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Stretching: The truth

It’s easy to do, whether you’re 19 or 92. It keeps you vibrant and energetic, relieves stress and even protects you from injury. You can do it sitting, standing or lying down. And it only takes a few minutes each day. It’s stretching.

Simply stretching the muscles that cross your joints and attach to your bones helps you maintain your range of motion. It also reduces muscle tension, stiffness and soreness and speeds recovery from injuries.

If you want to become more flexible and enjoy freedom of movement well into your later years, follow these guidelines:

Getting started

  • Choose a time of day that fits your schedule. For example, you might stretch while talking on the phone.
  • Do the same stretching sequence at the same time each day. It will help make your routine a habit, much like brushing your teeth before bedtime.
  • Keep a record of your activities and reward yourself for following through.

Safe-stretching guidelines

  • Wear loose-fitting clothes.
  • Don’t stretch a “cold” muscle. Instead, warm up with arm circles and a brisk walk or jog.
  • Don’t overdo it. If you’re a beginner, hold a stretch for only seven to 10 seconds, then release. Over time, increase to 10 to 30 seconds.
  • Relax as you pull. Don’t tense up or bounce. (Bouncing tears muscle tissue and leads to soreness.)
  • Never lock your knees, elbows or other joints as you stretch, and continue to breathe normally while holding the stretch.
  • Stretch both sides of your body and alternate different muscle groups. Repeat each stretch three to five times.
  • Realize that your flexibility may vary from day to day. Stretch to feel good—not to compete.

The basics: a routine to suit most bodies

Warm up. Briskly walk or march in place for five minutes to warm muscles.

Arm stretches. Cross your right arm in front of your body. With your left arm, gently pull your right biceps toward your chest. (Don’t pull on your elbow joint.) Repeat on the opposite side.

Arm circles. While marching in place or walking, lift arms straight out to the side. Circle your arms in small tight circles. Reverse direction. Repeat with larger circles.

Shoulder rolls. Lift and rotate your shoulders forward in a complete circle; reverse direction. Repeat entire sequence several times.

Shoulder shrug. Lift your shoulders toward your ears. Hold. Relax and repeat.

Bear hug. Wrap your arms around your body and squeeze. Repeat.

Neck (half-circle) rotations. Tilt your right ear toward your right shoulder; slowly drop your chin forward to make a half circle that ends with your left ear tilted toward your left shoulder. Drop chin forward again and rotate back to right side. Repeat. (Note: Never tilt your head backward.)

Calf stretches. Throughout these three exercises, keep your torso upright and the toes of both feet pointed directly forward.

  • Step back with your left leg, so that your right knee is bent and directly above your right ankle. (Don’t bend your knee past your ankle.) Press down through your left heel and stretch the back of your left leg. Hold.
  • Keeping feet and right leg in place, slightly bend your left knee. Hold.
  • Bend your left leg and lift the toes of your right foot toward the ceiling, keeping your right heel on the floor. (This will shift your body weight behind you.) Hold. Repeat all three leg stretches on opposite side.

Side stretch. Lift your right arm overhead and lean slightly from the waist toward your left side, keeping your right arm next to your ear. Stretch toward the ceiling. Don’t twist your spine. Repeat on the left.

Leg cross. Seated with your right leg extended, cross your left foot over your right leg. Gently pull your left calf in toward right side of your chest. Repeat on the opposite side.