If a full day of work, errands, working out, and completing countless other to-dos has you feeling generally stiff and achy, consider trying these soothing stretching exercises. Whether it’s tension in your feet, tightness in your low back or hips, or just a general feeling of stiffness, stretching your hip flexors, shoulders, neck, and hips can be the perfect way to unwind.
Stretching is one of the best (and most often overlooked) practices for your body because it can help improve flexibility, an essential component of physical fitness. Flexibility can help increase your range of motion, improve your posture, reduce your chance of injury, and yes, it can be mentally and physically relaxing.
Whether you’re stretching for better flexibility or simply to relieve general tightness throughout your body, you don’t need to get into one (uncomfortable) position and then hold it for several minutes.
“I always recommend holding stretches for a few seconds at a time and doing them as a set of repetitions rather than one long hold,” says Jeff Brannigan, MS, program director at Stretch*d, a stretching studio in New York City.
Muscles work in pairs throughout your body. One muscle (referred to as the agonist), contracts to facilitate a movement while the opposing muscle (called the antagonist), relaxes and allows that movement to happen, Brannigan explains. This concept is called reciprocal inhibition. “By applying this principle to active stretching, you can lengthen the muscle in a very safe and natural way,” Brannigan says.
Static stretching—holding still in a single pose while taking some deep breaths—can feel good for some, but for others it might be boring or even risky, especially if a person is forcing the stretch. And a sharp or uncomfortable feeling is the exact opposite of what we want when it comes to soothing stretching exercises. Bottom line: If you’d rather move around a bit while you stretch, don’t feel the need to hold still for more than a few seconds at a time.
Likewise, there’s not necessarily one right way to breathe while stretching either.
“Play with [breathing through your] nose or mouth. See what feels best. What will help slow down the heart rate is [breathing] in through the nose, out through the mouth—but do what feels best,” says Jo Murdock, a 200-hour EYT and 300-hour certified yoga teacher, dancer, and fitness instructor. Murdock adds that while following a strict breathing pattern isn’t required, inhaling and exhaling comfortably should be a priority while stretching. You may find that you can relax deeper into a stretch upon an exhale—but again, it’s important to not push yourself.
And though we hate to add yet another item to your already stacked agenda, it’s best if you can make a little time for stretching your lower body and upper-body each day.
“Stretching should be as routine as brushing your teeth,” Murdock says. “Even if it’s five or 10 minutes daily.” Murdock jokes that if you “don’t use it, you lose it,” and that cliché is absolutely true when it comes to flexibility and keeping your muscles loose. So whether you’re using these as post-workout stretches or carving out some time at the end of a long day, know that a simple stretching habit can be an excellent self-care practice.
Of course, as with all exercise, consult your doctor first (particularly if you have chronic pain or a specific injury history), and always stop if you feel sharp pain. With that in mind, here are a few stretches Murdock and Brannigan suggest that are almost guaranteed to help ease you into a calm and relaxed evening.