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Originally Published: Jan 23, 2020

We all know the importance of stretching before and after physical activity.

But did you know that it’s even more important in the wintertime? Cold weather causes our muscles to contract and tighten in order to conserve body heat. This contraction results in stiff joints and a lower range of motion, often leading to injury and pain. Take care of your body this season (and all year long!) by improving your flexibility through healthy stretches and TLC. 

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Tips to Improve Your Flexibility

Ease into it. Rachael Eberle, a group exercise instructor at acac Charlottesville, shares some advice for those looking to improve their flexibility. “Stretching is like wading into water. The best way to stretch is to gradually ease into it—like slowly wading into a body of water, only going as deep as you can while still being able to breathe.”

Don’t underestimate the power of your breath. If you’ve ever taken a yoga class and wondered why your instructor was repeatedly reminding you to inhale and exhale, this is why. Rachael elaborates saying, “When we experience a physical challenge—whether it’s holding a plank or exploring a deep hamstring stretch—our breathing tends to become quick and shallow causing our brains to release cortisol, the stress hormone. Taking deep, slow breaths can help release more oxygen into our bodies, slow our heart rates, and even help our brains release endorphins which combat pain.” 

Find group exercise classes that incorporate stretching. Most classes include a stretching portion at the beginning and end, but there are certain classes that focus heavily on stretching, alignment, and breath work that will aid your flexibility. Rachael recommends BODYFLOW and Hatha: BODYFLOW combines movements from Tai Chi, Pilates, and yoga while Hatha is an alignment-based class that focuses on proper posture and breath. Consult the group exercise schedule at your local acac to find a class near you!

Try foam rolling. You can do this before or after your workout to boost blood circulation, relieve muscle pain, reduce soreness, and improve flexibility. A word to the wise: foam rolling can be a little painful but, as Rachael says, “in a healthy way.” Foam rolling is a type of self-myofascial release that is comparable to a deep tissue massage. Check out our beginner’s guide to foam rolling for more tips.

Stop if you feel pain. “Stretching can be on the edge of discomfort but it should not be painful,” says Rachael. “If you feel your muscles tense up at any step along the way, pause, breathe deeply to calm your body, and proceed only when you feel your muscles relax.”

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Stretches to Help Improve Your Flexibility

For your neck

Sit with both sit bones grounded so the spine is in a neutral position and fingers touch the floor. Lift your right hand to shoulder-height with your palm up, elbow bent, and shoulder blade tucked in towards your spine. Turn your head towards your left shoulder and tuck your chin down towards your armpit. You should feel the stretch through the right side of your neck. Breathe deeply here for 30 seconds and then repeat on the other side.

For your hips

Lie on your back and place your right ankle on your left thigh. Actively flex both feet and draw your left thigh in towards your chest. Let your shoulders relax and breathe here for 30 seconds, then switch sides. 

This stretch can even be done sitting at your desk! Place your right ankle on your left thigh and keep your left foot planted on the ground in line with your left knee. Flex your right foot, keep your sit bones grounded, and lean forward with a long, straight spine.

For your hamstrings

Lie on your back with your knees bent and both feet grounded. Pick up your right leg, holding your thigh (photo #1), calf (photo #2), or using a strap on your foot (photo #3), and gently draw your leg toward your chest. Your left leg can remain bent or you can lengthen it on the floor to deepen the stretch. Breathe here for 30 seconds, then repeat with left leg. In a pinch, a hand towel can be used as a strap!

Stay warm!