If business casual indefinitely means your "good" pajamas, you're probably spending the majority of your time in your decidedly non-ergonomic couch office. As the pandemic carries on, your daily stretch habit to combat the physical strain of WFH life may be falling to the wayside. But you might want to bring it back front and center, because stretching changes your brain in ways you might not expect.
What Does Stretching Do To Your Brain?
"As a part of a total exercise program, static stretching can serve to increase blood circulation to the brain, reduce stress and tension, and help with improvement in mood," says Dr. Nailah Abdulbaaqee, M.D., a provider at One Medical. That's because of the way your mind and body interact when you sink into that forward fold. Increased blood flow to your brain can boost your energy along with your mood and mental clarity, leaving you more prepared to grapple with your day's tasks.
Stretching isn't all about warming up or cooling down from your workout, says Ali Duncan, a yoga instructor and the founder of Urban Sanctuary, the first women-run, Black-owned yoga studio in Denver, Colorado. It's also about soothing your mind. "When our breath is deep and the inhalation is long and the exhale even longer, we trigger our parasympathetic nervous system," Duncan explains. "This type of breathing calms the fight or flight part of the brain and allows the body to relax even more." The calmer your mind, the easier it can become to think clearer — which is definitely helpful when you're getting ready for your seventh Zoom call of the day.
Just make sure you're focusing on your breath rather than just going through the motions. "To stretch effectively, you have to slow down and come into your body awareness, which can ground you and make you feel more present," says Helen Phelan, a Pilates instructor who specializes in body neutrality and mindfulness. One way to do this is to imagine getting longer into each stretch every time you inhale, and sink deeper into your stretch each time you exhale. Your muscles and your mind will learn to relax, all at the same time.
How Does Stretching Impact Your Mental Health?
Telling your nervous system that it's safe to relax can be especially helpful if you're looking to boost your mental health without expending too much energy. "Our mood affects how our body feels and vice versa," Phelan explains. "Depression and anxiety have physical symptoms — it's not just in people's heads." When you stretch, you can tackle some of those symptoms in your brain by helping ease some yucky feelings in your body.
With seemingly little adjustments like lengthening your spine to improve your posture, Dr. Abdulbaaqee tells Bustle that you can help reduce common neurological symptoms like headaches, referred pain, fatigue, and mood changes that often accompany typical mental health issues. "Stretching can reinforce the neutral alignment of the spine," she explains, which in turn can reduce pain and exhaustion levels. So if you want to tackle your mental health and the stiffness from sitting all day, Dr. Abdulbaaqee says that hip and chest-opening stretches can give emotional and physical release all at the same time.
How Often Should I Stretch For Mental Benefits?
"If practiced regularly, optimal performance and improvement in mood, pain, posture, flexibility, and range of motion can be felt within a matter of weeks," Dr. Abdulbaaqee says. "While there is no set standard for stretching, making physical activity a part of a daily routine can lead to more optimal performance in day-to-day life."
If you're working from home, try to set alarms throughout the day to remind yourself to stretch just for a minute or two, Phelan suggests. Linking a quick 10-minute stretch routine to something essential that you already do anyway (like brushing your teeth) can help make stretching a daily habit.
Even if you're not ready to dive into a full practice, Duncan says there are many simple poses that only take a few seconds but can really unlock your mind (and your muscles). "Seated forward folds are my favorite to de-stress," she tells Bustle. "Whether standing or sitting down, folding your body in half is an automatic surrender pose and will soften the thoughts and slow down the heart, along with lengthening the body." You'll signal your brain that it's safe to relax, and you'll be making your body feel better all at the same time.
"Taking care of your body with stretching and compassionate exercise is a workout for your mental health," Phelan says, which can only be good for your long-term well-being. You don't even have to break a sweat to do it.
Dr. Nailah Abdulbaaqee, M.D., One Medical
Ali Duncan, yoga instructor, founder of Urban Sanctuary
Helen Phelan, Pilates instructor, founder of Helen Phelan Studio