5 min read//
Take a quick second and lift your arms high above your head. That felt pretty good, right?
For most of us, feeling at least some stress at some point during the day is probably inevitable — whether it’s thanks to too many emails in your inbox, too many appointments on your calendar, too many at-home chores to keep up with, or a problem you have to deal with, like a clogged sink or an illness or injury.
And what ultimately helps us keep stress under control isn’t necessarily eliminating all of those potential stressors that might come up (because that’s probably not possible); it’s a matter of having the right tools and skills to manage it so it doesn’t overwhelm you. Stretching is just one of a number of tools you can use to manage stress.
One of the reasons stretching is so effective for stress is that our (generally) more sedentary lifestyles promote stiffness, which exacerbates that stress in the first place, explains Jessica Matthews, an assistant professor of kinesiology and creator of the Master of Kinesiology in Integrative Wellness program at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, and the author of Stretching to Stay Young. “Restriction in range of motion caused by tight, stiff muscles not only negatively affects how you move when exercising and when going about everyday activities, but it also negatively affects how you feel physically and mentally,” Matthews says.
Stretching is also an accessible way to unwind and destress during or after a busy day, says Matthews, who is also a yoga instructor certified by Yoga Alliance, the world’s largest nonprofit yoga association that certifies teachers and schools. Stress in your muscles manifests as tightness — and when you relax those muscles, you can tap into your body’s ability to release mental stress, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
“Stretching and movement provide proper circulation, increase oxygen, and release tension in your muscles,” says Kelsey Decker, a personal trainer certified by the National Strength and Conditioning Association and manager of training for StretchLab in Orange County, California.
Together, all of these effects help you simmer down, she says. Increasing circulation relaxes muscles, sending mood-elevating blood flow to the brain. A higher oxygen level (a result of breathing deeply through stretches) slows your heart rate and blood pressure. And finally, letting go of the physical tension of a stretch (when you leave the posture) sends the message to your brain to relax.
When performing stretches, Matthews recommends holding each for 15 to 30 seconds; repeat each stretch two to four times, per guidelines from the American College of Sports Medicine. Stretch to the point of feeling tightness or slight discomfort, but not pain. Matthews suggests taking a total of five slow, controlled breaths when holding each repetition of a stretch, which should be about 15 seconds.
Note: If you experience tingling, numbness, or pain when you try any of the following stretches, or any illness or injury prevents you from doing them safely, skip them or ask your doctor for an appropriate modification.
Here are seven stretches that help your body and mind relax — and help relieve your stress or anxiety:
1 Child’s Pose
Your lower back is a prime place for the body to hold tension, Decker says. Stretches like this one, which elongates the back, release low back tightness and stiffness. The yoga pose can also promote healthy sleep, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
How to Do It : Kneel on the floor. Bring your feet together and open your knees to create a V shape. Sit back, keeping your butt on or reaching toward your heels, and walk your hands in front of you so that your chest lowers to the ground. Breathe deeply through your diaphragm. Add cushioning (such as a pillow) under your lower body if you’re having discomfort with kneeling. You can also limit how far you move your head and chest toward the floor to make the pose easier.
2 Seated Spinal Twist
A spinal twist combines a deep breath with a twisting motion, like wringing the stress out of your spine as you would wring water out of a wet towel. “You can easily perform this right in your chair at work for a much-needed break during a busy workday,” says Matthews.
How to Do It : Sit toward the edge of your chair with your feet flat on the floor. To begin the pose, it’s best to fully extend both arms straight above your head and then go into the twisting motion. Place your right hand at the back of the seat, by the backrest, and place your left hand on your right thigh. Inhale, lengthen your spine, then exhale and rotate your torso to the right, gazing over your right shoulder. Repeat on the other side.
3 Happy Baby
The benefit of this stretch is that it will help open your hips, which is a common reason for a tight back. “We create poor body positions every day from sitting too long,” says Decker. Yoga stretches like these may also be used to help alleviate chronic back pain, according to the Mayo Clinic.
How to Do It: Lying on your back, lift your knees toward your chest. Grab the bottoms of each foot with your hands and pull your knees toward your chest and armpits. If you can’t reach your feet, just grab your lower legs.
4 Lying Glute Stretch
This stretch is good for putting some movement into your lower back, especially if you’ve been sitting still. You will have to get up and find a spot to lie down. (Remember, taking a brief break from whatever you’re doing can help relieve stress, too, Decker says.) What’s more, the stretch releases tight hamstrings. “It helps externally rotate the hip and provide a stretch to the outer glutes to target the lower back,” Decker explains.
How to Do It : Lie on your back and bend your knees so your feet are flat on the floor. Cross your right foot to your left knee, keeping your left leg bent, to create a figure four. Bring your hands behind your right knee and pull both legs toward your chest. Repeat on the other side. If you can’t reach the back of your knee, wrap a towel around your leg to pull it forward.
5 Wide-Legged Forward Fold With Chest Expansion
This stretch targets your upper and lower body, says Matthews, making it a perfect do-it-all move. It’s especially great for tight hamstrings (common in walkers and runners), as well as tight chest and shoulder muscles (common if you often sit at a desk typing), she says.
How to Do It : Stand with your feet 3 to 4 feet apart. Softly bend your knees. Hold one end of a small towel in one hand with your palm facing behind you, then reach your opposite hand back to grab the other end of the towel. Inhale and roll your shoulders back and down. Exhale and slowly fold forward (focus on hinging at your hips). Move your arms forward to draw your knuckles toward the ceiling (and downward toward the floor if you can). For more stability, keep your hands at your hips as you bend forward.
6 Chest Opener Stretch
This is a great at-your-desk stretch when you need a quick release. “This stretch promotes proper posture and releases tension through your chest to maximize oxygen and circulation,” Ducker explains.
How to Do It : Clasp your hands behind your back, squeeze your upper shoulder blades toward each other behind you, and push out through your chest. Keep your core straight, and avoid overextending your back.
Reacting to stress by tensing up your neck and scalp muscles can trigger a tension headache, according to MedlinePlus. To keep healthy flexion in your neck and let go of tightness, Decker recommends this simple and effective neck stretch, which targets the muscles in the back of your neck.
How to Do It : Bring your chin to your chest and rotate your chin toward an armpit. If you need more of a stretch, Decker suggests placing your hand on the back of your head and pushing your head closer to your armpit. Repeat, rotating your chin to the other armpit. Be mindful not to elevate your shoulders, keeping them relaxed throughout the stretch.