare for sleep (also great for shoulder pain)
Lie on the floor on your right side with your right arm bent underneath your head for support. Bend both legs so you're comfortable. Imagine that you're lying on a big clock. Extend your left arm in front of you on the floor as if it's a clock hand pointing to 9 o'clock. Slowly rotate your arm toward 12 o'clock. As you hit 1 o'clock, you'll start to roll onto your back, but keep your hips and legs where they are. Keeping your arm on the floor, rotate it through all the numbers on the clock (your palm will flip up momentarily as it moves behind you), over your hips, and back to the starting position. (Where you'll feel it: shoulders and upper back, then chest and middle back, and finally hips and lower back.)
If you're not doing the entire routine, Fasen recommends that you choose stretches that correspond to the stresses you chronically place on your body, taking into account the postures you normally assume and your daily activities. [ok per PVN November 2001 p. 139]
Desk job or avid cyclist: You'll want to reverse the position you're in most of the time. Extension exercises that open the chest and the front of the hips, and that lengthen the back of the thighs (hamstrings) and spine, will be the most helpful. Try the 10 am, 8 pm, and 10 pm stretches.
On your feet all day or a walker or runner: You'll want to relieve those muscles that have been used all day: calves, front of thighs (quadriceps), and back. Try the 7 am, 6 pm, and 10 pm stretches.
New mother: You may have a chronically rounded posture due to the demands of breastfeeding and carrying your baby. If this is you, the 10 am, 3 pm, and 10 pm stretches are best.
Older adult: You'll need to stretch your chest (to prevent hunching over) and your hips and calves (to optimize walking and balance). Try the 10 am, 1 pm, and 10 pm stretches.
- Should You Stretch Before Exercising?
The best time to stretch during a workout is afterwards, when your muscles are really warm. This is when you'll get the biggest improvements in flexibility.
Stretching prior to exercise has not been scientifically proven to improve performance or decrease injury. Based on research, it's more important to warm up before exercising. You can do this by gently mimicking the movements you're about to perform to reduce stiffness.
Yoga, Pilates, and tai chi also improve flexibility. Signing up for a class can make stretching more fun and keep you motivated. Just make sure you find a qualified instructor who stresses deep breathing, proper posture, slow progression, and working within your personal comfort zone. Observe a class before joining.