When was the last time you carved 10 minutes out of your day to stretch? If the answer is, “I can’t remember,” don’t worry, you’re not alone. We all know how important it is to focus on flexibility, but that doesn’t mean we’re willing to sacrifice 10 minutes of cardio to make it happen. In fact, stretching is often the one part of a workout that gets put off, especially when time is tight. The good news: You don’t have to be an experienced yogi to benefit from a regular stretching routine. In fact, a targeted program that helps you become more flexible is a healthy habit for anyone to develop.
The Surprising Benefits of Increasing Your Flexibility
There’s no doubt that crushing your cardio session on the treadmill produces immediate results, like burning calories and giving you that exercise-induced endorphin high. But that’s not often the case when it comes to flexibility. You have to be willing to put time and effort into a stretching program in order to see and feel the benefits that come with increasing your flexibility. Sure, this can be difficult to commit to—especially when your list of to-dos is a mile long. But wouldn’t it be nice to hit your running stride with ease and consistency or be able to sit at your desk and not feel the nagging lower-back pain you deal with on a daily basis? While the benefits of stretching and increasing your flexibility are numerous, there are a few that seem to stand out more than others. “The main benefit of increasing your flexibility is ease of movement during our normal day-to-day activities, such as driving, cooking, and playing outside with family members,” explains Sarah Luna, certified Pilates method instructor and senior vice president of operations at Club Pilates. [pullquote align=”center”]“When I brush my teeth, I always have one leg up on the counter, then switch to the other. It’s such a great and easy way to stretch both the hamstrings and hips.”[/pullquote] Luna says that when we sit all day, our muscles shorten and develop prohibitive movement patterns. With that loss of mobility, basic activities become cumbersome, less enjoyable, and sometimes even painful, creating a dangerous imbalance in the muscular system. Increasing flexibility re-balances the muscular system, providing comfort throughout the work day, post-work commute, and beyond. Fitness instructor and StarCycle co-founder Erin Moone says the most basic benefit of flexibility is that it will provide a tall and balanced posture, which helps elongate the spine, open up the chest, and ensure the shoulders are cascading down the back of the body. Like Luna, Moone also alludes to the problems caused by our sedentary work environments: “We sit a lot during the day, so getting moving is crucial. By stretching those muscles and elongating them, you’re helping combat the negative effects sitting can have on your posture.”
Stretches You Can Do at Home to Become More Flexible
If you can dedicate 10 minutes each day to stretching and flexibility, you will see and feel the results in just a few weeks. But if you don’t have 10 minutes a day to spare, don’t worry. According to the Mayo Clinic, stretching even a few times a week is still beneficial. Moone says her favorite stretches are the ones you can do in the morning while getting ready. “A good way to start is with small stretches on the counter at home. For example, when I brush my teeth, I always have one leg up on the counter, then switch to the other. It’s such a great and easy way to stretch both the hamstrings and hips,” she explains. If the counter is too high, consider using the ledge of your bathtub or the lid of the toilet. “Drying your hair upside down and adding a forward fold is a great tool as well,” says Moone. Here’s how to do it: When drying your hair, lean forward into the full forward fold position (Uttanasana) or a wide-leg standing forward bend (Prasarita Padottanasana). Forward folds help release the spine and neck while opening up the hamstrings and inner thighs. At night Moone says she always does a more advanced move called Plow Pose. “It opens up my entire back body, elongates the spine, and feels amazing after a long day.” Luna says one of the best full-body stretches that can be done at home is the Pilates Saw. To perform the Saw, sit on the ground with your legs stretched in front of your body, feet shoulder-width apart. If you have tight hamstrings, go ahead and create a slight bend in the knees so that there is a good connection between your heels and the floor and your hips and the floor. This connection allows the spine to be fully stacked in an upright position. Stretch your arms out from your shoulders, reaching for the sides of the room. This is your starting position. Breathe in and twist the spine to the right (watch out for any household or office furniture!), exhale, and fold the torso over the right leg, reaching the left pinky finger past the right baby toe and reaching the right arm behind the body. Inhale while sitting the body up, noticing the rotation in the spine before returning the body back to your starting position on the next exhale. Luna recommends repeating this sequence three times on each side as doing so will bring flexibility to the back, legs, hips, and shoulders.
