Do you ever wonder why many living things stretch first thing when they wake up? It’s not just humans that do it. If you’ve ever lived with dogs or cats, or even rodents, they all wake up and streeeeetch. And would you believe me if I told you even ants, yes the bugs, stretch when they wake up? Famous entomologist Derek Wragge Morley noted a lot of unusual (AKA cool) behavior in ants. Like the fact that when they wake up, they stretch out all 6 of their legs. They also open their mandibles as if they are yawning.
So it would appear many forms of life instinctively stretch. Why is that? Is it just because it feels good or are there other benefits to stretching?
Stretching for Heart Health
Get ready to strike a pose… of the yoga variety.
A recent study suggests that yoga can reverse the detrimental effects of aging. The study specifically focused on what effects aging has on the brain, nervous system, and heart. Most of us know that aging can affect how our hearts function and increase the risk of developing heart attacks and strokes.
But aging can also have a profound (not the good kind of profound) effect on our brains and nervous systems, and this can decrease our cognitive performance and eventually lead to dementia. But the study found that yoga has the ability to reverse the negative age-related changes restoring them to “normal or near-normal levels of function.”
Research followed a group of healthy, active men from three different age groups: 20-29, 30-39, 40-49. None of the men had any prior knowledge of yoga. The researchers noted before the study began that the older group had “significantly more damage” to their bodies. They had higher levels of bad cholesterol and also high blood pressure. These findings correlated with their age.
When the study was completed the researchers confirmed what many had long suspected: yoga is incredibly beneficial in managing heart health. Much focus is given to aerobic exercise as a way to manage high blood pressure and cholesterol, but gentle yoga can give aerobic exercise a run for its money.
One of the most interesting findings of the study was that yoga has the ability to increase the levels of a protein found in the body called “brain-derived neurotrophic factor” (BDNF). This protein affects our mood, brain plasticity and memory. It is common to find senior citizens with low levels of BDNF and that is linked to decreased cognitive functioning and depression.
But by practicing yoga and raising the levels of BDNF, you will help your neurons multiply and protect themselves, increase the flow of blood to your brain, and slowly if not completely prevent the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
Stretching for Energy
While you may have just learned that stretching can help your heart, you most likely have known for quite some time that stretching is very relaxing to the body and helps release muscle tension. But what you may not have known is that stretching can increase your energy level – and who doesn’t need more energy?
LaReine Chabut is a certified fitness instructor and personal trainer who understands firsthand the benefits of stretching. In her book “Stretching for Dummies,” Chabut explains how stretching helps our bodies use energy more efficiently (contracted muscles require more energy to move than relaxed muscles) and increases circulation of oxygen and blood to our muscles. This in turn raises our energy levels.
So, if you got a crappy night’s sleep and our feeling tired and sluggish, stretching can help you feel a renewed sense of energy.
Here are 5 morning stretches to energize your day:
1. Upper Back Release
This is a very simple stretch, but don’t let the simplicity fool you. Just holding this stretch for a couple of seconds will wake you up and you’ll feel like you can face another day.
Stand with your feet hip-distance apart and clasp your hands together straight out in front of you. Round your upper back while keeping your arms straight out and focus on spreading your shoulders blades out.
Hold this stretch for a count of five and take some nice, deep breaths.
2. Chest Release
Another easy stretch that will completely transform in seconds how you are feeling physically and mentally. Simply hold a wall, door frame, or window ledge with your right arm. Step forward with the right leg and turn your entire body toward the left, especially at the hips.
Hold this stretch for a count of five while breathing in and out deeply, then repeat on your left side.
3. Side Stretch
Start by standing with your left hand on the wall or bed and cross your right leg in front of your left leg. Make sure your feet are both pointing forward.
Next, shift into your right hip and reach your right arm up and overhead. This should create a long line from your right ankle to your right fingertips.
Again, hold this stretch for a count of five making sure to breathe in and out deeply – never hold your breath.
4. Seated Spinal Twist
Be prepared to feel a nice gentle popping along your spinal column!
Sit in a chair (or the edge of your bed will work as well) and make sure your legs are together. Sit up straight and lengthen your spine as you rotate from your waist. Place one hand behind you and the other hand on your outer thigh for support.
If you want an even deeper stretch, turn your neck and gaze over your shoulder. Hold…. Breathe…. Repeat on your other side.
5. Forward Bend
This stretch will really target your hamstrings and lower back, which is nice because depending on your mattress, or what position you slept in, you might find you awaken with a stiff back.
Stand with your feet hip distance apart and your knees slightly bent, then gently and slowly bend forward at your hips. Allow you upper body to hang over your legs and clasp your elbows. (If you feel you need a bit more support you can place your hands on the floor).
Hold… breathe… and come back up slowly using your abdominal muscles.
Now, It’s important to remember that stretching should never cause pain – so please do not try to force a stretch or stretch beyond your current level of flexibility. Give it some time, patience and persistence, and soon your range of motion will improve and it’ll become easier to perform an exercise.
What’s your favorite morning stretch? Please share in the comments below!