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15 Minute Challenge: Focus on Flexibility

Posted by Valerie Henderson on May 15th 2020

Fifteen minutes is a short amount of time that can go a long way. Ray Charles wrote “What’d I Say” on the spot in only 12 minutes when he had time to kill at the end of a 1958 gig. And Felix Baumgartner’s skydive to Earth from a helium balloon suspended in space? Under 10 minutes from launch to landing.

We’re not suggesting you compete with a 17-time Grammy winner or an Austrian skydiver. Instead, we’d like to encourage you to do something just as important by giving a little bit of love back to someone who gives so much to others—yourself.

This is the first article in a new weekly series where we explore simple activities that will help you relax, recharge, renew, or all three, in 15 minutes or less. The good news about our first activity? You’re doing it right now.

As a caregiver, you’re used to stretching a dollar and stretching your patience, but what about stretching your body? It’s easy to get so wrapped up in the demands of caring for someone else that you forget to care for yourself. In an effort to help you do just that, we’ve created a new weekly series where we explore activities that will help you relax, recharge, and renew in 15 minutes or less.

The "what"

Many people think of stretching as something people do before and after running or other forms of exercise. But even non-athletes need daily stretches to maintain mobility and increase flexibility.

If you’re like us, you probably consider stretching as optional, especially when you’re pressed for time. When we do cardio, we almost always stretch first, but often forget to stretch afterwards. When we go for a brisk walk, we rarely stretch before or after. And on a no-exercise day? Fuhgeddaboudit. It just doesn’t seem important when so many other things demand our time, right?

In reality, there’s no excuse for not stretching. Stretching can be done anywhere, anytime. Watching Netflix, cooking dinner, or simply brushing your teeth? Even one minute of stretching can improve posture, increase circulation, relieve stress, and lower your risk of injury.

The "why"

Stretching pays off on even the most sedentary days. Tired? Stretch. Sore? Stretch. Anxious? You get it. Here are our five favorite stretching benefits:

  1. Enjoy a no-caffeine jolt. When you hit the 3pm slump and consider reaching for another cup of coffee, think again. Even a few minutes of stretching will amp up blood flow to your brain and body, helping you escape feelings of lethargy. Best of all, stretching won’t keep you up until midnight like a pot of Folgers will.
  2. Be an upright citizen. Stretching helps keep hip, chest, and back muscles from getting tight, which can lead to poor posture, aches, and pains. The majority of Americans spend a significant portion of each day in a seated position while gazing at a computer or phone, leading to a drooping neck and rounded shoulders. If we have bad posture in our upper back, our lower back tends to compensate. Same goes for our hamstrings and hip flexors. The resulting discomfort can be relieved by stretching our hamstrings, pectoralis, and upper trapezius, among other muscle groups.
  3. Finally master the splits. In all seriousness, even the simplest stretches can counteract the range of motion our joints naturally lose as we age. Mild stretching won't turn you into an Olympic gymnast, but after a few months or even weeks of consistent stretching, you’ll find yourself able to bend lower, lunge further, and reach higher than you have in the past.
  4. Make your workout work for you. Flexibility training is one of the most important ingredients in an effective workout. Before starting, do some dynamic (active) stretches to increase flexibility and warm up your body, then rely on static (no movement) stretches for your cool-down. Both are important, but stretching before physical activity is key for preventing injury, because it brings blood flow to muscles and decreases tightness, which can cause tears and strains.
  5. Chill out. Feeling a little wound up? Wind down with stretches designed to relax tense muscles and promote a peaceful mindset. Stretching allows you to increase blood flow throughout your body, release tension, and hit the reset button when you’re feeling overwhelmed. For an even more relaxing outcome, combine stress-busting stretches with the breathing exercises we focused on in last week’s challenge.

The "how"

First things first: Warm up. “But wait,” you might be thinking. ”Isn’t stretching a warm-up itself?” The simple answer is that even your warm-up needs a warm-up, because stretching muscles when they're cold increases your risk of pulled muscles. Gently pump your arms or march your legs for 30 seconds before beginning your stretching practice.

Next, choose the part of your body that needs stretching the most if you have a limited window, or go for a full-body stretch if time permits. We love VeryWell’s full-body stretch video, which can be done after a workout or as a standalone activity. The entire series can be completed at once, or you can learn the stretches independently so you can focus on specific muscle groups as needed. All of the stretches can be done using a chair, yoga ball, or exercise bench. Want to focus on your back? There are great videos for lower back stretches as well as upper back stretches.

A few things to remember. First, breathe. Don’t focus so much on your form that you end up holding your breath. Second, as a rule, don’t bounce unless the stretch specifically calls for it. Bouncing can cause microtears in the muscle, which turn into scar tissue that further tightens the muscle and leads to reduced flexibility and increased discomfort.

And finally, make sure your stretching is pain-free. It’s okay for a stretch to be mildly uncomfortable, but if you feel actual pain, back off a bit. Flexibility takes time, but the long-term physical and emotional benefits are well worth the effort!

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