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 Stretch Yourself 
 
The following is one in an ongoing series of columns entitled Simply Well by . View all columns in series
One of the simplest and most effective ways to release tension and energize yourself is to take time out for a good stretch. You can stretch in almost any position, and, in fact, a good stretch before you get out of bed in the morning is a fine way to start the day. Developing the habit of stretching frequently throughout the day will make a big difference in how you feel.
    Stretch yourself, right now.
    Good.
Now take a deep, full breath, and stretch again in a different way than you did the first time.
    Terrific.
Most people claim that stretching feels good. It helps release muscle tension almost immediately, which results in an overall sense of relaxation. As it breaks up energy blockages in the body, stretching allows for better circulation. It improves your range of motion, too. As you ease into a stretch, you literally reach farther. Stretching is also a way to increase self-awareness. Focusing on how different body parts feel when they are being stretched increases your power of concentration and heightens your awareness of internal feedback. With growing self-awareness comes a greater sense of self-control. The more you honor your body, the more you listen to what it wants and needs, the more you will appreciate it. And this just naturally blossoms into greater self-esteem.

When you stretch, don’t make jerky, quick, or bouncing movements. Instead, ease into your stretches in a smooth, relaxed way and hold the stretched posture externally while you internally release the muscles. If you feel any pain, stop. Stretching that causes pain can lead to serious injury if muscle tissues lose elasticity and tear. "No pain, no gain" should be understood metaphorically, not literally, where stretching is concerned. Breathe consciously while stretching and imagine that you are actually breathing into the parts of the body being stretched.

Stretching is the important link between the sedentary life and the active life. It keeps the muscles supple, prepares you for movement, and helps you make the daily transition from inactivity to vigorous activity without undue strain.

Bob Anderson, MD, Stretching

Start Your Day with a Stretch
Choose from among the movements suggested below or develop your own routine for starting your day with a stretch. Each of these stretches can be done in bed.

  1. Lying on your back, with your legs flat on the bed and pointing your toes away from your head, stretch your legs as far as they will go toward the foot of the bed. Ifyou have enough space on your bed, stretch your arms straight back behind your head with fingers pointing away from your feet. Otherwise, stretch your arms out at a ninety-degree angle to your body. Extend your fingers and toes. Hold for ten seconds. Release, flexing your fingers and toes. Repeat two or three times.
  2. Lying on your back, reach for the ceiling. Extend and then flex your fingers. Tense, relax, and shake your arms.
  3. Bring your knees up toward your chest. Grasp them with your arms. In this position, roll to your left, then back to center, then roll to your right and back to center. Repeat as often as is fun. Release your knees. Extend your legs.
  4. Still lying on your back, with your knees bent and your feet flat on the bed, alternately arch your lower back for five seconds then flatten your lower back to the bed again for five seconds. Repeat three or four times, or as feels good.
  5. With your knees bent and your feet flat on the bed, slowly rotate your pelvis clockwise three times, as you keep your knees pointing toward the ceiling. Make small movements. Rotate counterclockwise three times in the same manner.
  6. Bend your knees, placing your feet flat on the bed. Raise your buttocks off the bed. Hold for a count of three. Lower your buttocks back onto bed. Repeat three or four times.
  7. Inhale as you turn your head to the right slowly, lowering your right ear to the bed. Exhale as you return head to center. Repeat, turning your head to the left. Do this three or four times. Relax.
  8. Roll over onto your stomach. Bend your knees and bring the heels of your feet up toward your buttocks. If you are able to, grasp your ankles or heels and pull your heels toward your buttocks. Hold for ten to twenty seconds. Lower your feet to the bed again. Repeat twice.
  9. Still on your stomach, keeping your chest lowered, ease your upper body back until your thighs and knees are under your chest and your buttocks are resting on your lower legs. This kneeling-type pose is sometimes called the Baby Pose in yoga. Reach back and hold your heels or your ankles if you can. Tuck your head down toward your chest. Feel your neck and back stretch with this one. Hold for ten to twenty seconds. Enjoy it. Release.
  10. Let go of your feet. Raise your head and straighten your back, coming to a sitting posture by either sitting back on your legs and feet, or putting your legs over the side of the bed and placing your feet on the floor. Look in the direction of the sunrise. Smile and greet the day. Get out of bed.
The All-Day Stretching Habit
Feeling tense and depleted at the end of a day doesn’t have to be the norm. You can use stretching exercises throughout the day, before and after every activity you perform, as a way of releasing stress and of getting back in touch with yourself.
    * Driving your car today? Stretch before you get behind the wheel. Stretch as you drive. Take a deep breath and stretch your neck, your shoulders, your face. Adjust the position of your back frequently. On long- distance drives, stop every hour or so for a stretch break.
    * Office work? Try isometric contractions as you sit at your desk. Inhale, tighten the muscles in your arms, shrug your shoulders up, extend your elbows, and form a fist. Feel the tension mount from your fingers all the way up to your shoulders. Hold for a few seconds, then release completely. These exercises can be done with your shoulders, back, legs, or your whole body. And they can be done so subtly that nobody around you will know what you’re doing (unless you want to invite them to feel better, too).
    * Use everyday activities as a way of stretching out. Instead of mindlessly reaching for that box on the top shelf, imagine that you are doing a stretching exercise. Take a breath. Move smoothly. Hold the maximum stretch for twenty to thirty seconds. When making your bed, do a series of stretches. You can be creative and have fun, literally making a dance out of everything you do.
Hatha Yoga
The ancient discipline of hatha yoga combines slow movements and stretching postures with breathing exercises. Yoga is never supposed to be a huffing-puffing ordeal, thus making it especially beneficial for the handicapped and the elderly, for anyone who has not exercised in a long time, or for those who suffer from chronic pain. The postures not only stretch the body, they also stimulate the nervous system and endocrine glands; activate circulation, digestion, and elimination; help to balance the energy flow in the right and left sides of the brain, and therefore in the rest of the body; align the vertebrae; and promote a deepened sense of inner peace.

There are yoga exercises for every part of the body, from the eyes to the toes. Try this simple stretch called the Lion Pose, which is designed to relax tension you hold in your face. It feels great and looks silly, so it should make you smile!

The Lion Pose

  1. Inhale.
  2. While you forcefully exhale, open your mouth as wide as you can, stick out your tongue, open your eyes as wide as they will go, and stretch your arms down with fingers stiff and spread apart.
  3. Hold this posture, without breathing, for a few seconds. Notice how your facial muscles feel.
  4. Release the posture. Close your mouth and inhale deeply. Your abdomen should expand as you do so.
  5. Exhale slowly through your nose.
  6. Repeat two more times.
Does your face feel warmer or more energized? Are you more aware of facial muscles that you never knew you had? Did you feel a stretch in other parts of your body as you did that pose with your face?

If you are interested in learning more about hatha yoga, refer to the books on yoga listed in the resources at the end of the book or contact your public library. Yoga classes are often taught at fitness centers.


Reprinted with permission, from Simply Well by John W. Travis, MD, & Regina Sara Ryan. Copyright 2001. Celestial Arts, Berkeley, CA.

The online version of Dr. Travis' Wellness Inventory may be accessed at (www.WellPeople.com). The Wellness Inventory may also be licensed by coaches, health and wellness professionals, and organizations.

      
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 About The Author
John W. Travis, MD, MPH, is the creator of the Wellness Inventory and its parent, the Wellness Index. He is the founder and co-director of ...moreJohn Travis MD, MPH
 
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