Fit and Flexible

Boost energy and fight the winter blues by giving your muscles a good stretch.

by Beverly Burmeier

February 2013

If the festive feelings that carried you through the holidays have dissolved into an endless list of cheerless chores, it’s time to get out your exercise duds and stretch away the winter blues.

Shorter days and less sunlight may cause feelings of lethargy or depression; throw in bad weather and you may be tempted to stay on the couch. But experts say it’s possible to exercise yourself into a happier state of mind. Stretching lessens tension and fatigue, makes muscles stronger, and releases endorphins, the natural chemicals that make us feel good.

“I love how stretching makes me feel,” says Winnie Scherer, 49, a marketing professional who lives in Voorheesville, New York. She stretches while watching television or preparing meals to relieve stiffness in her shoulders. “It gives me a mental boost because it irons out physical knots and kinks that most likely trace back to a tense emotional state.”

Being sedentary leads to muscles contracting and become short and weak, which interferes with everyday life. “Everything we do involves stretching such as reaching a high cabinet, putting on a shirt or turning to one side,” notes Robert Gotlin, DO, director of Orthopedics and Sports Rehabilitation at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York.

Five minutes of light walking or low intensity movement will get muscles ready for action. Instead of giving in to the tightness, challenge your range of motion, Gotlin says. “But if you’ve been sedentary during the winter it’s important to start slowly and warm up muscles before exercising.”

“Stretching increases flexibility,” says Elizabeth Gueldner, director of Pilates at The Hills Country Club in Lakeway, Texas. “Let gravity help you stretch, but if muscles resist, back off.” Gotlin concurs: “Pain means your muscles aren’t ready to go where you’re putting them, and that could lead to a muscle or ligament tear.” Both experts agree that the idea is to challenge your muscles without going so far as to cause actual pain.

Gueldner offers these starter moves: Sit on a chair and lift one leg at a time, either straight or bent at the knee, being sure to engage stomach muscles. Lift leg, then point and flex your foot. Improve range of motion by inhaling arms up over your head, then exhaling arms down. Make circles with shoulders, arms, legs, ankles and wrists to get blood circulating, bringing oxygen and nutrients to the joints. As a precaution, Gotlin recommends that people with low back disc problems not do sitting exercises.

Pilates and Yoga Helpful

Yoga and Pilates are mind-body-spirit exercise programs that can help get muscles back in shape while improving focus and energy. Stretches done in each program can ease the transition from the hectic pace of the holidays into something more relaxing.

Writer Lisa Tabachnick Hotta, 42, of Toronto, Canada, uses Pilates and yoga DVDs to combat tight muscles from sitting at her computer for long hours. “Stretching helps to ease the ‘crunch’ in my spine, clear my mind and lighten my mood,” she says.

Gueldner recommends Pilates for decompressing the spine. Exercises that keep the body in motion and the spine long use every muscle group and promote a sense of calm. “Also try deep breathing—inhaling and exhaling through your nose brings in more oxygen to release tension and help you think better,” Gueldner adds.

“Static yoga poses that require stretching, especially opening the chest, will help clear your mind,” says Paul Smith, MEd, Hatha Yoga instructor at Sol Studio in Austin, Texas. Smith offers these stretching tips: Stand and clasp hands behind your back, opening the heart; hold for 10 breaths. Try an easy bridge pose: Lie on your back, bend knees (drawing heels close to buttocks), then lift hips and torso off the floor while inhaling. Lower body on exhale. Repeat four times, then hold body in the up position for as long as eight breaths.

Do It Right

You can stretch anytime or anywhere, but expert-led classes teach you to do it safely and effectively. “When you stretch, don’t bounce,” cautions Gotlin. Bouncing may cause muscle receptors to contract rather than stretch or result in small tears that leave scar tissue and tighten muscles even further. Gotlin recommends slow, sustained stretches held for 20 to 30 seconds and then released gently.

Stretch on alternating sides to prevent unevenness in the body, and don’t forget to breathe because holding your breath could raise blood pressure.

Try these stretches when you’re warmed up sufficiently: Sit on a straight-backed chair and twist, turning legs and back the same direction. Another stretch: Bring arms behind the chair, making sure shoulders are back and down. For a lateral stretch, stand with feet hip-width apart, raise one arm, and let the weight of your hand pull your body to the opposite side. Next put your right hand on the left side of your head for a gentle neck stretch; then alternate.

Stretching with a friend or trainer can help you reach further. A partner pulls slightly but firmly on wrists or arms to increase range of motion or uses her body weight to encourage additional stretching. Be sure to communicate to avoid over-extension. “Everyone is different, so listen to your body,” Gueldner cautions. Stretching should feel good; if it hurts you’ve pushed too far. Stretching won’t prevent an overuse injury, so proceed with caution if you have a chronic condition or feel pain.

The only way your body will operate smoothly, now and in the years to come, is through a consistent program of physical activity. Regular stretching will help ensure that you don’t lose flexibility.

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