Effective Stretching Exercises You Can Do at Home

In the holiday hubbub of overeating, spending money you don't have and nursing champagne headaches as big as a bodybuilder's biceps, fitness tends to be the first thing to go.

And if you do carve out 15 frantic minutes to exercise, it's all about stair-stepping till your buns burn, waiting on weights and crunching till the cows come home.

As for stretching -- say what? Who needs it?

We all do, especially at this time of year. Stretching is a no- cost, fast-acting stress-reliever that improves blood flow, prevents muscle stiffness and can re-energize the tensest mall-crawler or fuzziest party animal.

But lots of people never do it, and that includes the fittest among us. Flexibility is a primary component of overall fitness, along with aerobic capacity and strength. But as hard as it is to get some people to work out, it's even harder to get anybody to stretch.

I spent many futile years in ballet class where stretching was refined into a torture worthy of the Spanish Inquisition (no one expects the Spanish Inquisition!). I was always in so much pain -- either from the rigors of the moves or the humiliation of trying to do them -- that I never stopped to think about the therapeutic benefit of those long hours of excruciating stretches.

But now that I have stopped to think about it, I realize that stretching's "therapeutic" value shouldn't include ending up in therapy. If stretching hurts your body or your self-esteem, you're doing it wrong. Stretching should be smooth and effortless, and it should soothe your battered psyche.

I also have learned that there are two flavors of stretching: static, which means holding a position without moving: and dynamic, which involves moving while you stretch.

Canadian sports physiologist Ian Shrier analyzed a bunch of studies about stretching and found that static stretching right before exercise can reduce athletic performance, but an ongoing program of static stretching improved it.

If you have time to stretch only once during a workout, do it afterward. And even if you don't exercise regularly, a regular stretching routine -- shoot for three 15-minute sessions a week -- can improve your mental and physical well-being.

Stretched muscles hold less tension and relax more easily, which makes you feel more relaxed.

The stretches I'm including here incorporate elements of ballet, yoga and Pilates. Good sources for more of the same include Denise Austin's Sculpt Your Body With Balls and Bands, Jennifer DeLuca's Pilates for Wimps, Robin Forward-Wise's Hot Bod Fusion and Paula Carino's Yoga to Go.

Now to the exercises. I use a fitball, a chair and the floor, but most of them can be done using any one of these. Remember not to bounce, and hold the stretch for 20 to 30 seconds or until all the tension is gone from the muscle.

Relax as much as you can before you begin to get the most from your stretch.

Try the "Corpse Pose," or Savasana:

  • Lie on your back. Gently roll your head from side to side a few times, then center it. Tuck your chin slightly toward your chest to lengthen your neck.

  • Turn your palms face up. Allow your legs to relax to hip-width apart or more. Flatten your shoulder blades on the floor.

  • Close your eyes and observe your breath. Scan your body for areas of tension, and either release it or accept it. Allow your mind to stay focused and alert.

  • If your back hurts, place a rolled-up blanket or cushion under your knees, or put your feet on the floor, knees bent and relaxing in toward each other. To relieve eyestrain, cover your eyes with a folded washcloth.

    Go back to the Savasana for a few breaths between exercises and at the end of your session for relaxation-plus.

    Good news

    Because you're going to hold these stretches for 20 to 30 seconds (or until the tension is gone from the muscle you're stretching), do these just one time each.

    Your body's range of motion will determine where you hold your stretch, and don't be discouraged if you can't stretch as deeply as you'd like right away.

    Keep at it -- flexibility shows improvement quickly. Warm up by doing a few minutes of any kind of cardio -- running in place, jumping jacks, using a step -- before you try these exercises.

    Basics

    Stretches to improve flexibility should focus on your body's major muscle groups: calf, thigh, hip, lower back, neck and shoulder.

  • Warm up first. Stretching cold muscles increases your risk of injuries. Walk while gently pumping your arms, or do a favorite exercise at low intensity for 5 minutes.

  • Hold each stretch for at least 30 seconds, or until you feel all the tension release from the muscle you're working. It takes time to lengthen tissues safely. Hold your stretches for up to a minute for a really tight muscle or problem area. That can seem like a long time, so keep an eye on the clock to make sure you're holding your stretches long enough.

  • Don't bounce. It can cause small muscle tears that can lead to even tighter, more painful muscles later.

  • It shouldn't hurt. If you feel pain as you stretch, you've gone too far. Hold the stretch at a pain-free point.

  • Remember to breathe.

    Ready? It's time to ease into the home stretch!

    Hamstring stretch

    Stretches: backs of thighs

    How to: Sit on the ball with your legs apart and toes pointing up. Exhale as you bend from the hips and slide your hands down your legs to the floor. Don't round -- keep your back long and flat. Breathe normally and hold for up to 30 seconds.

    Keep your back flat as you exhale and walk your hands to one foot, shifting your body over that leg. Hold position for up to 30 seconds, breathing normally. Exhale as you walk your hands to the other foot and bring your body over that leg. Hold for up to 30 seconds. Return to center position and inhale as you rise.

    Variation: The same exercise can be done seated on the floor.

    Child's pose

    Stretches: back

    How to: Start on all fours. Push back with your hands and bring your rear to your heels. Keep your forehead on the mat and round your spine. Extend your arms above your head or relax them at your sides. Breathe normally for 30 seconds.

    Variation: Do this with arms extended and hands on the ball. Or sit on a chair with a pillow on your lap. Relax forward, resting your forehead on the pillow and letting your arms hang at your sides.

    Ball hug

    Stretches: upper back, shoulders, spine

    How to: Stand and drape your arms over the top of the ball to hold it against your body. Inhale as you tighten your abs and lengthen your spine. Exhale as you bring your chin to your chest and round over the ball. Knees should be soft. Breathe normally as you hold for 30 seconds.

    Spine stretch

    Stretches: back, shoulders, abs

    How to: Stand with your feet together. Bend from the hips and put your hands on top of the ball. Inhale and roll the ball forward, lengthening your spine. Exhale as you bring the ball toward your legs, dropping your chin to your chest and rounding your back, abs tight. Think about pulling your belly button to your spine. Alternate between the positions for 1 minute.

    Side stretch

    Stretches: Abs, chest

    How to: Stand with feet hip-distance apart. Put both hands on the ball and roll it forward as you bend from the hips. Keep one palm on the ball as you raise the other arm to the ceiling, opening your chest and following the arm with your eyes. Keep weight equal on both feet. Hold for 30 seconds, breathing normally.

    Inhale as you return to the starting position. Exhale as you lift the other arm to the ceiling.

    Forward bend

    Stretches: back, shoulders, hamstrings

    How to: Sit tall with your legs together and extended in front of you. Exhale as you bend from the hip and round your upper body over your legs. Reach toward your feet or rest your hands at your sides. Breathe normally for 30 seconds. Inhale as you return to the starting position.

    Variation: If you feel any lower-back discomfort, sit on a pillow as you do this exercise.

    Chair ballet stretches

    Stretches: back, legs, hips, neck

    How to: Place one heel on a chair in front of you. Keep both legs straight. Inhale as you raise your arms overhead. Exhale as you reach out over your leg, grabbing the back of the chair if possible. Inhale and return to a stand. Do this twice with the legs slightly turned out and twice with the legs parallel.

    Now, without taking your foot off the chair, turn your body so the chair is next to you and place your foot flat on the chair seat, knee bent. Inhale and lift your arms to shoulder height. Exhale and bend toward the chair; as you do that, hold the chair back with one hand and bring the other overhead. Inhale as you return to a stand.

    Do this stretch three times. Switch legs and begin with the front stretches.


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