After slouching in front of our computers at the office for much of the day, most of us come home and slouch some more—over our phones, laptops and tablets. Over time, this tendency to sit, leaning forward and looking down at our devices, leads to patterns of tightness, says Mindy Loveless, M.D., a sports medicine physician at Harborview Medical Center.
“Usually there are two main areas where you see tightness—in the hip and shoulder girdles,” says Loveless. The shoulder girdle is the area surrounding the shoulders that includes the chest, upper back and shoulders. Similarly, the hip girdle is the area surrounding the hips that includes the front of the hips, the gluteal muscles and the low back.
Loveless recommends seven stretches to combat these tightness patterns. “These stretches are for anyone who sits at a desk, works on a computer or uses a cell phone,” says Loveless.
While warming up isn’t absolutely necessary before stretching, it will give you more bang for your buck. “Stretches are most effective when muscles are already warm,” says Loveless.
The first three stretches recommended by Loveless are for the shoulder girdle area. They help to reverse the hunched posture that people assume at the computer and on their phones, says Loveless.
1. Pectoral Muscle Stretch
Put one forearm flat against the side of a doorway at a 90-degree angle. Allow your other arm to hang loosely at your side.
Push your chest forward as if to go through the doorway. You will feel a stretch in your chest and shoulder. Return to your starting position.
Then relax your arm, switch sides and repeat the stretch with your other arm.
2. Chest Opener
Stand upright and clasp your hands behind your back. Turn your elbows inward and straighten your arms.
Bring your hands upward behind your back without bending forward. Focus on almost arching your back. You should feel a nice stretch in the mid-back between the shoulder blades.
Release your arms, relax and repeat.
3. Shoulder Relaxer
Stand straight. Raise both arms up with your elbows bent at a 90-degree angle until they reach shoulder height. Your elbows should form the letter “W” just above your head.
Keeping your elbows in this position, engage the muscles in the middle of your back to pull your shoulder blades together.
Then lower your arms down and back as if you were trying to put your elbows into your back pockets. You will feel a stretch across the front of your shoulder and between your shoulder blades. Relax and repeat.
The next five stretches are for the hip girdle area. They are designed to counteract the tightness in the hips and lower back that result from sitting for hours at a time.
4. Simple Back Bend
Stand comfortably with your hips tucked under you. Place your hands on your hips with your thumbs reaching toward your lower back.
You want to keep your hips stable, and you can use your hands to make sure you do. Gently arch your spine backwards until you feel a gentle stretch in your back.
Hold for a few moments and then return to your starting position. Repeat.
About this stretch, Dr. Loveless says, "I ask people to do this as part of my physical exam and most people say, ‘I don't ever do that.' It’s a position that most people don’t naturally do, but it's important to remember that bending backwards is part of the spine's natural range of motion."
Some people find a simple backbend easier to do on the floor.
To do so, lie on your stomach on the floor, spreading your hands on the floor under your shoulders.
Push up onto your hands so that they support the weight of your upper body. Slowly push against your hands to raise your shoulders up, while keeping your hips flat on the floor.
You will feel a gentle stretch in your back. Go only as far up as you feel comfortable. Then lower yourself to the floor, relax and repeat.
5. Hip Flexor Lunge
Hip flexors are muscles that connect the leg, pelvis and abdomen. The hip flexor lunge stretches out these muscles, which can shorten from prolonged sitting.
Stand with your feet approximately hip-width apart. Take a step forward with your left leg.
Shift your weight forward onto your leg and lower both your body and your right leg at the same time. Continue descending until your left thigh is parallel with the floor and your right knee is resting on the floor.
Stretch your right leg out behind you and rest your toe on the floor. Keeping your back straight and your hands on your hips, lean forward from your hips. Gently drive your hips forward toward your front foot until you feel a nice stretch across the front of your hip.
Hold this position. Relax and return to the position you started in.
Repeat with your opposite foot forward.
6. Hamstring Stretch
Stand comfortably. Bend forward from your hips with a straight back. You may need to rest your hands on a support, such as a chair placed in front of you.
Stretch only as far forward as you feel comfortable.
Then hold this position for thirty seconds. When done stretching, keep your back straight and return to your starting position.
You may also perform this stretch while seated. Put one foot up on a chair. Lean forward from the hips toward the leg that is up on the chair, bending forward from the hips. Again, stretch only as far as is comfortable.
7. Calf Stretches
The muscles of your calf are the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles. Stretches performed with a straight knee focus on the gastrocnemius muscle while stretches done with a bent knee focus on the soleus muscle. The following stretch uses both of these muscles.
Stand facing a wall with your hands in front of you, flat against the wall. Put your right leg forward, foot flat on the floor.
Extend your left leg back, with your heel against the floor. Bend your right knee but keep the knee of your left leg straight.
Push your hips forward and lean into the wall. Press your back heel to the floor. You will feel a stretch in the gastrocnemius muscle of your left leg. Hold that stretch. Return to a relaxed standing position and repeat, alternating legs.
When you have stretched the gastrocnemius muscles of both legs, stand facing a wall with your hands in front of you, flat against the wall.
Put your right leg forward, foot flat on the floor. Extend your left leg back, with your heel against the floor. Then bend the knee of your left leg and hold that stretch.
You are now stretching the soleus muscle. Return to a relaxed standing position and repeat, alternating legs.
After three to four weeks of regular stretching, you can expect to see an increase in your flexibility and range of motion, says Loveless. Also try to incorporate movement into your day—even simple moves such as changing your position—to keep yourself limber and counteract the ill effects of too much sitting.