If you love the feel of a good first-thing-in-the-morning stretch, consider the pleasures and benefits of a whole series of stretches added to your daily routine.
You may not have realized that the casual morning stretching that feels so good is actually good for your joints, but doctors and physical therapists have long recommended regular stretching routines to help people with arthritis maintain a good range of motion. When range of motion is lessened by tightening soft tissue surrounding the joint, it can hinder your ability to accomplish day-to-day activities, such as tying your shoes or brushing your hair. The effects of this loss can be devastating to your self-esteem and independence.
But you can improve your range of motion and take back your life by finding time each day to stretch. Stretching is a simple and effective way to keep joints and muscles flexible. A regular stretching routine helps ward off the inevitable joint tightness associated with some forms of arthritis. It’s also valuable for releasing muscle tension and reducing your overall stress level. A good stretching regimen can make a difference in how well you perform everyday activities.
USE IT OR LOSE IT
Although doctors only recently started touting the benefits of aerobic exercise and strength training for people with arthritis, they have always recommended range-of-motion exercises. But exercising with arthritis is not a one-size-fits-all activity. While stretching can help joints and muscles move with ease, it isn't always for everybody. Those in the extreme chronic phase of arthritis, characterized by significant joint deterioration, may find little benefit from stretching. And those in the acute phase of the condition will need to wait until the inflammation subsides before starting a stretching routine. But if you're not experiencing either of these phases, you more than likely will benefit from regular stretching.
As always, before you begin any exercise program, you should check with your doctor or physical therapist to determine which stretches are best for you. Seek guidance on the frequency and intensity recommended. Make sure you understand exactly how to do the stretch, how long to hold each one, how many repetitions you should do and how frequently you should do the series.
Because stretching exercises require no special equipment -- and no cash outlay -- you can begin any time and easily fit the exercises into your schedule. Some people like to stretch as soon as they get up to help get them going in the morning. Others prefer an afternoon stretch to release tension and stress from a long work day. Still others wait until just before bedtime in the hopes of getting a more restful sleep.
Once you have your doctor's OK, you will need to develop a routine that works for you. Start off slowly with some basic moves, illustrated below, and see how they feel to you. Remember, the goal is to gently move and stretch different muscle groups. Everyone, with or without arthritis, has a different "normal" range of motion. It’s important to maintain good posture while you’re stretching even if it means you can't do the whole stretch. Remember to do only what you feel comfortable doing. If any of the stretches is painful, don't do it. It’s possible to overstretch. If you’re experiencing laxity in any of your joints, don’t stretch them.
Exercising just two or three times a week can produce positive results, but many people find that doing a simple stretching routine every day helps them better manage daily tasks.
A physical therapist can help you develop other exercises that address your particular needs, but here we've provided some basic stretches to get you going.
Stretching can be done on its own or as a warm-up for more intense exercise. If your joints are particularly stiff, warm them for a few minutes with a heating pad or take a warm shower before exercising. Start by doing each stretch one to five times, depending on your comfort level. You should expect to feel some resistance, but not pain.
Hold each stretch for 10 to 20 seconds, then relax. Take a short rest between each set of stretches, then repeat the stretch. Slow down or add stretches, depending on how you feel. Remember, breathing is important whenever you exercise. Concentrate on taking deep, regular breaths while stretching. When you inhale, imagine the cleansing oxygen circulating through the muscle group you're stretching and cooling your inflamed joints. When you exhale, imagine you are expelling inflammation, pain and tension from your body.
THE HEAD-TO-TOE STRETCH
This full-body stretch is a good place to begin because it uses every joint and muscle from your toes to the tips of your fingers. Lie face up on the floor or bed with your arms and legs together. Extend your arms and legs as far as you can in either direction, with your toes pointed and your palms facing the ceiling. Tilt your pelvis so your lower back is touching the floor and tuck in your chin. This will gently extend the curve of your back.
Take several deep breaths. Imagine someone is gently pulling your body in opposite directions, and feel your joints loosen. Hold for 10 to 20 seconds, then relax. Repeat five times.
Variation: Stand on tiptoe and reach with your arms for the ceiling.
Cautions: It’s important to keep your lower back flat on the floor during this stretch to prevent injury. Be careful to bend your knees and slowly roll to one side when getting up. Use extra caution with this exercise if you have ankylosing spondylitis, osteoporosis or any other disease affecting the spine.
You probably use your calf muscles more than you realize. Whenever you walk, climb stairs, reach for something on a high shelf, or get out of bed, you depend on these muscles to hold you up. Regular stretching of these muscles keeps them flexible and helps you maintain your balance and sure-footedness. Face a wall (about two to three feet away) with your toes pointed inward slightly and place your palms against the wall. Keeping your knees straight and your feet flat, lean forward onto your hands without bending at the waist. Feel your calf muscles pull and extend. Hold this position for 10 seconds, then gently push away from the wall. Repeat. Variation: If your hands or wrists are sore, lean your forearms, instead of your hands, against the wall.
This stretch will loosen tight back muscles and improve your flexibility and balance.
Fold your arms in front of your body, forearm to forearm. Gently twist your body at the waist, so you are looking over your right shoulder. Hold this position for 3 seconds. Return to your original position, then twist in the opposite direction, looking over your left shoulder. Again, hold this position for 3 seconds. Return to the original position and repeat the entire sequence.
Variations: You can do this stretch while standing up or sitting on a bed or a chair.
Cautions: While this is a good stretch for the back and spine, it may not be suitable if you have chronic back pain or osteoporosis.
UPPER BODY STRETCH
This stretch eases tension as it helps you to hold your shoulders square and to improve your posture.
Stand with your back straight and your feet together. With both hands, grasp the opposite ends of a bath towel and hold the towel behind your head. Hold for 10 seconds. Feel your chest muscles, shoulders and upper arms stretch and expand. Relax, then repeat.
Variation: If you can't hold the towel behind your head, hold it in front of you or behind your bottom and move the towel from side to side.
Cautions: Don’t do this stretch if you experience shoulder pain due to arthritis.
Your feet have a tough job. They are often crammed into ill-fitting shoes yet still carry you everywhere you want to go. Taking the time to stretch these hard-working and often-forgotten joints and muscles feels better than you know.
Sit in a comfortable chair with your right foot off the floor. Point your toes as far as you can without pain, feeling the stretch along the top of your foot. Slowly turn your foot to point your toes inward, stretching the muscles along the outside of your foot. Next, flex your foot, moving your toes back toward your shin, feeling the stretch in the sole of your foot. Finally, turn your foot outward, stretching the inside muscles. Repeat these moves using your left foot.
Cautions: Don't point your toes too intensely and do this exercise slowly to avoid cramping. If you cramp easily, don't do this exercise.
LOWER BACK STRETCH
When your lower back muscles hurt, the pain can make it hard to get out of bed -- much less tackle daily tasks. This stretch will unkink these critical muscles.
Sit on a stool or a chair with a high seat. Gently drop your chest to your lap, letting your arms and head dangle toward the floor. Hold this position for 10 to 20 seconds. Sit up slowly, then repeat.
Variation: Kneel on a padded surface and place your hands on the floor. Straighten your elbows without locking them and keep your back straight. Slowly arch your back and hold for 10 to 20 seconds. Or, lie on a bed with your arms by your sides and your legs together. Slowly bring your knees to your chest. Hold for 10 to 20 seconds. Slowly return your legs to the bed, then repeat.
Cautions: Don't do this exercise if you’re experiencing low back pain that increases when you stretch.