Whether you'd like to loosen tight muscles, become more flexible, or just keep yourself from getting injured when you exercise or play sports, stretching is crucial. With just a few minutes of gentle stretching, you can reduce the pain that comes from tight muscles, improve your posture, and increase your range of motion. Stretching also improves your balance and coordination. With all these benefits, why not give stretching a try?

There's one other side effect of stretching that makes it particularly worthwhile. It feels terrific. By putting gentle tension on your muscles, you'll find out where your body is tight, has knots, and needs further attention. If you've been sitting all day, you may be surprised to discover how cramped your neck, back, and shoulders are. Alternately, if you've had a day of strenuous hiking, biking, or other exercise, you'll need stretching to prevent injuries and help avoid next-day soreness.

Here are some basic stretches you can use to keep your body loose and limber. Be sure to never bounce into a stretch or try to hold anything that's painful. You should feel tension, but not pain. If you're feeling pain, you need to back off a little and choose a position that's gentler. Breathe as you stretch.

Hamstring (or Back-of-the-leg) Stretch
The hamstring muscle runs down the back of your upper leg. Tightness in this muscle can lead to serious back pain, so it's an important one to stretch. For a gentle stretch, lie on the floor near a doorway or wall corner. Working one leg at a time, lift your leg and rest the heel on the wall with your leg slightly bent. Gently straighten your leg until you feel a nice stretch. Pause there and wait. If you can go more deeply into the stretch, do so, otherwise stay in this position for half a minute. Then switch legs.

Calf Stretch
This muscle runs down the back of your lower leg. Tightness in the calf can lead to foot and heal pain. Stand about an arm's length away from a wall. Put your left foot behind your right foot. With your left leg straight (right leg bent), lean toward the wall until you feel a nice stretch in your calf. To make the stretch deeper, you can bend the right leg further or increase the distance between your feet.

Quadriceps Stretch
The quadriceps, or "quads" are the large muscles that run down the front of your thigh. Standing near a wall or chair for support, reach back and grasp your ankle. Gently pull the ankle toward you until you feel a nice stretch across the front of your thigh. Tighten your stomach muscles and pay attention to your posture as you do this stretch. Hold for half a minute, switch legs, and repeat.

Shoulder Stretch
Tight shoulder muscles can lead to neck and back pain as well as rotator cuff problems. To keep these muscles flexible, stretch by bringing your right arm across the front of your body and holding it there with your left arm or hand, somewhere near the elbow. Hold the stretch for half a minute, switch arms, and repeat.

You can also raise your right arm straight overhead, then bend the elbow so that your right hand falls behind your head. Using your left hand, gently pull your right elbow toward the centerline of your body. Ideally, you want your right forearm to be straight up and town. Be sure to keep your head and neck straight, and don't let your right arm force the head down or forward in any way. Switch arms and repeat.

Neck Stretch
This is very important for drivers! Stretch your neck one side at a time, beginning with the right. Tilt your head to the left and use your left hand to very gently pull your head toward the front of your left shoulder. Do not pull hard. The neck is fragile, so you must be gentle with this stretch. Repeat on the opposite side. You may also want to stretch the back of the neck by tipping the head directly forward.

Hip Stretch
Tight hips can cause all kinds of posture and walking problems. Keep yours flexible by lying on the floor and drawing one knee up toward your chest. You may feel the stretch in your lower back. Hold here for half a minute or up to one minute, then switch legs and repeat.
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