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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.
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.
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.