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7 stretches to improve flexibility and reduce aches and pains

Stiff, sore muscles? These simple exercises can help.
A low lunge into a hamstring stretch targets the hamstring and the back of the knee.
A low lunge into a hamstring stretch targets the hamstring and the back of the knee.Stephanie Mansour

Improving flexibility helps with circulation, reduces aches and pains, and leads to better mobility during day-to-day activities. As we get older, our bodies fall into habitual patterns. Think about your default positions during everyday activities: Many of us sleep, sit on the couch, and work in front of the computer in the same position — we even carry bags on one shoulder or arm instead of the other. Over time, the wear and tear of these repetitive movements can cause our muscles to hold tension and shorten.

Similarly, if you exercise and don’t stretch, your body gets used to contracting and moving in specific ways without increasing mobility. For example, if you always walk forward, you’re using your quads and hips. What about walking backwards? Many of us don’t. Therefore, the muscles that we use get tight and the muscles that we don’t use lose mobility.

That's why it’s important to improve flexibility and stretch our muscles, loosen up our joints, and become mobile in a variety of planes and positions. Over time, this will improve range of motion and reduce your risk of injury.

As a yoga instructor, I encourage my clients to add flexibility work to their routine on a regular basis. You can do all of these exercises together as a circuit or sprinkle them in throughout the day to combat tight muscles and improve flexibility over time.

Low lunge exercise

Low lunge

Start in a plank position. Lower the knees to the ground and bring your right foot forward between your hands. Stay low and place your hands on the floor on either side of your right foot. You will feel the stretch in your hips and your left quad. Hold for 10 seconds and then switch sides. From plank position, lower the right knee to the mat and step your left foot between the hands. Hold the position for 10 seconds. 

Low lunge into hamstring stretch

Low lunge into hamstring stretch

From the low-lunge position, gently shift back on to the left knee with the right leg still extended. Straighten the right leg so that you feel a stretch behind the right leg and knee. Hold for 10 seconds, and then switch sides.

 

Cat and cow stretch

Cat and cow

Start on all fours. Your hands should be directly below the shoulders and knees directly under the hips. As you breathe in, arch the back and look up, pressing your tailbone to the ceiling. As you breathe out, press the spine and lower back to the ceiling to round the back and lower your neck, looking down toward the ground. Repeat for 10 “cats” and 10 “cows.”

Downward facing dog

Downward facing dog

Start in a plank position with your shoulders over your wrists. Pull your naval in toward your spine and reach your butt up toward the ceiling. Form a “V” with your body with your heels reaching down toward the ground. (It’s OK if they are off of the ground.) Press down through your toes and your fingers to stretch the legs and the underarms. Bend one knee and then the other knee. Hold the stretch for five breaths.

Lying spinal twist stretch

Lying spinal twist

Lie down on your back with your arms extended at your sides in a “T” position and your legs bent in table-top position. Twist your legs over to the right, allowing the legs to fall toward the ground or rest on the ground. Look to the left and hold for three breaths. Switch sides.

Figure four stretch

Figure four

Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Rotate your left leg outward, placing your left ankle on top of your right thigh. Bring your right knee in toward your upper body. Gently pull your right thigh closer to your chest for a deeper stretch and hold for 30 seconds before switching to the other side.

Standing side stretch

Standing side stretch

Standing with your feet together, lift your right arm straight up into the air. Keep your left arm at your side or on your hip. Bend at the waist toward your left so that you feel a stretch in the right side of your waist. Return to the starting position and repeat on the other side.

Try these other stretch routines:

5 stretches that will loosen the hips and prevent back pain