It’s important to stretch before and after exercise for many reasons. Stretching can help prevent injury, ease muscle soreness, and improve your mood. As with any kind of physical exercise, stretching should be done gently and routinely. Aim to do some light stretches every day, including in the morning when you get out of bed, at lunchtime during a break at work or school, and before you go to bed at night.
Start with your feet and ankles and work up through your legs, hips and lower back, torso, and arms (including fingers), neck, and head.
This is a list of some basic stretches to get you started:
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Bend forward from the waist so that your back is about parallel to the floor. Reach toward your toes as far as possible, keeping your knees straight.
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Bend forward from the waist so that your back is about parallel to the floor. Reach toward your toes as far as possible, keeping your knees straight. Hold for 15–30 seconds, depending on what you are comfortable with.
Standing in front of a wall or other vertical surface, place one hand flat against it at chest level. Keeping both legs straight and your back straight, slowly bend forward at the waist until you feel a gentle stretch in your middle to lower back area. Your arm should be extended and close to the wall behind you (but not touching). Keep bending until you feel a gentle stretch but don’t force yourself into an uncomfortable position: Stretch only as far as you can while keeping your back straight. Hold for 15–30 seconds, depending on what feels comfortable to you.
Be sure to also stretch each leg separately by bending the knee so that the heel touches the buttocks and then gently pushing it away without arching or rounding your back. This is not only good for your hips but will help keep them level in everyday life when walking or running.
Bend forward at the waist with knees straight and reach toward your toes (holding on to a chair if necessary). Try to get your elbows close to your knees without letting your lower back curve inward or outward. You should feel a gentle pull in the middle of your back. If there is no pain, hold this position for 30 seconds, then slowly come up.
If this is very uncomfortable for your lower back, or you are unable to keep your knees straight with good form, try the following instead:
Sit down on a chair with feet flat on the floor about shoulder-width apart. Gently lean forward and place hands on either side of the chair seat as far as possible without rounding your back. Bend at the waist and aim to touch the forehead to the knee (without forcing). If that’s not comfortable, just stretch as far as you can while keeping your back straight and not rounded. Hold for 15–30 seconds.
Sit in the same position as above but with legs bent so that one heel is near your crotch and buttocks are resting on the other leg’s knee. As you hold this position, try to straighten your back by gently pressing the foot on the leg that is bent against your buttock, and then pulling with each hand toward you while keeping both shoulders on the same level. Hold for 15–30 seconds.
You can also bend forward and touch your toes (if comfortable) or keep your knees straight and reach toward them. This will stretch out your hamstrings (the muscles in the back of each thigh) on each leg.
This list is just a start, but you’ll get the idea. Feel free to ignore positions that are unpleasant for your back or too difficult to hold. Try not to force yourself into positions that feel uncomfortable for your back. Stretching should never be painful. If it hurts when you move in a certain way then tighten up! Don’t keep pushing yourself into that position thinking that stretching has no pain.