by Briana Masson, Pilates instructor and professional dancer.
We are told over and over by doctors, friends and the media that exercise will make us healthier, stronger and help us to live longer. We feel guilty if we can’t make it to the gym three times a week or that pilates class that will enlighten our lives. Our exercise regime can often cause more stress by the worry it creates “can I fit in that three mile run?” or “do I have time to go to the gym?” What we forget is stretching and simple movements such as breathing can offer instant relief. Breathing alone allows fresh oxygen to rejuvenate and relieve the body of toxins. Pilates and yoga are so popular because they combine these ideas beautifully.
The best thing about stretching is that it can be done anywhere even when you only have five minutes. The benefits of stretching are better posture, increased flexibility, improved circulation and enhanced coordination resulting in a reduced risk of injury. By stretching the muscles, the joints are able to move freely bringing fresh blood into the area of tension. Freedom in the joints also aids in better balance. With great posture, aches and pains are at a minimum. As Joseph Pilates said, if you are stiff at age 30 then you are old, if you are supple and strong then you are young.
The truth is that stress and fatigue wreak havoc on our bodies. We hold tension in our neck and shoulders from our daily routines: working at the computer, holding the phone improperly, lifting and lugging bags and kids. Our backs hurt from sitting all day with poor posture and awful chairs. We never allow ourselves a moment to take a deep breath and calm the mind and relax the body. By giving oneself just a few moments to focus on breath and stretch, the stress will ease as the body loosens.
The following exercises can be done at work while sitting and /or standing. Remember you should never feel pain and never bounce in the stretch. Try to hold the stretch for at least 30 seconds and relax and breathe. It is always better to warm the body before stretching; so try to take a brisk walk or climb up and down stairs.
9 EASY STRETCHES — Make sure to breathe with each movement!!!!!
- SEATED FORWARD BEND- Sitting on the edge of a chair, relax the arms and slowly tuck the chin to the chest and round the body forward over the legs. This allows the back to stretch and open up through each vertebrae. While bent over take several breaths and slowly roll back to sitting visualizing that each building block of your back stacks on top of each other. Repeat 3x.
- NECK ROLL- Gently circle the head one direction noticing tightness in the neck muscles. Take care when the chin is lifting to the ceiling; make sure not to crunch the vertebrae. Circle each direction 5x.
- NECK & UPPER BACK STRETCH- Lace the fingers together and place the hands behind the head with the elbows wide out to the sides. First extend the chest up to the ceiling as if your heart is being pulled with a puppet string. Then bring the elbows together and let the weight of the arms pull just the upper body forward into a slight bend. Do not pull with the arms, allow the natural weight to stretch the neck. Hold this position as long as you can and slowly bring the head back up to vertical. Repeat 3x.
- SHOULDER ROLL- Bring your shoulders up to your ears and circle backwards all the way down and up again. Try to make the biggest circle possible, loosening up the shoulder joint. Repeat 5x each direction.
- FIGURE 4 STRETCH- While seated cross on ankle over the opposite knee creating a diamond shape in between your legs. In this position sitting as tall as you can lean forward with a flat back and hold. The stretch should be in the butt and hamstring of the leg that is crossed. Keep your back straight for as long as you can and then allow your body to round forward. Stop the exercise if you feel pain in your knee. Hold each side for at least 1 minute.
- STANDING ROLLDOWN- Standing with the feet directly under your hip bones and the feet pointing straight ahead, slowly tuck the chin to the chest and round forward one vertebrae at a time stretching the back and hamstrings. Once you are hanging forward allow the knees to slightly bend and relax your arms, neck and shoulders. This is quite a big stretch for the back and legs. Slowly come back to standing, imagining your spine getting longer and taller. Repeat 3x.
- CHEST STRETCH- Standing in a door frame or along a wall, place an arm onto the wall or door frame reaching towards the ceiling. Keep the elbow at shoulder height creating a 90 degree angle with the arm. In this position turn the body away from the arm to feel a stretch across the chest and shoulder. Hold for 30 seconds and alternate sides. Repeat 3x.
- CALF STRETCHES- Standing near a wall for balance, place one foot behind the other stretching the back heel into the floor. The front knee will bend according to the stretch on the back leg. Step the legs farther apart if the stretch is not great enough. Hold for 30 seconds and alternate sides. Repeat 3x. Variation~ bend the back knee for a different stretch. If you are wearing heels please take them off!!!!
- SIDE STRETCHES- Standing with the feet a little wider than hip width, allow the body to bend over to one side. Feel the stretch down the entire side of the body opening the ribcage. Slowly come back up to stand and side bend the opposite direction. Repeat 3x each direction. Circle the body from one side, forward and then to the opposite side and repeat. Reverse the direction and repeat 3x.
After this series of stretches the body should feel alive and the joints should feel loose and oiled. Feel free to repeat these exercises as many times a day as possible. Enjoy the results and release of stress throughout the body!