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Woman in a yellow shirt and yellow headscarf with a man in a white polo stretching by the water

Flex for Success: How Simple Stretches Improve Flexibility

Simple stretches improve your flexibility and can help you control stress.

By Jeanne O’Brien Coffey

Have you ever watched a cat snoozing in the sun? Before Fluffy gets up— before she even opens her eyes—you’ll probably see her reaching her paws up over her head and arching her back in a deep stretch. It turns out we could all take a cue from Fluffy: Stretch more to feel better. 

“A regular stretching routine is even more important as we age,” says Sharlyn Green, national trainer for SilverSneakers, the leading community fitness program for seniors. 

Stretching can improve our flexibility which, in turn, provides plenty of benefits. Green explains that greater flexibility can lower your risk for falls. It also improves our breathing, reduces posture problems, and often decreases back pain. 

Plus, stretching is easy to fit into your days. “You can stretch during commercials while watching TV or as you cook dinner,” Green suggests. Just like a cat, you can even stretch before you open your eyes in the morning. Green likes to start the day in bed with a knee-to-chest exercise.

So try a few simple stretches throughout the day. And don’t be discouraged if you feel a little stiff when you get started. Chronic arthritis and a sedentary lifestyle may make stretching a little uncomfortable at the start. Keep with it, urges Sophia Chang, MD, MPH, internist, and Chief Clinical Informatics Officer at Clover Health. 

“When people have chronic arthritis, it gets more difficult to move. But movement can ease the pain of arthritis,” she says. 

That’s not to say you should push through the pain. 

“Always listen to your body,” Dr. Chang says. “If you’re not in the habit of stretching, you’ll need to learn what your body feels like when it’s being stretched. But you never want to feel pain. If your body is telling you something hurts, don’t go there.” 

Once you settle into a routine, you might even find that stretching it out improves your mental health as well, Green says. 

“When we experience stress in our lives, our muscles can tense up and cause headaches, back and neck pain, and tension throughout the body,” she explains. “Even simple stretches can reduce overall muscle tension and help us manage stress.” 

As with any new fitness plan, you should talk with your doctor first.

Get Started with These Stretching Techniques:

Extend, reach, flex, and release your way to greater flexibility and stability with these moves. 

Supine Knee-to-Chest Stretch

Illustration of a man doing a supine knee to chest stretchLie with your legs straight. If that’s uncomfortable, bend both knees, and rest your feet on the floor or bed. Keep your upper body flat. 

Lift your right knee toward your chest as far as it’s comfortable. Gently grasp the back of your thigh to draw your leg closer to your chest. 

Hold for 10 to 30 seconds. Release, switch legs, and repeat. 

Ankle and Wrist Mobility

Illustration of a man sitting on a chair doing ankle and wrist mobility stretchesKeeping your ankles flexible can improve your walking style, which prevents trips. Stretching your hands increases your range of motion, which helps you do daily tasks like opening jars and gripping door handles with less pain and stiffness. This quick combo is a great way to stretch two areas at the same time. 

Sit tall in a sturdy chair. Gently raise your right knee up to lift your foot from the floor. Then, raise your left wrist up and trace a word, like “Clover,” in the air with your left hand and right foot. Repeat with your left foot and right hand. 

Side Stretch 

Illustration of a woman sitting on a chair doing a side stretchSit tall in a sturdy chair. Inhale and stretch your arms up and over your head, then release both arms beside you as you exhale. Hold onto the bottom of your chair and grow taller through the crown of your head, allowing your shoulder blades to relax down your back. 

Next, hold the chair with your right hand, then extend your left arm up and gently bend toward the right side of the room. You should feel the stretch all along the left side of your body. 

If you feel comfortable, try using your left shoulder to lift your arm toward the sky for a deeper stretch. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds, then release your left arm to rest beside you. 

Next, repeat on the right side of your body. 

For more of a challenge, do this stretch as you stand and interlace your fingers. 

Chest Expansion 

Illustration of a woman sitting on a chair doing a chest expansion stretchSitting tall in a chair, raise both arms up. Then release them down. Walk your hands toward the back of the chair. Bring your shoulder blades down and open your chest forward. 

Take your time to lengthen your inhalations and exhalations. On your next breathe out, wrap your shoulder blades even more around your spine to open your chest and feel a deeper expansion. 

You should feel this stretch in your shoulders and across your chest. 

Hamstring Stretch 

Illustration of a man with his leg extended on a stool doing a a hamstring stretchPlace your right heel on a stool or bench. Keep your leg straight and toes pointing up. 

Without rounding your lower back, gently hinge forward from your hips until you feel a comfortable stretch. 

Hold for 10 to 30 seconds. Release, switch legs, and repeat. 

You can also perform this stretch seated in a chair, resting your heel on the floor in front of you. 

Cat-Cow Stretch 

Illustration of a woman on her hands and knee doing a cat-cow stretchStart on all fours with your hands below shoulders and knees below hips. Gently round your back up toward the ceiling (like a cat) while tucking your chin into your neck. 

Then reverse the movement by arching your back (think of a cow) while lifting your hips and head. 

Slowly alternate between positions for 10 to 30 seconds. You can modify this stretch to do it while seated or standing. 

Are you a Clover Health member starting your fitness journey? Learn more about your supplemental fitness benefits here

This article was originally published in the Spring 2022 issue of Clover Living magazine. Want to see more articles like this? Subscribe to Clover Living magazine for free (if you aren’t already subscribed) here.

 

This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Sophia Chang.

Published on 4/12/22

Illustrations by Michal Bednarski