Do you love the feeling of a first-thing-in-the-morning stretch? Here’s a bonus: It’s also good for you, especially as you get older.
“Flexibility training is by far the most overlooked aspect of fitness,” says Jessica Matthews, author of Stretching to Stay Young and senior adviser for health and fitness education for the American Council on Exercise. “It’s important to stretch.”
Why is that so? After age 30, you typically lose 5 pounds of muscle mass per decade, especially if you don’t regularly strength train at least two times per week. The loss of muscle goes hand in hand with the loss of flexibility. “As muscle fibers recede, collagen can start to encroach to make your muscles, joints, tendons, ligaments, and cartilage stiffer,” Matthews says.
The good news
Stretching and strength training can derail the process and help you maintain your range of motion. That way you can continue to reach for things on a high shelf or easily get up out of a chair.
When you’re more flexible, your arteries may be, too, and this can help reduce your risk of heart disease. A PLoS ONE study published in November 2014 involving 1,150 people found that men and older women with poor trunk flexibility—demonstrated when they couldn’t reach their toes very far while sitting—had stiffer arteries than those who were more limber. Because this was an observational study, the research cannot prove that stretching will reduce the risk of heart disease.
Still, stretching doesn’t take much time—just 10 minutes a day—to make a difference. But be sure to hold a stretch for at least 15 seconds. “If you focus on taking five slow deep breaths during a stretch, that almost guarantees that you’re holding the stretch for the minimum amount of time needed to reap the benefit,” Matthews says.
Here are two stretches Matthews recommends to get started. You can do them first thing in the morning, after taking a bath or shower when your muscles are warm, or at night, when you’re watching TV.
1. Cat and Cow
Borrowed from yoga, this easy stretch is designed to increase the mobility in your upper back. Starting on your hand and knees in a "tabletop" position on the floor or even on your mattress, inhale and lift your glutes (butt) and chest toward the ceiling, allowing your midsection to bow toward the floor. Then, exhale and come back to a neutral "tabletop" position on your hands and knees. Repeat 10 times.
2. Figure 4 Stretch
This stretch, designed to stretch your hips and glutes, resembles the number 4. Lay on your back flat on the floor and bend one knee. Place your other ankle on the thigh of your bent leg. With both hands, reach through and pull the bent leg toward your chest. After you’ve held the stretch for 15 seconds, switch legs and repeat on the other side.