Every day at my medical practice, I see several people for different aches and pains due to arthritis, stiffness of joints, tight muscles, and combinations of these. They can be young men or women in their twenties coming in for severe low back pain, or retirees in their sixties bothered by their shoulders, hips, or knees, with limited movement in these joints.

What most of these patients need to lessen or overcome their aches and stiffness is more flexibility. When your joints and muscles stay limber and flexible, you can avoid or delay aches, pains, and stiffness. Doing flexibility exercises on a regular basis is the best way to keep your joints and muscles pain free.

Flexibility training involves stretching muscles, ligaments, tendons, and other soft tissues that are involved in movement. It limbers up joints and makes your every move smoother and more comfortable. It helps you get the most from cardiovascular and strength-training exercises. It makes everyday activities more pleasurable.

You may not realize that your body is instinctively programmed to do flexibility exercises.

When was the last time you arched your back after sitting for a while? How about tilting your head to the sides or back after watching a movie or reading a book? When you are bored or fatigued, the big yawn that you let out stretches your mouth to gulp in the air, stretching the big muscle of your diaphragm. This gives you a boost of energy.

These are all examples of natural flexibility exercises.

Choosing Your Stretching Pleasure

There are at least four systems of stretching exercise that you may want to consider:

• Sets of individual stretches: Most of us grow up doing sets of individual stretches. They include leg stretches for hamstrings, thighs, calves, and groin as well as upper body stretches for back, shoulders, arms, and neck.

• Yoga: Practicing yoga is another outstanding way to stay flexible. There are many yoga postures that promote flexibility. If you are a beginner, start with the more gentle stretches and postures. There are also advanced forms of yoga for strength-training and/or cardiovascular exercise.

Pilates: In the early 20th century, Joseph Pilates developed a form of physical therapy combining mat work and machine exercises. Pilates focuses on stretching and lengthening muscles and improving postures with six principles: breath, concentration, control, centering, precision, and flow. It is low impact yet can be so vigorous that it too can pass as strength-training exercise.

• Tai chi: Walk into a park in China or Taiwan early mornings, and you will see people doing tai chi. Tai chi was originally developed in China as a martial art combining slow, purposeful movements and hard, fast moves for self-defense. There are several styles of tai chi, and it is now practiced worldwide, mostly for its health benefits. It improves balance, relaxes the mind, and calms arthritic pains. All of us can benefit from doing the soft movements to start, advancing to the more difficult styles if so desired.

Practice at least one of the flexibility systems described above. You can learn them from books, videos, or taking classes. Stretch at least three times a week and, if possible, every day.

Getting Started with Some Easy Stretches

Here are some easy-to-do stretches that you can do almost anywhere, even at work. Do the stretches at least three times a week for 10 to 12 minutes. Whenever possible, it is best to stretch every day, especially after moderate or vigorous physical activities.

Stretch for 10 to 30 seconds and repeat up to five times. Do it slowly, never sprinting into positions. Pay attention to how different muscles move, some relaxing and some being stretched. Feel the tension in the stretched muscle, and hold it with a low level of force. Again, it may be uncomfortable, but you should never feel pain.

Try to stretch at the end of your physical activities while your tissues are still warm. You can also do some stretches in the shower or after showering, when the circulation to the muscles is enhanced. If you want to stretch without prior physical activities, such as after sitting at a desk for a while, do the first few stretches of the same set even slower than normal.

Upper Body Stretches

Head tilt
Back stretch
Upper body twist
Shoulder stretch/shoulder roll
Wrist (prayer) stretch

Lower Body Stretches

Hamstring stretch
Groin stretch
Thigh stretch
Calf stretch

Always check with your doctor before doing stretches if you have osteoporosis or a musculo-skeletal disorder.

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Author's Bio: 

Zen-Jay Chuang, MD, is a primary care physician and Chairman of the Whole Health Alerts advisory board. Click here to find out how Dr. Zen-Jay’s biodynamic, cutting edge approach to ancient and modern medicine can help you achieve the best health of your life.

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