Healthy Body

I Tried Taking Regular Stretch Breaks Throughout the Workday—Here’s the Benefit I Discovered

Photo: Stocksy/Irina Polonina
As a health writer who works from home, I feel pretty acutely aware of how necessary movement is for my body and mind. But that doesn't mean that I stay on top of a routine. Sure, every few hours, I'll yawn and stretch, reaching my arms up to the sky and adding a little neck roll. However, I know this isn’t exactly enough.

So when the chance to add stretch breaks to my daily routine came up in the form of a writing assignment, I jumped at the opportunity for some renewed accountability. For this experiment, I decided I’d do three former episodes of Good Moves from Well+Good throughout the day for one week: a gentle, pre-work Pilates routine; a midday stretch break; and its-4:30-the-day-is-almost-over-and-everything-is-due-right-now yoga flow.

The results were—almost frustratingly so—quite significant. I am quite tall and have a larger chest, which, as Jessica McManus, FAAOMPT, physical therapist, functional medicine health coach, and owner of Full Circle Wellness PT, previously told Well+Good, can result in some neck and shoulder pain when I am hunching forward to write all day. Although I try my best to have a good posture when sitting, I still round my shoulders forward sometimes. Taking these intentional stretch breaks not only relieved muscle tension, they significantly impacted my workday stress levels.

Morning: Gentle Pilates

I started each day of stretches with a simple, eight-minute morning routine so that it didn't feel like I was biting off more than I could chew. Honestly, I have always wanted to be a stretch-in-the-morning person, but I am the amble-to-the-kitchen and scrounge-desperately-for-coffee person. The biggest thing I noticed about starting the day with these stretches was that it was shockingly easy and simple to get in a little bit of physical activity before work.

Sometimes I really fall victim to the perspective that if I am going to exercise, it has to be all or nothing. I've got to be dressed in the right clothes, wake up with two extra hours to spare, and find a fitness class that I have to commute to. And then, because I've set the bar so high, I tend to end up not moving at all. Eight minutes of easy Pilates didn't change much for me body-wise so much as it offered me the chance to realize that movement could fit into my day as easily as the 10 minutes I spend scrolling on my phone before I get out of bed.

Midday: Head, neck, and shoulder stretch

This stretch routine probably impacted me the most physically—and it surprised me the most. Because a lot of pain I have comes from my neck and shoulders, I knew that this would be the stretch routine to incorporate a few hours into my late morning, around 11 am. Boy, was I right. The daily practice of stretching my chest, neck, and shoulders really loosened up a lot of tension I hold in that area. Even after just a week, I have significantly less pain than I did before this experiment, so it looks like neck, chest, and shoulder stretching might be here to stay as far as I am concerned.

Late afternoon: Calming yoga

This workout was a little bit advanced and the habit probably the hardest to stick to. I chose it very intentionally, though: The end of my day can get stressful. It's the time when the clock is ticking, and I need to wrap up assignments. As a result, I can tend to get really in the zone and not move a muscle outside of my fingertips that diligently flutter away and my jaw that vigorously chews gum for concentration.

Every time my 4:30 pm alarm sounded, I had to stop what I was doing and get on the mat for 20 minutes. This was really hard each time. Something about an object in motion staying in motion versus an object at rest really wanting to stay at rest comes to mind.

But the reward was that much greater. Not only did it calm my mind and nerves, my hips were also very grateful for the breadth of lower body stretching that this routine offers. It even helped me file my articles better: After taking those last deep breaths, I was able to come back to whatever piece I'd been working on with a calmer, clearer, more relaxed mind.

What I took away from a week of a stretch breaks

If I had any doubts about how much a stretch break, and broader stretch routine, could clear my mind and recenter my stress levels, they were gone after doing this every day for a week. By Friday, I felt myself mulling over some excitement and regret. I was excited to learn that I actually had a lot of power over my feelings of stress and soreness in my upper body. The regret came in when I realized just how easily I could be incorporating stretching into my days with some determination and planning.

I am honestly not sure how to keep stretching as a regular habit. The act of stretching feels akin to flexibility, honestly—the more I do it, the easier it gets and the the less awkward it feels. However, being with your body on a mat does take some mental and emotional effort that I don’t always want to summon. (This experiment did make me feel exceptionally grateful to work at home, where I can roll out my yoga mat and get some good stretching in whenever I want.) Taking a week to practice this taught me a lot, but I think I need a longer commitment before I really feel like it’s something I will reliably stick to.

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