How to Stretch On-the-Go

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Illustrations by Shannon Orcutt

Sitting at a desk (or on a plane or in the car) all day can be a huge pain in the, well, everything. But the simple act of stretching can bring along a heap of health benefits, including lowering blood pressure and potentially reducing the risk of heart disease. Going “Gumby” can also mean reduced muscle tension and improved flexibility— talk about an ahhh-ha moment [1]. So stay put, and try these stretches anytime or place.

Make Like Stretch Armstrong — Your Action Plan

Before getting that synovial fluid flowing, channel an over-protective parent and put safety first. When stretching, muscles should feel tight, but never pained. Some evidence suggests holding static stretches for 15 seconds is the best way to improve range of motion, but in order to avoid injury, try not to “bounce” in a stretch (leave the bouncing to Tigger) [2]. With the basics down, we turned to Robynn Europe, a trainer at The Sports Center at Chelsea Piers, for her favorite head-to-toe stretches for tight quarters.

Shoulders

Roll out.Tense those shoulders while hacking away at that keyboard? The result could mean tight shoulders and an increased risk of a rotator cuff injury, Europe says. To loosen up the muscles, roll the shoulders gently forward, up, and back several times, and then reverse the movement, ending with the shoulders down and relaxed.

Now, put that back into it! Reach the right arm across the body, grasping the elbow with left hand. Pull the arm closer to the body and hold. Repeat on the opposite side.

Neck

Protect ya neck. “The neck needs extra TLC because of the posture most of us working desk jobs are prone to,” Europe says. To stretch it out, tuck the chin to the chest and turn it to the left, toward the left armpit. Reach the left arm up and pull downward against the back of the head. Turn the head in the opposite direction and repeat.

Eyes on the road? No problem. Stretch one arm as low as possible (at a stop light, of course!), and sit on that hand. Then, lean the opposite ear toward the shoulder, stretching the side of the neck. Repeat on the opposite side.

Chest

Open sesame. A quick chest stretch could reduce the risk of shoulder injuries and improve shoulder blade movement, research suggests [3]. Europe’s go-to: extend one arm directly to the side with the elbow bent at a 90-degree angle and fingertips pointing up. Brace the front of the forearm and elbow against a hard surface (a wall, a corner, the back of your seat), while pushing the rest of the body forward, rotating the arm back. Repeat with the other arm.

Stuck on a red eye? Scoot forward to the edge of the seat and reach back to grasp the seat belts. Arch the spine and puff that chest forward while turning the eyes skyward (and don’t be alarmed by any admiring glances).

Triceps

Go ahead, pat yourself on the back (with the right hand). Then reach the left arm behind the back from underneath and reach upward until the hands touch. Hook the right and left hands together, Go-Go Gadget style. Switch arms.

Can’t reach? Three whole muscles make up those triceps, so be sure they get the attention they deserve. Begin with the right arm in the same position, then grasp the right elbow with the left hand and pull down and back. Switch arms.

Forearms, Wrists, and Hands

Just say “no” to carpal tunnel. All those hours at the keyboard can lead to the dreaded carpal tunnel syndrome, but frequent stretch breaks may help. Start by extending the right arm straight ahead, elbow straight. Then clasp the right hand with the left, fingers pointing upward. Pull the entire hand toward you, stretching the underside of the forearm. Reverse the stretch by turning fingers downward, palm facing in, and pulling hand toward the body.

Roll with it. Roll the wrists several times in each direction. Then, stretch the finger tendons by pulling back on the fingers. And while “it’s nearly impossible to stretch the muscles on the top of the hand,” Europe says, “the next best thing is tightening the opposing muscles.” In other words, make a clenched fist— just don’t go pointing it at anyone!

Lower Back

Duck and cover. Sit with the feet flat on the floor, shoulder width apart, and lean the upper body all the way forward. Then without lifting the butt from the seat, stretch until the chest reaches the thighs to release that pesky tension in the lower back, (often caused even by the way we sit or stand). For a deeper stretch, spread the legs so the chest can fit between them.

Feeling self-conscious? Europe suggests heading to a private bathroom stall. “Just don't make too many sighs of relief if others are in the restroom.”

Glutes

Don’t be a pain in the… Starting from the same seated position, cross the right leg so the ankle rests on the left knee. Then clasp the hands under the left thigh and pull it toward the chest, stretching the right glute. Feel the burn! Repeat on the opposite side.

And for those tough-to-reach spots! Clasp the hands under right thigh. Pull it toward chest with the back straight to hit that gluteus maximus. Switch legs.

Legs

Lean with it. To stretch the hamstrings, straighten the right leg while seated and lean forward with a straight back (for a slightly deeper stretch, reach forward with the hands, too). Repeat with the left leg.

Get up, stand up. “In order to stretch the quads, you need either hip extension, knee flexion, or ideally both,” Europe says. But since both aren't likely while seated, if the opportunity arises, take a stand. Stretch the quads by standing on one leg and grasping the opposite ankle, pulling it toward the glute.

Ah, push it. Studies suggest stretching the calf muscle may improve the ankle’s range of motion [4]. To hit it right, press the ball of the foot against a wall or furniture leg and lean the rest of the body forward.

Feet and Ankles

Get around. While seated, cross the right leg over left, so the ankle rests on the left knee. Roll the ankle several times and then reverse directions. This stretch might prevent us from suffering Achilles’ fate by stretching his namesake tendon, could reduce risk of injury.

Kick off your Sunday shoes. From a seated or standing position, place the top of the foot against ground and push down. Then reposition the foot slightly so only the tops of the toes are resting on the ground and push the foot directly downward.

Get engaged. Place the ball of the foot on the ground and push the toes down and top of the foot forward, as if standing on the tippy-toes. (Just keep weight on the opposite foot— no need to actually stand on those tired tootsies). Stretches that engage the tendons along the bottom of the foot have been shown to help relieve plantar fasciitis, which can be caused by unsupportive footwear.

To amp up the healing power of stretching, add slow breathing into the mix. It might also help treat anxiety, depression, and post traumatic stress disorder [5]. Feeling all loosened up now? Time to get that nose back to the grindstone, then! (Or go cruise YouTube to watch cute cat videos, we won’t tell.)

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Works Cited

  1. Muscle stretching as an alternative relaxation training procedure. Carlson, C.R., Collins, F.L., Jr, Nitz, A.J., et al. University of Kentucky. Journal of Behavioral Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 1990 Mar;21(1):29-38.
  2. Effect of stretching duration on active and passive range of motion in the lower extremity. Roberts, J.M., Wilson, K. School of Health Sciences, University of Sunderland, United Kingdom. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 1999 Aug;33(4):259-63.
  3. Comparison of three stretches for the pectoralis minor muscle. Borstad, J.D., Ludewig, P.M. Physical Therapy Division, School of Allied Medical Professions, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH. Journal of Shoulder and Elbow Injury, 2006 May-Jun;15(3):324-30.
  4. Does stretching increase ankle dorsiflexion range of motion? A systematic review. Radford, J.A., Burns, J., Buchbinder, R., et al. School of Biomedical and Health Sciences, University of Western Sydney, Campbelltown, Australia. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2006 Oct;40(10):870-5.
  5. Yoga breathing, meditation, and longevity. Brown, R.P., Gerbarg, P.L. Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York, New York. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 2009 Aug;1172:54-62.

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