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Why Your Body Needs to S-T-R-E-T-C-H

By Sheryl Kraft

Created: 09/13/2010
Last Updated: 06/21/2017

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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

  1. Wake-up stretches in bed or on the floor: Repeat each 5-10 times
    • 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.
    • 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.
    • 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
    • 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.
    • 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.
    • 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
    • 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.
    • 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.
    • 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.
    • 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.
    • 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.
    • 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.
    • Chest: Lengthen through the spine. Lift chest and relax shoulders. Clasp hands behind your back and slowly raise arms as far as possible.
    • 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.
    • 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.
    • 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.
    • 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.
    • 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.

    • 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.
    • 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.
    • 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.


These are terrific. I find that morning stretches really help me feel good. Do you have any suggestions for feet though? When i get up in the morning my feet hurt so much just to hobble to the bathroom!

Hmmm...feet. Gives me something to research. Hopefully will find some answers soon so your hobbling days are over.

Here are 3 good ones to warm up your feet before you get out of bed
• point and flex your feet
• lift the inner and outer borders (side to side)
• make circles with your feet

But it's not normal to have to hobble out of bed in pain in the morning – have you consulted a physician or physical therapist?

Great stretches. I know I need to do more--it seems like it's something so easy to forget to do!

I agree, it's so easy to let it slide by. But when I look at what my dog does naturally when she wakes up, it reminds me to stretch.

I'd love the book, but I have to comment right away because this is so important. I had a massage this weekend and the bodyworker was explaining to me the process by which lactic acid builds up in muscles; she said stretching is the only way to get it out of there. Thanks for an insightful post, Sheryl!

Interesting...thanks for sharing that, Melanie. And you just reminded me that it's been ages since I've had a massage!

Thank you, Sheryl, for addressing this topic! Very helpful for me. I was just thinking about it this morning (well, I think about it every morning since that is when I notice body stiffness the most)! It makes me feel motivated to hear that it's not inevitable and that just a few minutes of stretching daily can stave some of this off.

Christine, You are so welcome. I hope that your motivation leads to less stiffness!

This is a good reminder! I really ought to stretch more, especially to maintain the agility I have now. Thanks, Sheryl!

Great post. It made me give myself a little credit for doing yoga. I often think I'd be inches shorter if I weren't out there bending three times a week.

I'm convinced. Really! I'll start stretching. I've been good about walking and running and biking (since reading this blog regularly) but stretching has NOT been part of my daily routine...

Thanks for the great list of stretches. Absolutely critical! Yoga also helps me with wonderful long stretching -- and the benefits of reducing stress, blood pressure, etc.

So many of you already do yoga, and that IS a great way to incorporate stretching. No wonder yoga feels so good.

Give YOURSELF 10 minutes a day to do this and you will get back 20.

Nice to have you join the conversation, Ruth. I like that way of thinking; ten for twenty!

I always stretch after a workout, but I like the reminder to take a break from the computer and do these while I work. My flexibility is awful, and this can only help!

Thanks for chiming in with such an important reminder, Marcia. I often tell myself that I'm going to stretch during the day, but then have trouble tearing myself away from my computer to actually do it!

I've just added yoga to my routine and I love the way it makes me feel.

Great article and good advice from Joan Pagano. Since I rely on her strength-training book so much in my own workout, I consider her my private trainer! Even if you can't make it to the gym, just a few minutes of stretching while you're still in your PJs can make you feel good!

Nice to see you here, Wendy. You are ahead of the game, I think, in that you already are the owner of Joan's expert tips!

I get that feet thing from time to time, too. Somehow I thought my body would never start hurting. Wrong! Ah, aging! I will have to try these stretches. Thanks for suggesting them.

Wow--these are great. Even my feet and ankles are stiff when I wake these days. It's such a sad state of affairs to go hobbling down the hallways to the bathroom.

such a good reminder, wish i'd get into a routine for this. right after my back surgery i was very good about doing all the stretches, many of them listed here. i've slipped a bit on doing these and i'm at a conference right now where there's too much sitting and i need a good stretch -- right now!

This just confirms what my mind and body intuitively know! Stretching must be good for you because it feels so very good and that sustained feeling of wellness stay with me following even a few minutes of a good stretch.

Thanks for this reminder! I wish I could remember to stretch like 20 times a day, but I always forget. I need a little timer on my computer to remind me.

Im going to really try and faithfully stretch everyday, ive never been one to do so but ive been feeling so stiiff lately, so this guiee is very helpful

The clarity of these stretching techniques are such a great motivation. They enable me to actually do something at home since as I have not exercised in several years. Now I can do something at home for my sagging skin and muscle tone and that is very encouraging - (It's difficult to walk with bad knees, but feel I need to be stronger in better shape before committing to any surgery.)
Thank you so much for this information and all the posted comments were also very encouraging. It's good to know I'm not alone since reluctantly becoming "a senior".
(This is the 1st time I have ever "blogged"? or sent a comment)-thanks for indulging me-sorry, I know this is too long.


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