Here it is: I never stretch. Sure, I’ll do a few butt kicks and walking lunges before I head out on a run. But you’d sooner spot Paris Hilton wearing a Kirkland-brand sweatshirt than catch me doing 10 minutes of stretching after my miles.
My resistance to stretching is in direct opposition to a healthy movement practice; stretching has so many benefits for flexibility, circulation, wound healing, and more. My stance is also entirely contradictory to what I've preached for others to do after a workout. (I know, I know!)
- Nicholas Mclaughlin, lead flexologist at StretchLab Cherry Hills, an assisted stretching studio
I wasn’t always non-compliant with stretching best practices, though. As a teenager in a competitive ballet academy, I would lay in my splits every night, hoping I could coax my body into being as Gumby-like as the other students. One Christmas I even received a fancy contraption that hung from my door and pulled my leg up to my ear. (Yes, I asked for this as a gift.)
But when I closed the ballet chapter of my life, stretching left center stage, too. I picked up other physical activities—namely running and indoor cycling—but stretching never made its way back into my routine. (I have a number of theories as to why this is. One possibility: I still have flashbacks of my teachers stepping on my back while I lay in my straddle.)
“We're all in front of our computers, or watching TV or driving our cars, and that's putting our bodies in an unhappy position that it wouldn't regularly want to be in. And the body remembers those things.” —Nicholas Mclaughlin, lead flexologist, StretchLab
But recently, my knees began to protest on my long runs, and my back started to ache after every cycling class. These pains forced me to realize that stretching needed to be added back into my fitness routine, ASAP.
Regular stretching isn’t important just for those trying to land a spot at New York City Ballet. It’s a crucial part of a life routine for all folks of all fitness levels that helps keep our muscles strong, mobile, and healthy, says Nicholas Mclaughlin, lead flexologist at StretchLab, a customized assisted stretching studio.
“We're all in front of our computers, or watching TV or driving our cars, and that's putting our bodies in an unhappy position that it wouldn't regularly want to be in,” Mclaughlin says. “And the body remembers those things.”
With this in mind, I decided to incorporate stretching into my daily routine. But, since I didn't necessarily have the sunniest association with stretching—and incorporating an new habit isn't the easiest—I needed a strategy to help me make it fun. That's why I landed on pairing, an idea I picked up from happiness and habit expert Gretchen Rubin’s podcast Happier.
The strategy is simple: Pair a habit that you would like to start doing with a behavior that you already do consistently. Want to read more? Listen to an audiobook while you walk your dog every evening. Trying to tackle that unruly inbox? Sift through as many emails as you can while your coffee brews in the morning. (This practice is also known as habit stacking, and behavioral scientists and mental health experts alike say it can be a really effective way to make a new habit.)
With that in mind, I decided to pair my desired habit of stretching with my already ingrained habit of watching TV. How hard could it be to stretch my hammies while I wondered who got the one-on-one date on the The Golden Bachelor?
As it turns out, trying to make stretching a regular part of your routine isn’t all roses. Here’s what I learned from stretching daily for seven days in a row:
Longer stretching sessions aren't necessarily the best
The first night, I sprawled out on my living room floor while I made a dent in catching up on The Golden Bachelor. I was so excited about my new routine that I spent 15 minutes flowing through a series of stretches from the cooldown section of Whitney Simmons’s Alive app. But on night two of my practice, I was eager to get back to my cozy spot on the couch after just five minutes of stretching.
The good news is, a stretching session doesn't necessarily get more effective the longer you do it. “There's nothing wrong if you need to take five minutes here and five minutes there throughout your day just to get things moving. That's a great benefit to you as well,” Mclaughlin says.
On day three, I settled for a happy medium: getting up to stretch on each commercial break ( see, there are perks to being too cheap to pay for Hulu with no ads).
Stretching shouldn’t be painful
Dancers have a knack for viewing pain as progress, so I’d often prop my foot up on the couch, sink into an over-split and stay there until I was on the verge of tears. No pain, no gain, right?
When it comes to stretching, Mclaughlin says this mantra isn’t doing us any favors. “When the body is hurting, when it's painful for you to be in that position, that's your body's first signal telling you that something's not going right here,” he says. It’s perfectly normal to feel a dull ache while you’re working out your body’s kinks, but if you start to feel sharp, stabbing pain, numbness, or tingling in your limbs, you’ve pushed too far, he says. (Crying is probably a bad sign, too.)
While my TV-and-stretching pairing may not have been forever soulmates, I have settled into a regular routine that gets my body moving when it craves it most.
Be flexible with your timing
To power me through the last few hours of the workday (because that 3 p.m. slump is real!), I grab a fun beverage from my kitchen—usually a second cup of coffee, but sometimes it’s a Sprindrift or a hot cup of tea. When The Golden Bachelor ended and I needed to find a different habit to pair with my stretching, I decided to include a few minutes of bending, lengthening, and twisting with my mid-afternoon ritual. Sometimes I’d only stretch for five minutes, other days 15, but the results were always the same: I returned to my desk with less brain fog, no achy muscles, and more energy to tackle the rest of my to-do list. Some days I even found that I didn’t want or need that second cup of coffee after I spent a few minutes loosening up the muscles that had been stuck in the same position all day. And the effects lingered long after I shut my laptop for the day.
Mclaughlin says spending eight interrupted hours hunched over your computer is a big culprit behind reduced range of motion. He recommends trying out the 30-30 practice: Every 30 minutes, get up from your desk and move your body for 30 seconds. This can be gentle stretching, jumping jacks, or even just taking a stroll around your house.
While my TV-and-stretching pairing may not have been forever soulmates, I have settled into a regular routine that gets my body moving when it craves it most. (And my boss should be pleased to find my productivity soars around 3:15 p.m.) Now I can only hope for The Golden Bachelor season two.
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