The Best Type Of Stretching To Relieve Stress And Anxiety

Exercise has tons of mental health benefits, but sometimes it's hard to do during this coronavirus pandemic. Enter these stretches.

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The world is currently very scary and weird. We’re all acutely aware that exercise can help us get out of a mental funk during the coronavirus pandemic, but sometimes nothing sounds worse than a home workout.

But know this: However much or little you are moving, you are doing just fine. There is no guidebook for coping with this endless bombardment of headlines, bad news, sluggishness and disruption in your routine. You are no less worthy if you’re not exercising.

So how can you reap the mental benefit of exercise when you just can’t fathom working up a sweat? There is one move you can do that requires very little effort ― stretching.

Stretching — not even yoga, just stretching — can be a really simple and successful way to move your body and incrementally improve your mood (plus your body aches) while isolating at home.

“Stretching can keep you balanced,” Kelvin Gary, a fitness expert and founder and head coach at Body Space Fitness, told HuffPost, adding that being inside all day and having to look at a computer screen can negatively affect your physical and mental health.

Stretching, he said, “can help you keep better posture and alignment in your spine. It helps you feel physically better, which, in turn, keeps you from getting into a degraded mental space.”

Your mind and your body are intimately connected; there’s evidence that while the brain is in charge of telling the body how and when to move, the body’s movements can affect the way the brain thinks and feels.

“You can definitely hold emotional stress in your [muscle] tissues,” said Karena Wu, a board-certified clinical specialist in orthopedic physical therapy who practices at ActiveCare Physical Therapy.

Being inside all day and having to look at a computer screen can negatively affect your physical and mental health.
valentinrussanov via Getty Images
Being inside all day and having to look at a computer screen can negatively affect your physical and mental health.

The Best Kind Of Stretch For Your Body And Mind

Wu said static stretches in particular — the kind where you “take a muscle to its end of available motion and hold it there for a prolonged period of time so you can increase the length of the soft tissue” — can alleviate emotional stresses that often manifest in physical pain.

This exercise can also have a calming effect on your mind. “You’re focusing on a stretching activity and on yourself — you’re living in the present, and you’re not thinking about all the other things you have to do,” Wu said.

Gary also emphasized the benefits of these longer-held stretches, adding that they can have meditative effects, even if you’re not meditating in the traditional sense. With static stretches, he said, it’s crucial to breathe continuously, and especially through those points of tension.

“Having the focus on the breath gets your nervous system to chill out and become focused,” Gary said, adding that the process can relax your entire system.

Rather than holding a stretch for 30 seconds, Gary advises his clients to perform five long inhales and exhales while holding the stretch. He suggests slowly counting up to five with every inhale and slowly counting down to one with every exhale.

“This deepens the stretch and works the component of meditation that helps with focus,” he said — the exact type of “present moment” exercise that Wu described.

When you hit an especially tough point in a stretch, the breathing component will also help by relaxing the body even further, Gary added.

Rather than holding a stretch for 30 seconds, perform five long inhales and exhales while holding the stretch.
Willie B. Thomas via Getty Images
Rather than holding a stretch for 30 seconds, perform five long inhales and exhales while holding the stretch.

Put Stretching On The Calendar

Gary, who was formerly in corporate finance, learned the painful effects of a sedentary lifestyle firsthand. When he first committed to moving more throughout his day, he set up calendar reminders for every two hours.

If you’re struggling to get your movements in, he suggests giving scheduling a try. Stretching can be possible no matter how your day looks, especially because you don’t have to break a sweat to reap its benefits.

“You can talk on the phone and still be stretching, you can turn the camera off on Zoom for a second and stretch, too,” he said.

There’s plenty of evidence that taking breaks throughout the day actually improves your productivity and sense of well-being. Making those breaks stretch breaks only increases those benefits.

Other Stretching Exercises To Try

In addition to a static stretch, there are a few other moves you can attempt. Try some of these below — remembering to breathe and be gentle with yourself — and figure out which ones you like best. Soon enough, you’ll see that incorporating just a few of these movements into your day can work wonders.

Scalene Stretch

This neck-relief stretch is especially helpful for anyone who looks at screens all day (read: most of us). “We hold a lot of tension in our head muscles and our neck,” Wu said. This neck side-bend can help relieve much of that, and you don’t even have to leave your desk to perform it.

Pectoralis Major Doorway Stretch

If you’ve got a doorway, you’ve got a stretching studio. Maybe it’s not obvious that your pec muscles need relief. But according to Gary, the tightness in these muscles often results in back and shoulder pain, and this type of stretch can help.

Seated Piriformis Figure 4 Stretch

Another stretch you can do without getting up from your chair, this move helps relieve tension all over. The more you sit, the tighter your hip flexors will be, Wu said, so consider prioritizing this one if you find yourself seated often. You might also try this stretch while lying on your back (here’s a tutorial).

Quad Stretch

Both experts recommend this one as well. You can really do this stretch anywhere; if you’re waiting in line at the grocery store, soothe some of your body’s stiffness, being sure to trade off between sides.

Leg Swings

While this move is more dynamic than static, it can help loosen you up after a day of little movement.

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