Stiff muscles speak to the tension in our lives.
By Meghan Rabbitt
You know the feeling all too well : You’re working at your desk, trying to meet a deadline, and tension creeps between your shoulder blades and starts to move up your neck. Or you’re sitting in traffic, late for a coffee date, when a dull ache starts to form in your lower back. Or maybe you’re trying to take a nap, but can’t seem to get comfortable thanks to the tightness in your legs.
“Everyone has at least one weak link in their body, and physical and emotional stress tends to go straight for that spot,” says Larry Frieder, DC, a chiropractor in Boulder, Colorado. “But the good news is that bringing more awareness to your weak points and learning how to reduce the stress that’s causing your discomfort can eliminate chronic pain.” Here’s how.
Why Stress Strikes: Whether you’re stuck in traffic, staring at your computer, or reading a book, the forward motion of your head causes your neck and upper shoulder muscles to fire continuously in order to counteract the weight of your skull. “Plus, when you’re focusing on a screen or a fairly small area for long periods of time, your eyes are looking side to side but your neck is usually locked into the same position,” says Elizabeth Larkam, director of Pilates & Beyond for Western Athletic Clubs in San Francisco. “And since your eye and neck muscles are connected, this creates an imbalance.”
Tension Tamer: Ease eye strain.
To understand how the muscles of your eyes are connected to your neck, place the pads of your fingers on either side of your spine just below your hairline, says Larkam. Then move your eyes from side to side. You should feel your neck muscles moving. To give those a good stretch, change your focus. If you’re looking at something close to you, switch your gaze to something far away for a few minutes, every 20 to 30 minutes. To work each eye muscle even more, cover one eye and focus on something in the distance. Another exercise: Gently turn your head to the right and gaze to the left; then turn your head to the left and gaze to the right.
Why Stress Strikes: The muscles of the upper trapezius activate when we’re startled or react to a fight-or-flight stimulus, says Larkam. And since most of us experience this state of stress on a somewhat continuous basis, the muscles between the base of the skull and the shoulders are “scrunched” more often than not, causing tension. Another instigator? Shallow breathing, which causes the muscles in the upper torso to become even more tense.
Tension Tamer: Belly breathing
Place your thumb on the back of your rib cage and your first finger on the side and slightly to the front of your ribs. As you breathe in, feel your rib cage move wide to the side; take a quick pause at the top of your inhale, then exhale. It helps to do this in a rhythm: Breathe in for a count of four, hold for four counts at the top of the breath, breathe out for four, and hold for four counts at the end of your exhale. Gradually increase the number of counts to expand your lungs’ capacity for taking in air, and to stretch the muscles around your rib cage.
Why Stress Strikes: Shallow breathing not only causes tension in the shoulders, but it can contribute to pain in the upper back as well, says Larkam. “Tightness in the back and front of the chest reinforces a round-shoulder posture, making us more likely to hunch forward.” Since so many of our day-to-day activities already inspire this head-forward position—like driving, working at a desk, even walking—it’s crucial to reset the muscles between the ribs and the back.
Tension Tamer: A supported backbend
Start by sitting on an exercise ball, and slowly walk your feet out so the ball moves up your back. Stretch your arms over your head and reach toward the floor behind you. With the cushioned surface of the ball supporting your shoulders and neck, the muscles in your upper back have the chance to rest and reset.
Why Stress Strikes: The thoracic vertebrae (which attach to the ribs) and lumbar vertebrae (which start at the diaphragm and go down to the tailbone) join at your mid back. “At this meeting point, there’s a curve in the spine,” says Larkam. “The thoracic spine rounds out to make room for the rib cage, the lumbar spine curves in, and the place where the curve starts often lacks support from the upper abdominals, making it more vulnerable to strain.”
Tension Tamer: Strengthen your abs with the pilates exercise called the “side kick.”
Lie on your left side, resting your head on your left bicep and keeping your shoulders, spine, pelvis, and legs in one line. Place your right hand fl at on the floor in front of your lowest rib to balance. Bend your right knee at a 90 degree angle, lift your leg 2 to 3 inches above your left leg, and move it forward and back from your hip in a controlled motion for one minute. Switch sides. “Your moving leg challenges the ability of your trunk musculature to keep you steady,” says Larkam. Mastering this move makes it easier to align the ribs and pelvis no matter what you’re doing and helps support that natural curve in the mid spine.
Why Stress Strikes: The five lumbar vertebrae that comprise the low back are designed for forward, side, and backward motions, explains Larkam. But since many of us sit for most of the day, we create compression in that area and don’t counteract that with movement that’s natural for the lower spine. What’s more, we often move in the worst possible way for the low back, simultaneously bending and twisting.
Tension Tamer: Stretch gently in the morning and again before bed.
“While you’re sleeping, your muscles get tighter and stiffer because they don’t move very much,” says Frieder. “So before you get out of bed, you need to gently wake them up.” To do that, bring your knees into your chest and give yourself a hug. As important, says Frieder: getting a good stretch before you fall asleep each night. “At the end of the day, your body is fully warmed up so you’re able to go deeper into a stretch and really lengthen your muscles. This helps prevent them from tightening so much when you’re asleep.” A strong core will also protect your lower back. To work your upper and lower abdominal muscles without taxing your lower back, do crunches on an exercise ball. Sit on the ball, and slowly walk your feet out in front of you, rolling your body down the ball so your back is supported. With elbows wide, gaze up and lift your shoulders off the ball as you exhale; inhale on the way back down.
Why Stress Strikes: You can often blame prolonged sitting for the tension in your glutes. “When we’re sitting, the muscles that connect the legs to the sit bones are constantly shortened—and they tighten as a result,” says Larkam. Leaning back on a chair also prompts us to slump to the back edge of our sit bones, which puts more pressure on the vertebrae in the low back.
Tension Tamer: Swap your desk chair for an exercise ball.
When you sit on a chair, you can rely on it to hold all of your weight, Larkam explains. But an exercise ball will roll around a little, and there’s an opportunity to move forward, back, and side to side so your sit bones aren’t immobile. “This gentle rocking while you sit keeps the pelvis and spine moving, so that the tissues in the area don’t get too stiff,” says Larkam. Other advice that can pay off big: Get up and move around every so often if your day job keeps you seated. “When something’s downloading on your computer or you’re making a phone call, stand up,” says Frieder. “Take a walk around the block before or after lunch, or take the stairs to the bathroom on a different floor of your office. These are all simple changes that you’ve likely heard before, but they can have a big impact.”
Why Stress Strikes: Once again, our sedentary lifestyles play a huge role in causing hamstring tension. “When our legs are straight, the hamstring muscles are stretched; when we sit, they’re shortened,” says Larkam. “That constant contraction causes tightness and actually shortens the muscles, making them more injury prone.”
Tension Tamer: Massage the soles of your feet.
“There is connective tissue that stretches from the bottom of your feet, up through your ankles, calves, hamstrings, spine, and to the top of your head,” says Larkam. And this tissue—called the superficial back line—can become more elastic and mobile when you release the tautness in your foot muscles. Another great move? The seated forward fold. Sit on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you, and move the flesh away from your sit bones so you’re sitting upright. Then reach your fingers toward your toes, trying to touch your chin to your knees, which helps keep your back fl at rather than round.