Better posture, more sleep – even less stress: all it takes is a few simple stretches, says yoga and fitness expert Lexie Williamson, whose straightforward routine promises amazing health benefits.
Can a simple routine of daily stretches really ease tension, give better posture, improve sleep and even boost blood circulation?
‘Everyone can benefit from stretching,’ insists Lexie Williamson, author of The Stretching Bible. She is evangelical about the power of stretching, from future-proofing your mobility to combating stress.
While the CrossFitters and runners among us stretch to protect ourselves from injuries, for the rest, stretching can help to counter the damage that constantly sitting at desks and hunching over screens does to our body.
‘After just three weeks of regular stretching you can see a noticeable difference in how someone holds themselves, how upright they are and how their head, neck and shoulders sit in relation to each other,’ says Lexie.
In the long term, stretching can help us protect our health as we grow older. Getting to the point where we don’t have enough mobility to dress ourselves or climb the stairs isn’t inevitable. ‘There’s no reason why you can’t have a body that moves as well as it did when you were younger,’ says Lexie, ‘but you have to work at it.’ What’s more, according to a new study from the University of Milan, just 12 weeks of stretching could improve blood flow and widen arteries, suggesting that an ongoing daily stretching practice could help prevent heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular conditions.
The positive mental impact of stretching shouldn’t be underestimated either. We all know that when we’re stressed we have a tendency to clench our teeth and hunch our shoulders. But it’s a two-way street: if we can unclench our jaws and relax the muscles around our shoulders, our heart rate starts to come down and our mind calms. Add in some deep breathing while you stretch and you will double the stress relief.
Stretching can even help with insomnia. ‘Regular pre-bed stretches can be part of a winding-down process and help reduce the stress that may be at the root of the insomnia,’ says Lexie. ‘These stretches can be used both to encourage the onset of sleep and instigate a return to sleep if insomnia strikes in the early hours of the morning.’
inspired to get started? With Lexie’s help, we’ve put together a series of stretches that you can easily fit into your day. They combine different types of stretching – dynamic (where you move) and static (where you hold the stretch). While they can all be done at any time of day, some are best done in the morning to get the blood flowing, while others, especially the more static ones, are more suited to later on in the day when research has shown we’re more flexible.
‘The trick is to do something little and often,’ says Lexie. ‘If you do these three times a week, you should start to see and feel the benefits within three weeks. Aim to hold stretches for 20 to 30 seconds.’
10 simple stretches that will change your life
‘A lot of people have lower back issues which can mean even getting out of bed first thing is difficult. If your mattress is hard enough you can actually start stretching while you’re still in bed,’ says Lexie.
Lie on your back. Bend legs and place your feet flat on the bed (or floor). Stretch arms out wide at shoulder height. Lower knees to the left, towards the floor and relax, while turning your head to face right. Hold for 30 seconds. Repeat on the other side.
Double leg hug
Lie on your back and hug both legs into your abdomen. Rock a little from side to side across your lower back. Hold for 20 seconds.
‘A stiff neck or tight shoulders on waking is a common complaint. These stretches are a good way to get the blood flowing’.
Place your fingertips on to your shoulders and ‘swim’ your arms by making alternate circles with your elbows. Roll your shoulders first forwards, then in a backwards motion. Repeat x 4.
Shoulder blade stretch
Stand with feet hip-distance apart. Take your left arm behind your back and slide your hand up the spine towards the middle of your shoulder blades. Repeat on the other side.
THROUGH THE DAY
‘We spend most of our time in flexion, which means bending forward, whether that’s in a car, at a desk, texting or eating. Over the years that means that muscles in the front of our body can shorten, so we end up with a hunched posture. Extension stretches help to lengthen the muscles at the front of the body – our chest and quads. You can do these while you’re waiting for the kettle to boil’.
Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your hands on your hips. Take a large step back with your left foot and press your back heel down. Bend your left knee a little.
Position your arms so that the upper arm is in line with your upper body, your elbows are at 90 degrees and your palms are turned upwards, as if you were balancing a wide tray, and your shoulders are back, so you’re getting a stretch through the whole of the front body.
Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the other side.
Standing quad stretch
Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Slowly bend your right leg so your heel moves towards your bottom and reach around to hold the foot with your right hand. Your knee should be pointing downward. Hold on to a chair for balance if required. Push your hips forward. Hold for 30 seconds. Repeat on the other side.
‘Your end-of-day stretch sequence should move the body through all planes of motion – backwards, forwards, twisting and side-to-side, which is really what your body wants to be able to do easily’.
Wide-legged forward bend
With feet wide apart, bend forward and reach your hands towards the ground. Feel the stretch in the backs of your legs. At first aim to get your hands level with your knees; as you get more flexible you may be able to get level with your shins, ankles or even the floor. Hold for 30 seconds.
Standing back bend
Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Reach your arms above your head. Continue looking forward or slightly down. Lean back. Push your hips forward. Hold for 30 seconds.
Bend your knees and relax your arms by your sides. Twist your upper body to the right and let your arms swing around. Return to the centre and twist to the left. Relax your arms and turn your head and torso as you rotate. Hold each side for 30 seconds.
Standing side bend
Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Sweep your arms up overhead and interlink your fingers. Then simply lean to the side aiming not to tip forwards or backwards. To go deeper, try clasping the top wrist and bend further sideways. Hold for 30 seconds. Repeat on the other side.
Lexie Williamson’s book Move: Free your Body Through Stretching Movement is published by Bloomsbury, price £14.99*.
Interview: Claire Coleman