‘Tis the Season to Stress – so Stretch!
Getting anxious about the coming holidays? Tense over the Turkey? Or maybe you’re dreading the annual family reunion with the annoying relatives? Or is it worry about blowing your diet amid all the holiday festivities, Halloween treats, and other yummy feastings? For many, this time of year ‘Tis the season to stress. Stress can translate in your body as muscle and joint pains – and may even cause emotional suffering too. But here is a bit of good holiday tidings - - I have a simple and soothing solution to stress - stretching!
The importance of stretching cannot be overstated. It is in fact, one of the four basic principles of any successful health and fitness program. The others are: eating a healthy diet, weight/resistance training to maintain and improve muscle tone and strength, and aerobic exercise for strengthening the cardiovascular system, burning fat and calories and improving endurance and stamina.
Stretching improves coordination and posture, helps you move easier, relieves muscle and joint tension and stiffness, increases flexibility, improves athletic performance, helps prevent injuries and relaxes you. Sound good? Trust me, it feels good too – but only if you do it correctly and often. So let’s go over some stretching ground rules……
It’s preferable to stretch when your body is warm. Cold bodies are stiff bodies that store tension and don’t move well. So either do 5-10 minutes of some type of cardiovascular exercise like walking, cycling, jumping rope or swimming, to warm up your body before stretching, or better yet, stretch immediately after your workout or training session, when your muscles and joints are warm and supple, and can move freely through their full range of motion.
Relax completely while stretching – body and mind! You cannot relax your body if your mind is elsewhere worrying about your next appointment, the kids, making dinner, etc. Focus your mind on your breath and relax body and mind completely.
Breathe. Take in slow, deep inhalations as you prepare and begin your stretches, breathing from the lowest lobes of your lungs and expanding your rib cage to take in as much air as you can. Exhale slowly and gradually through pursed lips (like you are blowing out birthday candles) as you simultaneously move into your stretches.
Listen to your body. Stretch only until your muscles feel like they’ve been lengthened, but not to the point of pain. At the first sign of pain, ease up. Know your limit and pay attention to how your body is responding to the stretches so you don’t pull something.
Avoid bouncing and jarring movements when stretching. Move gently, gracefully and with control.
Now that we know how to stretch properly, let’s get started with some of my favorites. Since most of you are probably seated right now while reading this vlog, I chose stretches that you can do right from your chair, so you can get started and feel relaxed and rejuvenated right now. Let’s do this….
Long Spine Stretch: Sit at the edge of your chair with back straight and feet flat on the ground about hip width apart. Inhale and reach your arms high above your head while simultaneously looking up and gently drawing your navel in towards your spine to engage your abdominals. Exhale and allow arms to gently fall back along your sides. Do 2-4 repetitions.
Chest, Shoulders, Arms and Back Stretch: Still seated at the edge of your chair, inhale and spread your arms out to your sides, palms and chest facing up to the ceiling. Lean back a bit to lift and open chest fully. Exhale and hinge, then flex/fold forward over your legs. Let head, neck and arms hang like dead weight. Take another inhale there allowing your air to expand through your rib cage. Exhale and roll back up to seated position one vertebra at a time, as if you are rolling your back up against an imaginary wall behind you. Don’t forget to tuck your navel into your spine as you roll up. Do 2-4 reps.
Sides, Shoulders and Neck Stretch: Still seated at the edge of your chair, inhale and stretch your right arm high above your head. Keep left arm/shoulder relaxed along left side. Exhale and flex your spine sideways toward your left side, reaching your right hand over your left ear, and facing forward. Inhale and slowly look up at your right hand above your head, stretching your neck. Exhale and look down now. Inhale again and lengthen spine back up to starting position. Exhale and relax right arm along your side. Change sides. Do 2-4 reps per side.
Spinal Twist (with chest/shoulder progression): a. Still seated at the edge of your chair, inhale to prepare. Exhale and twist your body all the way around to the right, reaching to grab the back of your chair as far as you can reach. Hold and take a couple more relaxing breaths there, trying to increase your twist/stretch on each exhale. On last exhale, unravel back to starting position. Change sides. b. Chest/Shoulder Progression: While twisted and holding the back of your chair, inhale and reach the opposite hand/arm away from your body. Exhale and return. Do this 2-4 times. Then on final exhale, return to starting position. Switch sides.
Glutes/Piriformis/Sciatic Stretches: These stretches help prevent and relieve sciatic pain and stretch the whole outer glute/buttocks area. a. Still seated with feet flat on the ground, place left foot/outer ankle on top of right thigh, just above your knee. Hinge forward from hips. Hold and breathe into the stretch. To intensify this stretch, hinge further forward and if you can, slowly flex upper body over legs. Switch sides. b. Here’s another variation for same area: Stand facing chair with hips square. Put bent right leg on top of chair so that your foot, thigh and butt are resting on top of chair. Left leg is behind you. Holding chair back, inhale and sit up nice and tall. Exhale and hinge forward from the hips as you simultaneously pull yourself with arms toward chair back. Hold there and take a few breaths. Change sides.
Quadricep (front of upper thigh) and Hip Flexors Stretch: Stand to the side of your chair and hold the chair back with your left hand (for stability). With your right hand, reach down and take your right foot behind you and into your hand. Gently pull foot upwards. You might feel a stretch in your hip flexors as well as quads. If you do not, hinge forward gently at the hips. Feel that J. Change sides.
Hamstring (back of upper thigh) Stretches: Stand facing chair, hips squared. Keeping leg straight, place heel toes pointed upwards, on top of chair. Inhale to prepare. Exhale and hinge forward. Hold and take a few more breaths, slowly trying to reach your foot with your hands to deepen/heighten stretch. If this stretch is too easy for you, place it higher up on the chair’s back. Change sides.
Calf and Achilles Tendon Stretch: Stand in a staggered leg position (left leg front, right leg back) with hands on the chair. Shift all your weight into the heel of your right leg, stretching the calf. Now slightly bend right knee to stretch the Achilles tendon. Slowly alternate between stretching calf/Achilles tendon for 4-6 reps. Switch sides.
Shoulder Stretch: Seated on chair edge again, back straight and feet flat on the ground, take your right arm across your chest. Gently using your left arm, simultaneously press your right arm into your body and toward your left shoulder. Slowly rotate your neck to the right shoulder to heighten the stretch, and integrate a neck stretch too.
Triceps (back of upper arm) Stretch: Reach your right arm up and over your head. Flex the elbow and reach the palm of your hand to the back of your neck. With your left hand, gently pull your right elbow behind you. Keep shoulders and neck muscles down and relaxed. Switch sides.
Chest/Shoulder Stretch: Still seated at the edge of your chair, reach your arms back behind your body and clasp your hands together. Allow your chest to open up and shoulders to retract and relax down. Hold this stretch for a few breaths. Release.
Bicep (front of upper arm) Stretch: Stand facing your chair. Lean over and place both hands on the chair, palms facing down and fingers pointed towards your legs. You might feel plenty of stretch here, but if you want to increase the stretch, slowly press forward into your wrists. You may do one arm at a time too.
Have a wonderful holiday season!