As a general rule, we sit too much. As a consequence, we carry too much weight, feel draggy, and get sore in various parts of our bodies. Engaging in an activity out of the ordinary can result in muscle soreness for days afterward.
Working at a desk job is particularly hazardous, as muscles spend a lot of time in a contracted position and our posture tends to slump. This puts undue stress on the back, shoulders, and neck. More active work requires constant mindfulness of body position and proper movement to avoid injury.
Taking over-the-counter pain meds or (even worse) pharmaceuticals may relieve immediate pain but they are certainly not a long-term solution. Standing desks help to break the tendency to sit all day.
Simple stretching exercises performed throughout the day can help to promote blood and lymph flow and improve muscle tone and digestion.
Regardless of your activity level, don’t forget to stretch. A 2012 meta-analysis reported some of the benefits of stretching:
- increased joint range of movement
- increased muscle extensibility
- increased muscle flexibility
- muscle power
- improved jumping and running performance
- spine mobility
- reduced muscle stiffness
- pain reduction.
The study’s authors recommend:
“For a general fitness program, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends static stretching for most individuals that is preceded by an active warm-up, at least 2 to 3 days per week. Each stretch should be held 15-30 seconds and repeated 2 to 4 times…Older adults may need longer stretch times than the recommended 15 to 30 seconds.” (1)
Dos and Don’ts of Stretching
What, how, and when you stretch depends on your objective. First, a few definitions.
Static stretching – a stretch in a position where you feel a slight pull and hold for 15-30 seconds. (2)
Dynamic stretching – a stretch performed using movement (not held) to increase mobility. (3)
Passive stretching – the muscle is at rest while stretching. Examples: using a resistance band to lengthen your calves and hamstrings while sitting or a physical therapist manipulating your arm.
Active stretching – holding a focused stretched position with the opposing muscle group; muscles work to hold the position. Example: using the quadriceps to stretch the hamstrings. (4)
- Stretch after a work-out. Doing so will reduce the risk of soreness afterward. (5)
- Hold stretches for 20-30 seconds each.
- Regularly stretch chronically tight areas to loosen muscle, improve flexibility, and avoid pain. Common problem areas are the neck, back, pelvis, hamstrings, and calves.
- Warm up before stretching; just 5 minutes of brisk walking, jumping jacks, jumping rope, or use of an exercise machine will ready muscles for stretching and prevent injury.
- To gain muscle flexibility, engage in static stretching, such as the exercises described below. (6)
- Stretches should be controlled and performed slowly to engage the entire range of motion.
- Maintain good posture throughout the exercise.
Stretching is exercise unto itself. As with any exercise (especially a new one), keep in mind what you DON’T want to do as part of your regimen:
- Don’t bounce or go through your stretches fast-this increases the risk for injury.
- Don’t stretch painful or injured muscles; you can exacerbate whatever is causing the pain.
- If your object is to build muscle strength or you’re preparing to engage in a sport, don’t perform static stretching beforehand; doing so has been shown detrimental to these activities. Dynamic stretching is preferred. (7)
In her book Age-Defying Fitness, physical therapy professor Marilyn Moffat of New York University recommends the following stretches to relieve and avoid muscle pain. If any of these cause pain or discomfort, stop the stretch.