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By Sheryl Kraft

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The Most Neglected Part of a Well-Rounded Workout

When I get out of bed some mornings – despite a really good, solid night’s sleep – I sometimes feel like it takes a few minutes for me to straighten up. In fact, some nights, I feel like while I’m sleeping, someone sneaks in and twists me up like a pretzel. Morning comes, and it’s hard to unravel my body. STIFFNESS. And what is it with those creaky joints?

I’m not the only one. Christine, one of my readers all the way over in Japan, sent me this email. (And by the way, if you’ve ever wondered what life is like for a mom of 4 on the other side of the world, take a look at her amazing blog)

Sheryl, did you ever or will you ever do a story on body stiffness as you age? That is my big issue right now - for the first time in my life - waking up with a stiff back. I think yoga would probably really help! Stretches, at least.”

For some of us, arthritis is to blame. Cartilage gets worn and torn. The high-impact activities (I myself was part of the no-pain, no-gain generation of Jane Fonda workouts) we did years ago may be catching up to us now. Carrying around excess weight, injuries and genetics could also be to blame. For others, it may not be arthritis; it may be just be plain old aging. Muscles shrink and lose mass; the actual number and size of muscle fibers decreases, too. Put together with a sedentary lifestyle, you’re ending up stiff and sore a lot earlier and quicker than someone who hits the gym regularly.

A well-rounded workout not only includes cardio and strength training, but also stretching, something that usually falls by the wayside – but shouldn’t. Not only does stretching increase your flexibility and improve your circulation, it helps relieve stress, too.

Here’s what Joan Pagano, fitness expert, trainer and author told me:

“Decreased flexibility may be a common aspect of aging, but it’s one that you can do something about. Just a few minutes of daily stretching can help maintain flexibility, which in turn keeps your muscles supple and counteracts the wear-and-tear of everyday life. By enhancing our mobility, stretching increases our efficiency in all activities so they require less effort – and leave us feeling less tired.”

Joan says that the pull of gravity and gradual dehydration of the body’s tissues (more reason to drink that water!) cause us to “literally shrink over time.”  

Are you ready to ditch this whole post and walk away? Wait – don’t! Here’s a handy guide to stretching from head to toe, just about anywhere you are – even before you get out of bed. All of these stretches – and more - can be found in Joan’s book, Strength Training for Women

How would you like to get a free copy of this book? Be the tenth person to comment and you’re the winner! (Don’t forget to include your email address so I can contact you.)

1)         Wake-up stretches in bed or on the floor:  Repeat each 5-10 times

a)  Full-body stretch:  Lie on back, arms and legs stretched out long.  Flex feet and press through heels, stretching legs and arms and lengthening the torso.

b)  Pelvic tilt:  Lie on back with knees bent, feet flat on the bed.  Inhale and fill the belly with air; then exhale forcefully, pulling abdominals in tight and with one

fluid motion curl tail bone to the ceiling.

c)  Bridge:  Bend knees up, feet flat on bed. Start at the base of your spine and lift hips until torso is in a straight line from knees to shoulders.

2)         Supine (lying face up) floor stretches for low back/hamstrings

a)  Double knees to chest:  Lie on back and bring both knees up over chest, feet in the air.  Separate legs and place hands under thighs.  Draw knees up toward shoulders and allow hips to curl up slightly from the floor. Repeat 3 times.

b)  Hamstrings:  Lie on back with both knees bent.  Keep one knee bent with foot on the floor and raise other leg to ceiling.  Hold extended leg with both hands behind the thigh and pull it toward you gently, keeping knee straight.  Hold for 20-30 seconds and repeat on other side.

c)  Spinal twist:  Lie on back with knees bent, feet on floor. Reach arms out in line with shoulders, palms down.  Drop knees to one side and turn head in the opposite direction.  Hold for 20-30 seconds, then change sides.

3)         Kneeling stretches for low back/hamstrings

a)  Arches/curves:  Kneel on all fours, hands under shoulders, knees under hips, spine in neutral alignment.  Exhale, pulling abdominals tight, and arch (round) your back up to the ceiling, letting your head drop forward.  Inhale, lift head and curve spine into a "C".  Repeat 3 times each way.

b) Child's pose:  From the kneeling position, sit back on heels and reach arms forward, keeping elbows off the floor.  With head between elbows, rest forehead on floor. Hold for 20-30 seconds.

c) Downward dog:  From the kneeling position, tuck toes under and straighten arms and legs, raising hips to the ceiling.  Keep lengthening through the torso, pressing heels toward the floor.  Hold for 20-30 seconds.

4)         3 Most important standing leg stretches:  for all stretches, hold for 20-30 seconds then repeat on the other side.

a) Calf:  Stand with feet together. Take a giant step back with one leg and press heel into the floor, keeping knee straight.  Bend front knee over ankle.

b) Quadriceps:  Stand on one leg and bend opposite leg, using hand on ankle or foot to guide heel toward buttocks. Keep thighs aligned in front.

c) Hamstring:  Stand on one leg with knee bent. Extend other leg to the front and rest heel on floor with toe pointing to the ceiling. Bend forward from the hip, keeping spine straight.

 5)        Upper body stretches for the torso (standing or seated – great at your desk!) For all stretches, hold for 10-15 seconds.

a) Chest:  Lengthen through the spine.  Lift chest and relax shoulders. Clasp hands behind your back and slowly raise arms as far as possible.

b) Lats:  Keeping spine tall, interlace fingers and turn palms away from you.  Straighten elbows then raise arms to the ceiling, reaching as high as you can.

c) Side bend:  Reach both arms to ceiling, then cross arms and grasp elbows.  Keeping your head centered between your arms, lift up from the waist and bend to the side.  Repeat on other side.

6)        Stretches for shoulders and arms (take a time-out from the computer!) For all stretches, hold for 10-15 seconds.

a) Shoulder: Put one arm behind you and take it by the wrist with other hand.  Gently pull back arm across the back of your waist until you feel a stretch in the front of the shoulder.  Repeat on other side.

b) Triceps:  Raise one elbow to ceiling and reach down your upper back with your forearm, i.e. "give yourself a pat on the back."  Use other arm to pull the elbow back gently.

c) Biceps and forearm:  Extend one arm in front with the palm up.  With other hand, pull fingers toward you so they point to the floor.  You will feel a stretch all the way up the underside of your arm to the biceps.

7)         Neck and upper back (to relieve neck tension) For all stretches, hold for 5-10 seconds.

a) Chin to chest:  Place finger tips lightly on crown of head and gently lower chin toward chest until you feel the stretch in the back of the neck and upper back.

b) Neck tilt:  Keeping back straight and shoulders level, tilt ear to shoulder until you feel pulling in the opposite side of the neck. Use hand on the side of head to gently deepen the stretch, while you reach down with other hand to create a dynamic opposition.

c) Chin to armpit:  From the previous position, turn chin to armpit and place hand on the crown of head using gentle downward pressure. Feel the stretch in the back of your neck and upper back.  Repeat both stretches (b and c) on the other side.

This Matters> Just a few minutes of daily stretching could save you countless hours of stiffness and pain. It’s so easy to work it into your busy day. I promise.

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