Let’s take a second to check in. Are your shoulders tight? Is your breathing shallow? How long exactly have you been looking at this screen?
If your job or schooling (or your child’s schooling) requires you to sit in front of a computer for hours, or your commute has become the few steps from your bed to your kitchen, or a socially distanced existence has made you closer to your couch than ever before, your body is likely feeling it.
Our bodies are carrying much of the stress and anxiety we’ve been feeling during this pandemic. And even though you may not realize it, a tense body not only affects how you feel physically through muscle pain and fatigue, but it can also impact your mood.
While you likely can’t overhaul your entire way of life, you can greatly improve how you feel, both physically and emotionally, through one simple practice: stretching. That’s why we’re here to guide you through a few of our favorite gentle stretches that will encourage you to tune in, listen to your body, and calm your mind.
Why is stretching so beneficial?
According to Harvard Health Publishing, relaxing tight muscles has the power to alleviate mental stress. Simple stretches with deep breathing can release endorphins, resulting in a higher oxygen level, slowed heart rate, increased circulation, and lowered blood pressure.
Stretching has also been proven to increase overall flexibility, positively affect your mood and improve sleep. By taking time to focus on our body and breath, we inherently become more present and grounded. The best part is that stretching can be done anywhere, at any time. Give it a try to help let go and loosen up, both body and mind.
Remember, stretching should feel good. It’s not a competition, and it should never be painful. If you experience pain, slowly release from the stretch. (Also, if you are currently or have experienced injury in the past, please consult with your doctor before incorporating new stretches into your routine. Individuals should get medical clearance prior to doing some of these stretches if applicable.)
Here are six of our favorite stretches to try. Hold each for about 30 seconds, or however long feels good.
1. Seated spinal twist
“Wringing” out one’s spine through a simple twist feels especially wonderful after sitting for long periods of time. We especially love tapping into this stretch during the workday between stressful meetings.
To perform a seated spinal twist, simply sit on the edge of your chair with your feet flat on the ground. Place your hand on the opposite thigh or arm of the chair and twist, lengthening your spine. Gaze over your shoulder while taking deep breaths before repeating on the other side.
2. Chest opener stretch
Another great option when you’re at your desk and need a quick tension release is the chest opener stretch. Simply clasp your hands behind your back while squeezing your shoulder blades toward one another. Push out through your chest while breathing deeply.
3. Side neck rotation
We recommend this quick stretch to alleviate tightness in your neck, especially if you experience tension headaches. While seated or standing, slowly tilt your head to one side toward your shoulder, while keeping your shoulder relaxed. Hold for 5 to 10 seconds and repeat on the other side. You can gently put a hand on top of your tilted head and lightly press for an added stretch.
4. Knee-to-chest stretch
Give this stretch a try to relax your hips, glutes, and thighs. Lie on your back with both knees bent and your feet flat on the floor or a mat. Take turns drawing one knee into your chest, holding it with your clasped hands behind the thigh or on the shin. Breathe deeply and repeat on the other side.
5. Cat-cow stretch
The cat-cow stretch is one of the best stretches to both ease tension and increase flexibility. To perform, position yourself on a mat or the floor on your hands and knees, hip-width apart.
Start by arching your back upwards (ahem, like a cat), pulling your navel in towards your spine and letting your head drop in front of you. After 5 to 10 seconds, come back to a neutral spine. Next, raise your head and neck up towards the sky, while curving your back and pulling your navel towards the floor (yes, like a cow).
6. Child’s pose
Practicing child’s pose helps to elongate your spine and release tension throughout your entire body, while encouraging deep and steady breathing. Plus, it just feels so good. To get into this fetal position, kneel on the floor or a yoga mat and bring your knees together. Sit down on your heels, exhale and slowly lower your torso over your thighs. Gently touch your forehead to the mat. If it’s more comfortable, you are also welcome to kneel with your knees apart, your seat landing between your heels, and reaching forward to touch your forward to the mat in that position.
Establish a stretching routine that works best for you.
How to best establish a stretching routine is up to you. Some like to incorporate stretches throughout their daily routine, others prefer a morning or evening stretching practice, while some find it best to stretch before and after exercise. If you’re likely to get swept up in the responsibilities of the day, consider setting calendar reminders throughout your day to take quick breaks and stretch your body.
Like meditation, stretching encourages living in the present moment and getting in touch with our physical and innermost selves. Some chose to stretch on a yoga mat while listening to relaxing music, while others stretch it out in front of their favorite television show or right before bed.
The next time you feel yourself getting stressed over work or life in general, take a moment to check in and see what parts of your body are clenching and tightening. Take a few deep breaths and have a nice, indulgent stretch. See, that’s much better, isn’t it?