Stiffness can hamper both regular daily activities and attempts at exercising. The best way to decrease stiffness is to stretch properly. While many people have been taught that stretching should precede exercise, that’s not so.
“The most important thing is to do stretches when the muscles are warm,” says Jackie Shahar, manager of the exercise physiology department at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston. “That will most likely happen after someone has done some aerobic activity or resistance training.”
Don’t try to stretch immediately after getting out of bed or after sitting still for a while, because your muscles will be cold. A few minutes of walking with your arms pumping will do the trick to warm them up. Then stop to stretch before continuing your walk or whatever activity you have planned. You can also perform stretches at the end of your workout if you prefer.
While stretching, don’t bounce, bob, or jerk. Slowly and gently move into a position that puts gentle pressure on the muscle and hold the position for 20 seconds. Then relax and repeat; you may be able to stretch a little farther the second time, but don’t force it. Stretch each muscle group or whatever body parts feel like they need to be stretched.
If your calves habitually cramp, try a stretch that Shahar recommends: Lean your palms against a wall at shoulder height with one leg under you and one leg extended behind you. Bend the “front” leg. Keep your “back” heel flat on the floor. Bend your elbows so that your nose gets closer to the wall. Hold the position for 20 seconds and then switch legs and repeat.
For the lower back, Shahar advises lying on your back on a bed or on the floor with your knees bent. Slowly and gently lower both knees to one side, twisting at your waist. Hold the position for 20 seconds, then lower your knees to the other side.
If your quadriceps (thigh muscles) are tight, try another move from Shahar: Place one hand on the wall, and bend the knee of opposite leg so that you can grasp your ankle behind you with the other hand. Gently pull your heel toward your buttock. You can also perform this stretch using a chair back (or seat, if you are shorter) as a support for the foot that’s behind you.
Banishing aches and pains
If chronic aches and pains are robbing you of your ability to perform daily activities, a couple of strategies can help you stay active.
“Warm muscles are happy muscles,” says Shahar. “They feel better. Use a heating pack for 10 to 15 minutes. Put a towel or sheet between the skin and the heating pack.” You may be able to improve your performance by using a heating pack before a workout.
Choosing your exercises strategically can also help.
“Identify those ‘safe’ exercises that reduce the risk of joint pain and the chance for discomfort during and after exercise,” Shahar says. She recommends a recumbent stationery bike, aquatic exercise to decrease weight and pressure on the joints, and resistance training.
“Exercises that help increase the strength of the muscles around the joint will decrease joint pain,” she says. “If the knees feel weak and wobbly with exercises and have pain, exercises to strengthen the quads and hamstrings will help, not trigger more pain.”
If you lose flexibility, you lose the complete range of motion in your joints. To increase your flexibility for everyday movements, incorporate stretching and strengthening exercises that mimic activities you find difficult. For example, if bending at the waist to pick up a pencil from the floor is hard, try exercises that work the hamstrings, such as slowly reaching for your toes while seated on the ground with your legs extended. Hold for several seconds, relax, and then repeat. Practicing yoga or tai chi is also a good way to maintain, and often increase, your flexibility.