Stretch Yourself

Stretch Yourself

Regular stretching improves flexibility and minimizes injuries

If stretching is one of the good-for-you habits that you know you’re “supposed” to do but usually don’t — like flossing or applying sunscreen — it’s time to rethink your position. Stretching has numerous benefits and
few drawbacks.

“Regular stretching that is done properly and effectively can potentially prevent injuries,” says physiatrist Debbie Lee, MD, an attending physician at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab. “[It may] improve your overall flexibility, which in turn can promote correct posture and body alignment, optimal joint range of motion, and efficient movement. It can even improve your mental energy and sense of well-being.”

People who are short on time may forego stretching before or after workouts, but it’s an essential way to stay in shape.

“When we traditionally talk about exercise, we think of getting stronger, getting more muscle mass, and sometimes that can actually inhibit our ability to be flexible,” says occupational therapist Stephanie Davies Devlin, owner and lead therapist at SD Rehab Inc., a rehabilitation and alternative fitness studio in Chicago. “We need to find a balance, and often stretching is what helps find that balance.”

Easy does it

Take the time for some slow, gentle stretches. Only stretch as far as comfortable, tuning into the sensations you feel when you stretch.

“Stretching shouldn’t be a force that we’re imposing on our body,” Devlin says. “Stretching should be a question we’re asking our body, and we’re listening for the answer.”

Avoid vigorous bouncing or overstretching, which may cause injuries. This is not a case of no pain, no gain. “Enduring pain to obtain full range of motion should also not be the aim of a stretch,” Lee says. 

As you get older, there are benefits to stretching regularly, for the sake of safety and flexibility.

“Appropriate stretching becomes especially important as people age because of the natural progression of declining muscle mass, strength, coordination, and joint range of motion, which place the aging population at increased risk for injury,” Lee says.

Some people who have never stretched before may be hesitant to begin now, but learning a few ways to elongate your body has its benefits whenever you start.

“If we haven’t learned how to stretch, it’s hard to start that later in life when we’re starting to feel pain or stiffness. But it’s always possible to start a stretching program,” Devlin says.

Supported stretches

Devlin recommends these stretches. Use a chair for support.

Full body stretch 

Stephanie Davies Devlin demonstrates stretches. Photos by Margaret Mui
Stephanie Davies Devlin demonstrates stretches. Photos by Margaret Mui

 Stand about 2 feet in front of a chair. Bend forward at your waist, placing your palms on the chair seat while keeping your legs straight. Slowly walk your feet backward as far as you can comfortably go, keeping your hands on the seat while sinking your armpits toward the ground. 

You should feel a stretch up your arms and in your underarms, as well as in your calves and up the backs of your legs. Hold the stretch for 10 to 20 seconds. 

Next, bend your left knee, keeping your left toes on the ground, to feel a stretch up the back of your right leg. Hold for 10 to 20 seconds. Repeat the stretch, bending your right knee. Then walk your feet toward the chair, lift your palms from the seat, and return to an upright position.

Angry cat stretch 

Angry cat stretch Stand about a foot in front of a chair. Keeping your legs straight, roll your upper body downward, placing your palms on the seat. Push down with your hands, and slowly roll your spine up toward the ceiling, looking toward your belly button. You should feel a stretch up your spine and between your shoulder blades. Hold 10 to 20 seconds, then relax your back, lift your palms, and roll to an upright position.

Seated back stretch

Seated back stretch While seated with your feet flat on the floor, lace your fingers together behind your head. Lean backward as far as you can comfortably while keeping your feet flat on the floor, looking up toward the ceiling. Hold for 10 to 20 seconds, stretching your chest, middle, and upper back. Then lean slightly toward your right side, pointing your left elbow upward. You should feel a stretch up your left arm and down your left side toward your waist. Hold 10 to 20 seconds. Repeat the stretch, leaning toward the left to stretch your right side. Unclasp your fingers, and move to a relaxed position.

Originally published in the Spring/Summer 2022 print issue.