Stretching is a crucial aspect of the human condition. Even if you don’t dedicate long blocks of time to really stretching out the body, small micro-movements performed over the course of the day slowly invigorate the body without you even realizing what’s happening.
In other words, much of stretching is involuntary. All sorts of animals stretch, especially after periods of inactivity or rest. It improves mood, increases circulation, and reduces the risk of injury — all things which the body literally does subconsciously.
In this column, we’ll examine the physiology behind stretching, and share a few stretches you can do every day to supplement the natural movements you’re already doing every day.
Why does stretching feel good?
Simple: the body’s hardwired reward system in the brain releases chemicals when muscles are moved and blood is flowed. Much of the process revolves around oxygen.
As you stretch, the blood vessels around the targeted muscle widen to allow more blood to flow through, and your heart starts pumping more blood. This increase in blood flow allows the muscle or muscles that you’re stretching to receive more oxygen and then rid itself of metabolic waste products.
Oxygenated, fresh blood just feels good. Then comes the endorphins.
Endorphins are a buzz word in the fitness community, and for good reason: these brain chemicals produced by your central nervous system and pituitary gland cause a euphoria in the brain greater than the strength of synthetic morphine. The body naturally releases endorphins after useful activities like eating, drinking, having sex, exercise, and even stretching.
Stretching also feels good because of the lifestyle changes it promotes
The more you stretch, the better your blood flows. And the better your blood flows, the better your veins, arteries, and heart perform. Why? Because the heart doesn’t have to work as hard to pump blood through relaxed blood vessels.
There is also research suggesting that simple movement like stretching can activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Giving the mind a focused task that also ends in a reward of endorphins is a great way to calm down. When you enter this calm state of focus, the body can heal and improve itself dramatically, and quickly.
Lastly, stretching promotes good posture, which contributes to all of the same bodily benefits we’ve discussed: improved circulation, better muscle response, and better outlook.
Two simple stretches to do every morning before your shower
Cobra pose — cobra pose can help open up and stretch the muscles of your chest, abs, neck, and shoulders.
To perform this beginner’s yoga pose,
- Lie on your stomach with your hands wedged under your shoulders, armpits tight, and your fingers facing forward (a push-up position)
- Pushing through your hands, lift your upper torso off the ground as you straighten your arms. Tilt your head back at the top of the stretch. This pose is the precursor to ‘upward facing dog.’
- Hold the position with a slight bend in your elbows for 30 to 60 seconds.
Low lunge — this stretch also roots in yoga, but it can be a part of anyone’s daily stretching routine.
To perform the low lunge,
- Step your right foot forward into a 90-degree lunge with your back knee on the ground and your left leg extended. Be sure to keep your right knee over your right foot, upright and strong. Much of your weight will be pushed forward in this stretch, so it’s important to have a strong base.
- Put your hands on the ground next to your foot, like you’re about to start a foot race. You can also put them on your knees if that’s more comfortable. The key here is to feel the stretch in your right hip flexor, left quad, and left calf. When you switch sides, you’ll be able to balance yourself out.
- Take a deep breath and focus on opening your chest and stretching out your spine up and back. The low lunge is the starting point for many yoga poses like twists, warriors, and specific holds. Don’t skip it, and don’t underestimate its importance!