The 1 Best and Easiest Thing I’ve Done for My Health This Past Year

Best and Easiest Thing I've Done for My Health: Stretching for Newbies over 40

This has been a year of transformation in many ways. When folks ask what I have done in the past year or so that has changed my body, my face, my sleep, and my outlook, they don't like the response. It's not one thing that has transformed me, but several lifestyle changes. However, if I think about all the changes I've made, there is one best and easiest thing I've done for my health this past year that stands out: stretching.

We all know that doing a few stretches when we get out of bed or from sitting in a chair for a long while feels good. And sure, a coach or trainer or online guru has said that stretching before and/or after a workout is a good thing. But for many that I know, stretching just seems like this trendy thing that doesn't really provide results. And if you want results, why not just do a yoga class or pilates?

We are so focused on results being physical changes. Our waist is whittled, our muscles visible or more defined, our clothing size smaller, the number on the scale being lower. And I get having those goals, but let's face it friends, we're not getting younger and our bodies aren't working as well as they used to.

Let's look at those older than us. Not some celebrity or millionaire, but the women in our families and communities that are the generation or two ahead of us. Those who are comfortable in their bodies and those who are not. Some reasons are not in our control, but others… they are.

Doctors will make you think that the key to happiness is weightloss. Fussy feet? Bad knees? Back pain? Drop the weight, your issues will disappear. And we women all know that A) weightloss isn't a simple task and B) weightloss in fact does not cure all issues.

The Best and Easiest Thing I've Done for My Health This Past Year: Stretching

I am not a doctor or an expert, but I have found one the best and easiest things I've done for my health this past year is having a regular stretching routine. It has been more dramatic of a change than weightloss, than a fitness routine, than changing what I eat. And this comes from someone who has never been flexible.

Stretching scared me. I've seen so many warnings – consult your physician, bad form can really hurt you, stretch too far and you can tear and damage things. All those warnings and my lack of skill or a spotter or even a mirror to check myself out while stretching has caused me to fear such activity. And my husband is a yoga instructor! But starting to stretch with something relatively simple and easily modified gave me confidence.

Sun Salutations on Your Terms

During lockdown, he and I started doing three sun salutations each morning in the living room. Sun salutations can seem intimidating because they're usually done by lithe bodies that can fold in half without issue (or any soft parts getting in the way). But sun salutations can be modified and still be an effective all-over body stretch.

For example, I can't swing my back leg back up after down dog. Instead, I get on my knees first and bring one leg forward into lunge. I can't do child's pose in the same way my long and lean husband can, so I open my knees and have my booty higher in the air to make space for my body and still get a good stretch.

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I have blocks, I have straps, I have these knee pads because props are not a sign of weakness, but of respecting your body. A hand towel can be a great prop: fold it into a cushion for your knee, hold it at opposite corners or long edges to use as a strap/to elongate your arms. If you already own a foam roller, it can often be used in place of a block to have that bit of lift. Some suggest shoe boxes in place of blocks, but they can bend and collapse under pressure (been there, done that) so I'd recommend something that is solid (those Norton anthologies from college are a good alternative).

It helps to find someone with a similar body to you doing the workout. On YouTube, Body Positive Yoga has an entire playlist of videos that offer yoga modifications for bigger bodies performed by women with bigger bodies. The video above is from this channel and shows modifications to sun salutations.

Katie Cohen, seen above, is a certified yoga instructor who offers fantastic videos of modified yoga for seniors as well as those who may have some mobility issues. I don't know Cohen's age, but if you are uninspired by skinny instructors that are young enough to be your child or even grandchild, you may find Katie Cohen's videos a refreshing change.

If you have a suggestion of an online instructor, a book, or a course feel free to share in the comments! Self-promotion will be deleted but honest recommendations of what you yourself have tried are welcome!

Peloton Stretch Classes

After doing the sun salutations regularly, I felt as though I knew my body's abilities and limits better. I began checking out the stretching classes available on the Peloton app. I do have the Peloton bike, but the Peloton app is a separate entity that offers a range of classes for stretching, meditation, walking, strength, and much more.

Screen Shot 2021 08 14 at 12.05.43 PM
Screenshot of the preview for a 10-minute full body stretch class with Peloton instructor Jess Sims. The class has a 3.8/10 difficulty and the preview photo is of a stretch I know I can do, which makes me feel it is a class I can comfortably do with fewer modifications.

The majority of the newer stretches on the Peloton app are focused on pre- or post- bike rides or runs. If the instructor is next to a bike, you can bet that the stretch will require a bike or similar sturdy piece of furniture that height to hold onto, lean onto, or even put your foot up on. It's okay to bypass them, I usually do.

The preview photo often shows the most complex stretch. If the instructor is in camel pose and you can't do camel, or if Adrian Williams is smiling while holding a 10-lb weight on his knee as he is in lotus position, don't choose it (been there, done that, jacked up my knee from it).

