Luckily for me, I don’t find physical activity to be a chore. I genuinely enjoy biking, running and playing soccer, and do all of those things on the regular. But when it comes to stretching—well, I just hate it! My mantra is basically, “I’ll stretch when I’m dead.” The appealing part of playing sports and working out is the movement, and so, when I’m presented with the concept of getting down on a mat and holding my body in a stagnant position, I just... don’t do it.
In the same way that I only drink kombucha or take vitamins when I’m already sick, I will only deign to do my physical therapy exercises when my low-key chronic injuries begin to flare up and interfere with my ability to move my body with ease. Otherwise, I treat my aches and pains as minor irritants that I can ignore. (I’m not alone in this—anyone who’s ever been to a group exercise class can probably attest to the mass exodus that tends to happen during the last few minutes, when all the “real” work is done and it’s time to stretch.)
I recognize that this is not sustainable, and I want to take better care of myself, so I talked to physical therapists, personal trainers and yogis for tips on how to trick myself into embracing this less exciting, but still very necessary, component of physical fitness.
Sneak in stretches while you’re doing something else
Jenn Menzer, a Boston-based personal trainer and functional strength coach, says she opts to stretch when she’s waiting on line at the grocery store. She’ll do “a heel-to-bum stretch for the quads, or a calf stretch and a hamstring stretch using the shopping cart as leverage.” The next time the train or the bus is delayed, try directing some of your idle frustration into your muscles. Menzer recommends squeezing your glutes for a 30-second count, or, for a core strengthening balancing challenge, try standing on one leg with your opposite leg pressed into your thigh for 30 seconds, also known as tree pose, then switching sides.
You also might want to try stretching first thing in the morning, while you’re still in bed and not fully awake, suggests Solange Wong, a physical therapist in Manhattan. Try a piriformis stretch, also known as a “figure 4" stretch”—while lying down, bend one leg and cross your other ankle at the knee, and then grab underneath your bent leg and push your elbow into the thigh of the opposite leg until you feel a stretch in your butt. You could also bring your knees into your chest, or do a supine bridge by tightening your abs and lifting your hips up into a bridge position, while keeping your back straight, your knees bent, and your feet flat on the mattress.
Entertain yourself as you stretch
Putting on a podcast or a TV show to accompany your foam rolling or stretching session can certainly help distract you from the monotony of it. If you need to hold a position for a specific amount of time, instead of setting a timer or counting to yourself, you can use music to help you keep count, Wong recommends. You could achieve this by literally watching the timing of the song as you stretch, or, stretch one side of your body for half a song, and then switch. Lauren McCabe, a power yoga teacher in New Orleans, suggests making a playlist of cool-down tunes to help you wind down as you cycle through your post-workout stretching routine.
Stop thinking of stretching as a stagnant activity
If you, like me, think of stretching as the boring part of exercise, you might be going about it the wrong way. McCabe suggests viewing it as “an extension of your workout so it integrates seamlessly into your exercise routine,” as opposed to an isolated activity.
Jael McCants, a DPT grad student at NYU Steinhardt (and full disclosure, a member of my pickup soccer team), advocates for dynamic stretching that keeps you moving, as opposed to stagnant stretches that you do sitting down. Think of warming up as literally “elevating your body temperature” by “working through the whole range of motion of a joint,” for example, doing leg or arm swings, shoulder rolls, or a minute of jumping jacks, or jump rope, she says. McCants recommends downloading the Nike Training App, which leads users through examples of dynamic stretches.
Post-workout, it can be tempting to skip the cool down in favor of hopping in the shower and getting on with your life. But there are ways to give your tired muscles a little TLC without making it a whole separate to-do. McCants suggests a standing dynamic quad stretch: grab your heel and pull your leg behind you, and then keep switching from one leg to the other in a fluid motion. She also suggests slow lunges, squeezing your glutes on the back leg for 30 seconds so you’ll feel the stretch in your hip flexors. Upper body-wise, an overhead tricep stretch can be done while standing, and a pec stretch on the wall will help open up tight chest and shoulder muscles.
Make it social
If it’s hard for you to make yourself get on the mat at home, stretching with other people might be what you need to motivate yourself. If you can, sign up for yoga or pilates classes—look for “restorative yoga” classes, which emphasize long-held poses for a slower, deeper stretch, or “yoga for runners,” classes, which focus on poses that improve flexibility and target common areas of muscle tightness, such as the piriformis, hamstrings and hip flexors —or keep an eye out for events that incorporate socializing and fitness. McCabe hosts “healthy happy hours” at the Starlight Bar in New Orleans: an hour of yoga followed by live music and food. If you play group sports, encourage your team to warmup and cool down together. McCants leads our soccer team through the FIFA 11+ warm-up, a combination of strength, plyometrics and balancing exercises, including lunges, one-leg squats, lateral jumps, and more in-motion activities, that help prevent common on-the-field injuries.
Here’s to staying limber without dying of boredom!