Stretching is something everyone should do. It improves flexibility and counteracts stiffness and the effects of the long hours many of us spend sitting. Men in particular can benefit from stretching. It’s generally agreed that men are less flexible than women, but it’s not just because they are less inclined to stretch. Men typically have more muscle, which can make stretching more difficult. Women, on the other hand, in addition to having less muscle mass, have a smaller bone structure, and are thought to have more flexible joints as a result of hormones.
“It’s normal physiology,” said Dr. Mike Bracko, an exercise physiologist in Calgary, Alberta, and a fellow at the American College of Sports Medicine.
Studies show that a majority of working Americans are now in occupations where they are sedentary; and a majority of the workforce is men. In addition to the obvious problems associated with lack of activity — weight gain and poor overall fitness — the physical position we are in throughout the day contributes to tight muscles. Bracko calls these “chronic occupational positions” and recommends a series of stretches that can be done at work or at the gym to counteract them.
“I always think of these in order of the areas that are really chronically shortened,” Bracko said. He recommends this stretching series three times a day. Start with a morning stretch before you get to work. Studies show that people who stretch as part of a pre-work warm-up reduce injury and increase productivity. You can also incorporate these stretches as part of your post-lunch walk, then do them again in the afternoon or evening. “We really want to try to get people to move as much as possible,” Bracko said.
If you’re working at a computer, the front of your body, particularly your chest and shoulders, are likely hunched over for much of the day. To reverse this stretch, stand or sit tall in your chair. Extend both arms straight out to your sides with palms up and thumbs pointing back. Bring both arms back, stretching your chest and the front of your shoulders.
You can do a version of this stretch in a doorway, one arm at a time. Because the doorway is providing resistance, you can get a longer, fuller stretch, extending your range of motion even more. Hold either stretch (or both) for 10 to 20 counts.
An added benefit — stretching your chest and the front of your shoulders causes the muscles of the shoulder blades (scapula) to contract, strengthening them and counteracting your body’s chronic position.
“Not only do you get a stretch, but you also get a bit of a muscle contraction in the muscles on the opposite side of the body. You get a double benefit,” Bracko said.
A common posture at a computer is letting your head slump forward and your chin to fall down to your chest. This shortens all of the muscles on the front of your neck, and stretches the muscles on your back. Holding your head, which is heavy, in this position creates added strain.
To counteract this problem, stick your chin out enough to feel a stretch in the front of your neck. Hold for 10 counts. Be careful not to tilt your head too far back, which puts pressure on the disks in your cervical spine.
In the office, balance yourself by standing next to a wall. Step forward with one leg into a narrow lunge, similar to a cross country ski position. Bend both knees slightly, lowering your hips, and lean back slightly. You’ll feel the stretch in the hip flexor of the leg extended behind you. Hold for 10 to 15 counts. Reverse.
At the gym, do go into a full lunge position. Take a large step forward and lower your hips until both knees are at 90 degree angles, taking care not to extend your front knee past your toes. From the lunge position, push your hips forward and lean back with your body, bringing both arms up and interlocking your fingers overhead. Hold for 10 to 20 counts. Reverse.
“Sitting is really bad for the intervertebral disks, so we want to do something to stand up and get out of that sitting position, and move the lower back,” Bracko said. This range-of-motion exercise loosens up the muscles and the tendons and gets some fluid moving around the intervertebral disks. In the office, stand with your feet hip-distance apart, both knees slightly bent. Bending forward slightly, rest your hands on your knees. Engage your abdominal muscles, drop your head, and round your spine by pushing back. Hold for a few seconds. Reverse the move by tilting your pelvis forward, lifting your head, and arching your spine. (This is a standing version of yoga’s cat-cow, or camel-cat.) At the gym, start on all fours with your hands directly below your shoulders and your knees directly below your hips. Keep your head neutral and alternate rounding and arching your spine. Repeat 10 times.
“You want to go through a full range of motion, but you also want it to be a pain-free range of motion, just to loosen up your back,” Bracko said.
In the office, use a desk drawer or a stationary chair. Find your balance and put one foot on the drawer or chair. Keep both knees slightly bent and maintain a straight back. Lean forward until you feel a stretch in the hamstring of your extended leg. Hold for 10 to 20 counts. Don’t round your back to reach down farther, which isn’t necessary to get a good stretch and also strains your spine.
In the gym this stretch is the classic sit and reach. Sit on the ground, both feet together, both knees straight, your back as straight as possible, and reach forward. Again, avoid rounding your back to reach your toes.
“The fact is that it really doesn’t matter if you can touch your toes. It’s important to keep your back straight so you don’t pinch those disks,” Bracko said.
If he were to add one more stretch, Bracko said it would be for your wrists. Extended one arm straight out with your fingers up. With your other hand gently pull back on your fingers to stretch them and your wrist. Repeat on the other side.
April 17, 2015
Janet O’Dell, RN