Each class has a rating of difficulty based on the reviews of those who took it. Learning from taking a stretch with a favorite cycle instructor that had me giving up five minutes in, I began looking at those ratings and finding the lowest ratings for difficulty. I also stuck with instructors that offer modifications and guidance for form within. the stretch. For example, I avoid stretches by Rebecca Kennedy, but look forward to stretches by Jess Sims and Hannah Corbin.

You may also like: I love my Peloton and I'm neither rich nor thin

But these classes taught me stretches, and how varieties of stretches target the same places. So now I know if a stretch wants me to lie on my stomach and grab my ankle with my arm on the same body to stretch my quads, I will instead lie on my side to do it, which is easier for my shape. If I am supposed to grab my calf for a stretch and all I can do is reach my knee, I either grab my hamstring (not a joint) or whip out a strap or towel to put around my foot.

And doing these stretches have taught me that doing 50% of a stretch class is better than none at all. If I make a mistake and choose a class that wants me to be in a pretzel, I just do other stretches I know during that time. It is not a fail, it is still a stretch, and I am learning my capabilities and better understanding my body.

The Peloton app is $12.99/month with a 30-day free trial. You can use your membership on your phone or tablet, Smart TVs and ROKU, as well as a web browser on your computer or TV. I am not saying this is for everyone; feel free to share your alternatives in the comments!

Stretching Makes You Want to Stretch

When you start stretching it sucks. You may recall being able to touch your toes, and now you're touching your thighs. Or you can't flex your feet like you used to. There are boobs and bellies in the way and you surely didn't do all that grunting the last time you tried something like that. And why do you feel the day after like you were in a powerlifting competition? Girl, same. Keep going.

You'll find when you wake up with a stiff back, instead of popping an Advil or seeing the rest of your day destroyed, you'll do a little stretching before any other decisions. You'll catch yourself leaning against the kitchen counter while waiting for water to boil to stretch your calves. You'll hang your heels off a step or grab your elbow over your head while on a phone call. And eventually, you may find yourself getting off the couch and getting on the floor during your favorite show to stretch.

The Benefits of Stretching

Stretching will help prevent injuries. It will improve your posture (which helps clothes lie better and makes your body look stronger and more youthful), it improves your circulation, can help you sleep, and helps you recover more quickly from strenuous activities (anything from a workout to gardening to carrying the recycling bin to the curb). I now can get up from the floor unassisted (and without lots of grunts and groans).

Stretching won't make you lose weight or fit into a smaller clothing size. But it will make you more comfortable in your body and make your body work better longer. And we're at an age where yeah, we may want to look good, but we realize that feeling good makes alllll the difference.

18 Comments

  1. Zaeobi
    September 3, 2021 / 9:36 pm

    Haha if you want stretching inspiration, just walk through the streets here! It’s culturally acceptable to stretch anywhere – I see old folk doing it whilst walking the park (e g. swinging your arms & hitting them whilst walking is a common sight) & now even I like to stretch my calf muscles using the guardrails whilst waiting in the queue for my bus lol.

    It took some getting used to (hearing people rhythmically smack their arms whilst walking had me fairly worried at first lol) but now it’s an ingrained practice. Would recommend it for others who don’t like to ‘dedicate’ time & space to exercise equipment or stretching gadgets at home. Though I get some fairly strange looks when I stretch like this in public back home in the UK now, lol! 😉

  2. Kate
    August 22, 2021 / 11:31 pm

    I really love Five Parks Yoga! She posts regular updates on YouTube. If you’re new to yoga, her yoga for beginners is incredibly helpful. I like how she takes the time to explain foot position for poses and how to modify to what works for your body. It helped me to be less intimidated to even TRY yoga in the first place.

  3. Marisa
    August 20, 2021 / 9:48 pm

    I recently started doing 10 minutes of foam rolling most days, and it has made a HUGE difference for me. I was already doing some for my quads, but I discovered a list of Peloton foam roller classes here (https://www.pelobuddy.com/list-of-pelotons-foam-rolling-classes/) and started doing the full-body ones. The Hannah Corbin full-body class from May 2019 has been kind of life-changing. Highly recommend.

  4. jodie filogomo
    August 20, 2021 / 9:20 pm

    This is SO good. I’m totally sharing with my email people next week because the modified yoga sounds fabulous.
    We have used the Yoga Collective (it’s not free, but it’s very inexpensive), and we’ve done some classes by women of different shapes.
    And I have to say that my husband always claims to be concrete (his way to say inflexible) and yet he has gotten more so just by working at it. AND it’s totally helped his shoulder (along with massage).
    XOOX
    Jodie
    http://www.jtouchofstyle.com

  5. Jazzbabs
    August 20, 2021 / 9:19 pm

    I third the recommendation for Jessamyn Stanley/Underbelly Yoga. The app is very affordable, but she also has free YouTube videos. She’s a win teacher. Also has two books that are on my reading list. Yes to supporting a queer, Black, fat yoga instructor who will help you truly appreciate your body as it is and embrace the Yogic path in a way that honors the cultural origins of the practice.

