Since elementary school, we’ve been taught to stretch. Why? To improve flexibility, balance and strength, and to help avoid injuries. But did you know that stretching is great for your cardiovascular system too? Slow, deliberate stretching—where you’re focused on what you’re doing and breathing deeply and slowly—can:
- lower blood pressure
- increase blood flow
- calm your nervous system
- ease stress
- reduce stiffness in your arteries
Want an easy way to help keep yourself nimble and feeling heart-healthy? Try incorporating stretching exercises into your daily routine. One of the best things about stretching is that every movement is adaptable. And you can practice stretching through Pilates, tai chi, yoga and other formal programs that are available by video on YouTube and in classes at local fitness facilities.
Easier than that, though, is making up your own stretching routine at home. You can do it with or without equipment, such as a towel, fabric strap, yoga block or elastic band, to help increase your range of motion.
Getting ready to stretch
Stretching has four basic requirements:
- Space. Whether you exercise indoors or outside, make sure you have enough room to bend over at the waist, squat, extend your arms and legs fully, and even lose your balance and fall over without hitting anything.
- Warmth. Since muscles move much better—and are less likely to become injured—when they’re warm, select a warm space to do your stretching. Many people love to stretch outside on warm days. If you’re on grass or a bare floor, place a thin yoga or exercise mat under you. If you choose to stretch first thing after waking up, give yourself five to 10 minutes to warm up by walking around your neighborhood or even taking a quick shower.
- Comfort. Wear something that you can move around in without having to pull it up or down all the time. Just because someone exercises in something that you’d only wear in a swimming pool doesn’t mean you have to be that exposed. The bottom line: Be comfy!
- Limits. This is extremely important: Stretch only as far as you can without feeling pain. The millisecond you feel uncomfortable, please ease back from that position. Over time you’ll likely be able to move farther as long as you stretch every day.
Here are six full-body stretches that you can do in five to 10 minutes a day. You’ll hold each position for five to 10 seconds and repeat each full movement three to five times. Pay attention to your breathing, and move s-l-o-w-l-y:
- Standing sweep: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointed straight forward, hands at your sides. As you inhale slowly and deeply, keep your arms straight and slowly sweep your hands up from your sides until your palms touch above your head. Time your breathing so that you have a full chest when your palms touch. Exhale and hold this position five to 10 seconds.
As you inhale slowly and deeply, keep your arms straight, slowly sweep your arms out to the side while bending forward at your waist, keeping your legs straight, until your fingertips touch your shins. Depending on your flexibility, continue to slide your hands down until your fingertips touch the tops of your feet or the floor in front of your feet. As you begin to feel the stretch in your lower back, glutes and hamstrings, please stop and hold your position before you feel pain (and don’t worry if you can’t touch your feet or the floor). Exhale and hold this position for five to 10 seconds. Repeat this series of standing sweeps three to five times.
- Tilting sweep: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointed straight forward, hands at your sides. As you inhale slowly and deeply, keep your arms straight and slowly sweep your hands up from your sides until your palms touch above your head. Time your breathing so that you have a full chest when your palms touch. Exhaling, lean at your waist to the left, and hold this position for five to 10 seconds. As you feel tension in your lower back, please stop and hold your position before you feel pain.
Inhaling slowly, return to the upright position. Exhaling, lean at your waist to the right. Hold five to 10 seconds and return to the upright position. Repeat this series three to five times.
- Standing shoulder stretch: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointed straight forward. Clasp your hands behind your back, keeping your arms and wrists as straight as possible while intertwining your fingers. Don’t worry if your palms don’t touch or you have to bend your wrists. Inhale, then as you slowly exhale, keeping your back, legs and arms straight, bend forward at the waist as far as you can go comfortably. Inhale and, if you are able, slowly raise your clasped hands as far as you can. Hold the position for five to 10 seconds.
Exhaling slowly, lower your hands until they rest on your back and then slowly raise yourself to the upright position. Repeat this series three to five times.
- Sitting stretch: Sit on the floor with your legs straight in front of you. Keeping your back straight, place your hands on your thighs or knees. Inhale deeply and, while exhaling slowly and not allowing your back to curve, slowly move your hands as far forward along your legs as they will go before you feel too much tension in your hamstrings and lower legs. Inhale and hold the position for five to 10 seconds. Slowly exhale and return to the upright sitting position. Repeat this series three to five times.
- Butterfly stretch: Sit on the floor with your knees bent and the soles of your feet pressed together. Clasp your hands around your feet, inhale and slowly pull your feet toward you as far as you’re comfortable. When you feel the tension in your inner thighs, stop and hold the position before you feel pain. Without allowing your back to curve, slowly exhale and lean forward as far as you can. When you feel slight tension in your inner thighs and lower back, hold the position for five to 10 seconds. Inhale slowly and return to sitting upright without moving your feet forward. Repeat this series three to five times. Helpful tip: If this movement is too difficult, try doing it inversely—lie on your back and pull your feet toward you.
- Seated back twist: Note: Be very careful about doing this move if you have neck or back issues. Sit on the floor with your legs straight in front of you, ankles together. Bend your right knee and position your right foot over your left leg to the outside of your left knee. Inhaling, bend your left arm, twist slowly to the right, and place your left elbow on the outside of your right knee. Keeping your right arm straight and your right hand on the floor at your hip, exhale and slowly continue twisting your back and neck until you can see behind your right shoulder. Hold this position five to 10 seconds. Inhale and move back until you are facing forward again. Switch legs and arms and repeat the moves to your left side. Hold the position five to 10 seconds. Exhale and return to the face-forward position. Repeat this series three to five times.
As you become stronger and more limber, deepen your stretches and hold them longer, up to 30 seconds. Want to try more advanced routines? Check out these flexibility moves.
Rest and recovery
If you haven’t been active for a while, your body will need time to adjust to the new strain. Pace yourself and, if necessary, stretch every other day for the first couple of weeks. If you feel sore, reach for Teladoc. Our board-certified physicians can help diagnose and recommend treatment for a wide variety of conditions, including back and body aches, headaches, muscle strain, seasonal allergies (which may flare up if you exercise outdoors) and more. Make sure you have the app so that you’ll have 24/7 access to non-emergency medical treatment anywhere you are, even if you’re stuck on the floor.
Stay safe, and remember: “Bend and stretch, reach for the stars!”
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