Here are a few other simple stretches you can do at home to become more flexible:
This stretch is an excellent movement for runners to do prior to exercise since it opens up your hips and hamstrings. Stand with your feet together, arms out wide. Raise your right leg out to the side, balancing on your left foot. Swing the right leg in front of the left, and then swing it back out to the side.
This upper-body stretch improves flexibility in the shoulders, neck, and back. Stand straight with your feet shoulder-width apart. Reach your arms straight overhead and interlace your fingers with your palms facing upward. Raise your arms as you press your shoulders down. Hold for a few counts and then release the stretch.
Seated Piriformis Stretch
This seated stretch works the hips, back, and glutes. Sit on the edge of a chair and place your right ankle on your left thigh close to the knee. While bending at the waist, gently push down on the leg that is bent (by the knee) and hold. You should feel this stretch in your glute and outside area of the hip of the leg that is bent.
Why Mindset Matters When You Want to Improve Your Flexibility
When you settle into complete a series of stretching and flexibility exercises, it’s not just your body that will be challenged. In order to execute the movement and improve over time, you also need to engage your mind. Staying positive and patient, being kind to yourself, and being consistent will all contribute to your ability to become more flexible. [pullquote align=”center”]“Increasing flexibility and range of motion requires consistency and mindfulness, which is sometimes hard to find in our high-stress, busy lives.”[/pullquote] Learning how to become flexible takes more than just practicing your stretches. “Being flexible and gaining flexibility is a process,” says Moone. “As with all things we’re not necessarily good at yet, it’s easier to give up, but keeping with it is the key,” she adds. “Increasing flexibility and range of motion requires consistency and mindfulness, which is sometimes hard to find in our high-stress, busy lives,” says Luna. However, she says even small bursts of stretching can increase range of motion in the body and provide benefits like creating more even muscle tone.
Common Myths About Stretching and Flexibility
Being flexible and following a stretching program will prevent injuries. While stretching and becoming more flexible can help improve your athletic performance and overall fitness level, it’s not a guarantee that you will steer clear of injuries. However, performing dynamic stretches prior to physical activity has been shown to help prepare your muscles for activity. You should always stretch before you exercise. Gone are the days of your PE teacher blowing the whistle and telling you to “warm-up” with static stretches before you exercise. We now know that performing dynamic stretches prior to physical activity is the way to go. Follow this simple rule: Dynamic stretches before your workout and static stretches after. For dynamic stretches, incorporate leg swings, arm swings, side bends, trunk rotations, and high knees into your warm-up. Static stretches after your workout can include the seated hamstring stretch, standing quad stretch, calf stretch, chest and shoulder opening stretches, and cat stretch. Stretching is the only way to increase your flexibility. Stretching is the primary method of improving flexibility, but it’s not the only way. Performing exercises through a full range of motion, incorporating massage, visiting an Active Release Technique practitioner, taking classes such as Tai Chi, Pilates, and yoga, and engaging in daily relaxation exercises can all help to increase your flexibility. Weight training makes you less flexible. If you neglect stretching and avoid performing exercises in a full range of motion, weight training can make you less flexible. But if you execute moves through the full range of motion and balance a weight training program with recovery practices such as yoga, Pilates, and regular stretching, you can maintain good flexibility.
HealthyWay’s Parting Tips to Help You Get Stretching
When you stretch is up to you. However, it is recommended that you perform flexibility exercises when your muscles are warm, for example, after a workout. If you’re not planning on exercising, make sure to warm your muscles pre-stretch by taking a hot shower or bath or walking for five minutes before your first stretch. If you’re committed to stretching before and after a workout, aim for 5 to 10 minutes of dynamic stretching before your activity and another 5 to 10 minutes of static stretching after. Hold each stretch for 10 to 30 seconds and repeat two to four times, spending a cumulative of 60 seconds in each stretch. Stretching daily will lead to faster results, but remember that you can increase your flexibility by stretching just two to three days per week. Most importantly, keep in mind that flexibility is not a one-size-fits-all component of fitness. Listening to your body to determine the right stretching regimen goes a long way. Interested in stretching and toning? Check out our article on all things resistance bands. Smitten with yoga? Take our yoga quiz to determine which type of practice is ideal for getting your unique stretch on.