    • Jazzbabs
      August 20, 2021 / 9:21 pm

      Wonderful teacher, not win. Pardon the typo!

  6. August 20, 2021 / 7:25 pm

    My husband swears the same! He does 3 sun salutations upon waking and before bed, nothing else, and he swears he can tell a difference in his body.

    I just signed up for Underbelly Yoga—first two weeks free! I was a steady Yoga with Adriene (on YouTube) fan but lost the habit and Jessamyn Stanley’s realness pulled me back in. Plus I’m into the idea of paying a queer Black woman for her expertise and guidance.

  7. Katie
    August 20, 2021 / 3:02 pm

    I love this post. Three cheers for self-care that actually makes you feel better and live better!

  8. Paula Spizziri
    August 20, 2021 / 12:40 pm

    Speaking of yoga teachers of different body types, are you familiar with Jessamyn Stanley? I recently attended a virtual class and interview through my local NPR station. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jessamyn_Stanley

  9. Gini
    August 20, 2021 / 12:11 pm

    I do Classical Stretch. I access it via the Essentrics app on my tablet but the show is still available weekdays on Detroit PBS. It works you through the whole body

    • Anna
      August 20, 2021 / 3:15 pm

      Searching on Esssentrics will take you to the founder of Classical Stretch, Miranda Esmonde, who has a complete offering of books and DVDs. “Aging Backwards” is one of the most intriguing. She is an old pro (old in years too) and well worth following.

  10. bubu
    August 20, 2021 / 11:19 am

    Love this. I hurt my shoulder last fall schlepping around all my work files in a tote bag (because no office, because pandemic). Ended up in PT where I learned a bunch of great stretches, healed the injury and even relieved some knots I’d been carrying in my neck and shoulders for decades. I now truly stand up straight for the first time in my life, and apart from clothes and looking better, I feel a glorious spaciousness in my chest and lungs that was not there before. I often stop and stretch, especially to improve my posture, throughout the day. A standing desk helps a lot too.

    I love Peloton for stretching and yoga — I always do a 5 minute post ride stretch, and as a result have not really ever felt sore or stiff the next day. The instructors I like are great about giving form tips on the bike or doing weights or yoga, to help prevent injury. And I’ve added in a 10 minute yoga flow every day after I finish work, to loosen up after being at my desk all day, and clear my head and prepare me to be in home mode and with my family. Try to tack on a 5 minute meditation as well – makes a world of difference.

    I’ve often felt that our bodies are not unlike cars – as they get older, they can still run great but definitely need a lot more regular maintenance and care than when they were new.

  11. L H Carter
    August 20, 2021 / 10:37 am

    You are taking such good care of me! .
    Thank you for encouraging me to feel good as well as look good.

  12. Darlene
    August 20, 2021 / 10:15 am

    Thank you so much for the link to the body positive yoga. It’s incredibly helpful to see someone like me doing those poses and you’ve inspired me to try to start a new habit! I Jazzercise regularly but could definitely benefit from a stretching routine. Thank you!

  13. E
    August 20, 2021 / 9:50 am

    After decades of yoga, I now have very mixed feelings about it now, thanks, in part, to the articles you and others turned me on to last year, especially Rachel Cargle’s 30-Day Do the Work course. Day 14 talks about returning yoga to its spiritual and cultural roots, and “decolonizing” yoga. Once read, I can’t unread.

    https://mailchi.mp/rachelcargle/dothework-day-fourteen-125233

    Here’s the article she links to, about holding yoga instructors and studios accountable:

    http://decolonizingyoga.com/decolonize-yoga-practice/

    I’m not sure I completely agree, but I now can’t get the idea out of my head.

  14. Andrea
    August 20, 2021 / 9:24 am

    Great info. And the Norton anthologies reference made me smile!

  15. Jane
    August 20, 2021 / 8:58 am

    Excellent article. I have arthritis in my neck and lower back. Every morning I do stretches and core exercises, and its made a huge difference for me. I’m convinced that by continuing these exercises it will help me stay flexible and, hopefully, with less pain as I get older. And yes, anything that gets you up and down from the floor really helps!
    Thanks for the info and links to videos.

  16. Leu2500
    August 20, 2021 / 6:57 am

    “ When folks ask what I have done in the past year or so that has changed my body, my face, my sleep, and my outlook, they don’t like the response.”

    Tough cookies.

    Btw, I subscribe to the Tufts Nutrition newsletter & have bought several of their books. & guess what: they encourage flexibility exercises IAT to aerobic & weight bearing exercise. I too feel better when I stretch, even if it’s just the warm up in the RBG workout with some arm stretches added. And I’ve found that anything that gets you up & down from the floor REALLY helps me not feel so decrepit.

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