When I was a kid, stretching always felt like a mildly inconvenient waste of time. Every team practice or game started with us gathering in a circle and stretching our major muscle groups while counting out loud together. It felt more like a ritual than a physical necessity.

Fast forward to today, when a good stretch can feel practically euphoric. There’s almost nothing I look forward to more than that moment in the evening when I can slide between the sheets of my bed and “starfish,” spreading my limbs out as far as I can in the shape of an X, and holding that pose until the day’s stress melts away.

Why You Should Take the Time to Stretch

As it turns out, stretching is an extremely beneficial practice, even if you aren’t participating in youth sports. It helps loosen your muscles, which over time will help you maintain (or even increase) your range of motion. As you age, having a good range of motion becomes increasingly important because it can help prevent falls and thus lower your risk of injuries such as sprains or strains. Regular stretching can also help to reduce pain from chronic conditions like osteoarthritis, tension headaches and lower back pain. Certain stretches can also correct your posture (something we all need in this era of “text neck”) and boost circulation, which can benefit your overall heart health.

Stretching has also been shown to increase serotonin levels — i.e., the hormone that helps stabilize our mood, reduces stress and overall makes us feel good — which in turn can lower depression and anxiety. 

So whether you’re stretching to help your muscles recover from a workout at the gym, greeting every day with a Sun Salutation, or simply “starfishing” in your bed at night, the bottom line is that stretching is far from a waste of time.

How to Maximize Your Stretching Benefits

According to Harvard Health, you need to stretch your muscles regularly to reap any lasting benefits. Stretching once a day would be best, but you can expect lasting improvement in your flexibility if you can find the time to do a stretch routine two or three times a week. This could entail a series of static stretches (where you hold a still position for a certain amount of time) or more dynamic stretches like those found in flow yoga. Some studies suggest that it’s better to do dynamic stretches (active movements that provide a stretch) before a workout, and then static stretches as a cooldown activity afterward.

Whatever kind of stretching you’re drawn to, there are a few basic guidelines: 

  1. You shouldn’t feel pain when stretching; at most, your muscles may initially feel mildly uncomfortable and then “warm up” as your routine progresses. 
  2. For optimal results, you should spend a total of 60 seconds on each stretching exercise. (So, for example, if you can hold a particular static stretch for 15 seconds, you should try to repeat it three more times.)
  3. Stretching doesn’t have to be tedious — you can reap the benefits from just five to 10 minutes every day.

Recommended Daily Stretches

As with any new fitness regimen, it’s a good idea to check with your medical provider first, to make sure there aren’t any specific moves to avoid. Here are some of the most commonly recommended stretches to get you started.

  • Neck roll: Stand up straight with feet shoulder-width apart, and keep your arms loose at your sides. Gently roll your head clockwise for one rotation over the course of about 7 seconds. Rest, then roll your head counterclockwise in the same motion. Repeat three times.
  • Shoulder roll: Stand up straight with your arms loose at your sides. Without bending your arms, slowly raise your shoulders and roll them back in a circular motion. Roll them backward five times, and then reverse the movement, rolling them forward. Repeat three times.

    Senior performing behind-head tricep stretch
    Image by iStockphoto.com/AaronAmat
  • Behind-head Tricep Stretch: This can be done either sitting or standing. Extend your left arm straight upward, with your elbow close to the side of your head. Bend your left elbow so that your left hand drops behind to touch the back of your neck. Using your right hand, hold your left upper arm behind the elbow and gently press down, pushing your left hand further down your back. Hold for 10 seconds, then rest for 5 seconds before repeating with the opposite arm. 
  • Standing Hip Rotation: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and place your hands on your hips. Slowly move your hips forward, then rotate them clockwise for three rotations. (Try not to feel silly.) Bring your hips back to the center, and then repeat the movement counterclockwise.
  • Standing Hamstring Stretch: Stand up straight. Keeping your right foot flat on the ground, bend your right knee slightly and extend your left leg forward. Flex the left foot, with the heel on the ground and your toes facing upward. Place your hands on your right thigh and lean slightly forward. Hold for 20 seconds, then rest for 10. Repeat with the other leg. Repeat the whole sequence three times.
  • Quadriceps Stretch: Stand upright. For balance, hold onto a solid structure like a railing or wall with your right hand. Keep the right leg straight with your foot flat on the ground and bend your left knee, bringing the foot up behind. Take the foot with your left hand and gently press it toward your bum, keeping the hips and knees in line. Hold for 30 seconds. Rest, then repeat with the other leg. 
  • Ankle Roll: Stand with your left foot flat on the ground and your right heel raised, so that you feel your weight in your toes. Keeping the toes on the ground, roll your right foot clockwise for 10 rotations, then repeat counterclockwise. Switch to your left foot and repeat.

Places to Discover More Stretches Online

Top image by Robert Kneschke, via Canva.com

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