By David Blyweiss, M.D., Advanced Natural Wellness
April 13, 2022
The first thing a cat or dog does when it wakes up is stretch. It gets their blood flowing and muscles moving again after they’ve been inactive. But the veterinarian didn’t tell them to do it. They do it naturally and it feels good.
Even though stretching also feels good for humans, we seem to think we only need to do it before and after exercise. Or during rehabilitation for an injury. We aren’t like the cat and the dog. We don’t stretch “just because we can.”
But that’s a big problem, because we lose a lot of range and flexibility as we age.
For example, there’s a test called Flexitest that measures flexibility and range of motion. When this test was used on 6,000 people of all ages, it was found that shoulder flexibility scores decreased more than 60% between 28 and 85 years of age. So that’s a huge loss in range of motion.
And if you add on a loss of hip and trunk flexibility… well, it’s a recipe for disaster that could increase your risk of falling as you get older.
When you stretch, muscle spindles called stretch receptors are activated. These receptors are sensitive to the change of muscle length, and you can train them to allow greater lengthening of the muscles. When it gets used to its new length, muscle signaling is reduced. That’s why we always hold a stretch for several seconds. It allows this lengthening reaction to happen.
Stretching also increases blood flow to that area. So it increases the supply of oxygen and nutrients in muscle and cartilage. At the same time, you’re getting rid of extra lactic acid. This, in turn, helps decrease pain and soreness in the area you stretch.
And that extra blood flow is great news for your cardiovascular health. It helps to improve endothelial function, reduce arterial stiffness and lower blood pressure.
Head to Toe Stretches for Everyone
Stretching is a very low impact way of helping relieve any kind of joint or muscle pain… arthritis, tendonitis, sciatica or just plain old everyday aches and stiffness. At the same time, regular stretching improves flexibility and range of motion so that you develop better posture, balance and coordination.
There are all kinds of ways to stretch. The key, however, is not to focus on a single area of the body. It’s not going to do you much good if you’ve got great flexibility in your lower legs, and very little flexibility in your trunk. That will just make you less balanced. Plus, you want to stretch out some of those aches and pains in your back, neck and shoulders.
Here are some wonderful stretches that can help you gain flexibility all over. Just remember, people have different fitness and mobility levels, so you should consult your doctor before starting.
- Sit straight with shoulders back and bring your chin down to your chest as far as is comfortable. Place your hands on the back of your head and apply a gentle pressure. Hold 30-60 seconds.
- Continue sitting straight, but in step two, tilt your head backward so you’re looking up at the ceiling. Hold 30-60 seconds
- Next, keep your shoulders straight and tilt your head to the right. Make sure you keep your shoulders straight. Place your right hand on the side of your head and apply a gentle pressure. Hold for 30-60 seconds.
- Perform previous, tilting your head to the left.
Sit or stand with your shoulders back. Extend your arms in front of you and interlace your fingers. Your arms should be parallel to the floor. Turn your palms so they are facing away from you. With fingers interlocked, raise your arms up above your head. Hold for 30-60 seconds.
Note: You can deepen this stretch to include your trunk by leaning your upper body briefly to the left, then briefly to the right several times during the pose.
Upper Back Stretch
Stand tall with your arms down. Pull your shoulders back and interlace your fingers behind your buttocks. Push your interlocked hands away from your buttocks while gently arching backward. Repeat several times.
Lower Back and Hip Stretch
Lie on a flat surface, with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Place both hands on your left knee and pull it toward your chest. Hold for a count of 20. Return to starting position and perform the stretch on your right leg. Repeat for a set of 10 stretches for each leg.
Note: You can increase the tension of this stretch by starting out with both legs straight on the floor, and bending only one knee at a time for the chest pull.
Stand with your arms crossed over your chest (think of I Dream of Jeannie). Twist to the left as far as is comfortable. Try to keep your hips stationary and rotate the trunk only. Hold for 30 seconds. Repeat the stretch on the other side.
Stand upright with your feet shoulder-width apart. Slightly bend your knees and place your hands on your hips. Rotate your hips clockwise, as if you were using a hoola-hoop (remember those?). Circle your hips 10 to 20 times, then repeat counter-clockwise.
Upper Leg and Knee Stretch
Stand in front of a table or sturdy chair. Place your right hand on the table and bend your right knee, bringing your heel toward your buttocks. Reach for the ankle with your left (opposite) hand. Hold the stretch for 20 to 30 seconds. Release and repeat with your other leg. Stretch each leg two to five times.
Lower Leg and Heel Stretch
Stand about 12 inches away from a wall. Place your hands on the wall and extend one leg behind you, both feet flat on the floor. Bend your front knee as you lean into the wall, keeping the rear knee straight. Hold for 30 seconds. Repeat with the other leg.
Heel, Toe and Foot Stretch
Stand in front of a table or sturdy chair for support and balance. Slowly raise your heels, then slowly lower them. Repeat 10 times.
If you work better with a more structured stretching program, all Hatha and Japanese yoga programs include stretching as part of the principles of mind and body coordination. I’m sure if you Google it, you’ll find all kinds of Youtube videos you can follow.
I also like something they do in Japan. It’s called Rajio Taiso. It’s a short exercise routine that nearly all Japanese participate in, sometimes several times a day. It includes a lot of great stretch movements that are good for people of all ages.
Medeiros HB, de Araújo DS, de Araújo CG. Age-related mobility loss is joint-specific: an analysis from 6,000 Flexitest results. Age (Dordr). 2013;35(6):2399-2407.
Kruse NT, Scheuermann BW. Cardiovascular Responses to Skeletal Muscle Stretching: “Stretching” the Truth or a New Exercise Paradigm for Cardiovascular Medicine? Sports Med. 2017 Dec;47(12):2507-2520.
Nishiwaki M, Yonemura H, Kurobe K, Matsumoto N. Four weeks of regular static stretching reduces arterial stiffness in middle-aged men. Springerplus. 2015;4:555. Published 2015 Sep 25.