A 5-Step Stretching Habit That Will Leave You Energized, Relaxed, and More Mobile
Keeping muscles limber is important for healthy movement, avoiding injury, and aging well. Here’s how to get started today.
The call to stretch is about far more than getting limber enough to touch your toes. “Stretching can improve hip, pelvic, neck, and shoulder movement to support functional, everyday movement of your body,” says Brian Dorfman, a kinesiologist and owner of Dorfman Kinesiology in Morro Bay, California. In other words: Stretching is one part of staying physically active that helps you age well.
Aging is characterized by having rigid muscle tissue and compressed joints, Dorfman says. Stretching, on the other hand, helps create more elasticity in muscles and maintain extension in joints to promote your ability to move and be active well into your later years.
A regular stretching routine improves flexibility, helping you maintain full range of motion and full use of the muscles, according to Harvard Medical School. Tight muscles that are limited in mobility are also more prone to pain, strains, and injury.
RELATED: How to Become More Flexible
If you’ve shoved stretching to the wayside, you’re not alone. “I realized…that I hadn’t done anything that would improve muscle recovery and relaxation, which was increasingly becoming more important as I looked to stay active as I aged,” says Jennifer Ashton, MD, chief medical correspondent of ABC News writes in her book?The Self-Care Solution: A Year of Becoming Happier, Healthier, and Fitter — One Month at a Time. She challenged herself to make stretching a regular part of her day. After all, it was something she could do anywhere and doesn’t require any (or much) equipment to make it happen.
Even more important, adds Ashton: Because many of us sit for long periods of time on a regular basis thanks to our work, driving long distances, or the forms of entertainment we choose — which can contribute to sore or stiff muscles — nearly everyone can benefit from more stretching.
Indeed, just 4.5 hours of sitting has been shown to cause muscle discomfort and back pain, according to a January 2020 study in the journal Applied Ergonomics. Unfortunately, the average adult sits 6.5 hours per day, according to an April 2019 study in JAMA.
“I assure you that your body will feel different if you stretch today,” says Dorfman, who adds that worker bees (who sit in front of computers), athletes, and those who are injured and require pain management all benefit from stretching. Here’s how to make it a revitalizing part of your life.
RELATED: How to Stretch When You’re in Pain
Tips for How to Get Into A Good Stretching Routine
“Finding time every day to devote towards your flexibility will be very beneficial in the long run. When it comes to improving flexibility, consistency is key,” says Jeff Brannigan, program director and founder of Stretch*D in New York City.
To make it a habit, follow this advice:
Go short. There’s no reason that you have to try to carve out 30 minutes — or even 15 to stretch. Ashton planned a three-minute Stretching Challenge, which made it unintimidating, doable with a busy schedule, and something she could naturally incorporate into her day.
Find the right time of day to do it. Stretch as soon as you step out of the shower when muscles are warm and loose. Or do it right before bed to ready your body and mind for sleep. Ashton tried both strategies and found them equally restorative. The key is to fit stretching in naturally with your day so you can remember (and actually do it).
Stretch when you need it. Your body will ask for stretching — you know the aches you feel after a strenuous workout or after sitting in the car for a long drive. So give it what it wants! Starting with stretches that are quick and easy and relevant to your needs ensures the routine is fulfilling, says Dorfman. “Focus on the stretches that are relevant to the areas of your body that are tight or achy,” he says. For example, stretch your neck when it’s starting to feel achy. Or open up your hips when they’re starting to feel tired.
Use it for energy. Rather than turning to caffeine for that morning wake up or to get through a midafternoon slump, try a stretch. If you choose to do it first thing in the morning, it’ll help increase energy and productivity, says Brannigan. By doing slow, repetitive stretches that are held for just a few seconds each, you’ll boost blood flow throughout the body to release tension, which should feel energizing, he says.
Get Started With These 5 Stretches Today
Depending on how you use your body, your body type, and several other factors, different stretches might feel better than others or be more helpful to you. These stretches are a good place to start that target some of the major muscle groups and relieve some of the most common aches and pains.
1. Stretch Hamstrings With the “Hello Hammies”
Branningan recommends this stretch to target the muscles that run down the backs of the legs.
How to Lay down on the ground. Bend one knee in toward your chest and wrap a strap, resistance band, or towel around the arch of one foot, grabbing both ends of the prop. Bend your knee to 90 degrees, then straighten your leg, hold for two seconds, and bend at the knee. Repeat for as long as feels good. Switch legs. (For a how-to, visit Stretche*d’s YouTube video.)
2. Stretch Your Lower Back With the “Twist & Dipper”
When your lower back is aching while sitting at a computer all day, take a moment to try this spine-massaging stretch from Branningan.
How to Sit tall in a chair and place hands behind your head with elbows out wide. Twist to one side and drop elbow down to your knee. Hold for 2 seconds. Repeat for as long as feels good. Switch sides. (For a how-to, visit Stretche*d’s YouTube video.)
3. Try Shin Crossovers to Loosen Up Hips
Take the pressure off your hips and address any muscle tightness with this simple seated stretch.
How to Sitting down, cross one shin over the opposite thigh. Move your torso forward, which will deepen the stretch. Hold for as long as feels good. Switch sides. (For a how-to, visit Dorfman’s YouTube video.)
4. Roll Your Arch for Foot Health
All you need is a ball to ease foot pain, says Dorfman. The instructions, below, are geared toward a standing stretch, but you can also do this sitting down at a desk or while watching TV.
How to Using a lacrosse or tennis ball, stand near a wall and place your hand on the wall for balance. Place one foot on top of the ball and press down. (Shift more of your weight onto the ball for a deeper stretch.) Roll the ball to different points on your sole (arch, ball, heel), focusing on the places where you need to release tension the most. Switch and roll the other foot. (For a how-to, watch the video at BrianDorfman.com.)
5. Try This Easy Sitting Neck Stretch
Elongating your neck will help relieve neck pain, says Dorfman. Do this one when you start to feel tension in your neck while doing computer work. When the stretch is over, you should feel like you can sit up taller.
How to Sit in a chair. Grab the bottom of the chair with your left hand and lean to the right side, keeping your shoulder down in order to elongate your neck. Hold for several seconds. Switch sides. (This stretch can be found on Dorfman’s YouTube video.)