Whether you’ve been working at your desk for hours or just woke up a little creaky, stretching can help ease tightness and achiness. And with the stress of life during the pandemic, stretching may also help calm the pressure you feel.
“We are much more sedentary now as a society, and as you become more sedentary, you become more susceptible to injuries and to pain,” says Anthony J. Wall, a San Diego-based certified personal trainer and spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise. “Our bodies are meant to move. Range of motion and activity is our natural way to live. Stretching is what helps us maintain flexibility.”
Regular stretching can also improve posture and ease aches and pains. But you don’t have to stretch for hours to feel positive effects. Research shows that just 5 minutes a day, 5 days a week is enough to make a difference.
“You want to do something almost every day, but you don’t have to commit to 30 minutes every day,” says New York City physical therapist Karen Litzy, a spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association. “As colder months come, gone are the long bike rides and long walks or runs. We really have to be conscious that we are moving inside. In the end, movement is key and that's really what we are trying to promote.”
Here’s how to stretch throughout your day.
When You’ve Been Sitting at a Desk All Day
When you’re working from home, it’s easy to sit at a desk for hours straight. It’s important to get up out of your chair and move as often as you can. Set a timer to go off every hour and just walk around for a few minutes.
But when you’re stuck on yet another call and don’t have time for a break, there are stretches you can do at your desk. Litzy says this stretch is easy to do, even in the middle of a Zoom call. It stretches the front of the hip and thigh:
- Slide your body to the left side of your chair and drop your left leg under your chair, almost as if you’re going to kneel.
- Drop your left foot behind you and feel the stretch in front of your thigh and foot.
- Slide over to the right side and repeat on that side.
“You can stay there a couple of minutes,” Litzy says. “It’s a way to shift your posture and it feels nice."
Another simple exercise you can do in your chair, Wall says, is just stretching from side to side. Hold the left arm of your chair with your left hand, then lean and stretch your body to the right. Switch and hold the right arm of your chair with your right hand. Lean and stretch your body to the left.
Ease Morning Stiffness
Take it easy when you first get up in the morning, no matter how old you are or what kind of shape you’re in. “I don’t like people to pop up out of bed, get on the floor and start stretching,” Litzy says. It’s better to take a shower, walk around a little bit first, and warm up before you really get moving, she says.
That said, there are a few gentle stretches you can do while you are still in bed:
- Bring both knees into your chest, give them a little hug.
- Bring in one knee, extend the other leg out at the same time. Stretch out the straight leg as you bring in the other knee for a hug.
To work on gentle range of motion, try a pelvic tilt.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet on the floor. Pretend there’s a clock over your pelvis and 12 is your head and 6 is your feet.
- Gently tilt your pelvis towards 12, then towards 6.
To Help Manage Stress
The key to destressing with stretching is to focus on breathing. “Slow, rhythmic, and mindful breathing in and out through the nose while stretching allows for enhanced relaxation,” says Jessica Matthews, DBH, assistant professor of integrative wellness at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego and author of Stretching to Stay Young.
Your breath can also help to serve as a guide for how intensely you should be stretching, she says. If at any point you’re holding your breath when doing a static stretch, that’s a cue to reduce the intensity to the point where you can once again breathe naturally and freely.
Here’s a stretch to help with stress, Matthews suggests.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor. Lift your left leg along the floor, keeping your right knee bent.
- Inhale and raise your right foot up off the floor. Bring your right knee toward your chest with your hands.
- Exhale and extend your right arm out to the right side, palm facing up, while using your left hand to gently guide your right knee across the body to fall outside your left hip.
- Turn your head to look toward your right hand, holding the stretch. Then switch sides and repeat.
Before a Workout
There are two types of stretching:
- Static stretches involve extending the muscle until you feel a little tension and then holding it without moving.
- Dynamic stretches actively move your joints and muscles. These are movements done at controlled speeds.
Before a workout, warm up your muscles with dynamic stretches. Matthews suggests a cat/cow stretch:
- Begin on your hands and knees with wrists below shoulders and knees below hips, maintaining a neutral, extended spine with toes tucked under.
- Inhale, softening belly toward floor and gently arching the back, tilting tailbone and chin toward ceiling.
- Exhale, gently rounding the spine, drawing chin toward chest and untucking toes, placing tops of feet on floor. Repeat.
After a Workout
After you exercise, it’s time for static stretches. Matthews suggests using a gym towel for this one.
- Stand with your feet parallel and wide apart and knees softly bent. Hold a gym towel in one hand with your palm facing behind you, then reach your opposite hand back to grasp the other end. (To deepen the stretch, skip the towel and clasp your hands together.)
- Inhale, keeping your spine long and rolling your shoulders back and down.
- Exhale and lean forward, bending at the hips to draw your torso toward your thighs and top of your head toward the floor. Let your arms move forward while continuing to hold the towel, drawing your knuckles toward the ceiling.
Hold a static stretch for about 15-30 seconds, Matthews says. But if you’re over 65, or over 50 and have conditions that affect how much you can move, holding a stretch for 30-60 seconds may more helpful. Try to do a total of 60 seconds of static stretches. That means repeating them two to four times, depending on how long you hold them.
Include the Whole Family
If you make stretching a game, kids are much more likely to play along, Litzy says. Do a partner stretch, where you sit in front of your child with both your legs spread out, feet touching. Hold the ends of a towel and gently pull back and forth. In the same position, you can roll a ball back and forth, stretching to catch it and roll it back.