Most of us experience back and neck stiffness or pain at one time or another. Whether you have a long daily commute or a job that requires you to work at a desk, it’s not uncommon to find yourself sitting for long periods of the day, which often leads to aches and pains. But you don’t have to take it sitting down! Stretching your back and neck at regular intervals throughout the day — after you’ve been seated for a long time, or when you feel stiffness in your back or neck — can help.
These five simple stretches can go a long way toward preventing back and neck pain flair-ups. Please note that these stretches are for healthy individuals without existing back or neck conditions, and should not cause any pain when performed correctly. Always consult with your physician before starting any exercise program.
1) Trunk Rotation
This stretch can be done each morning, when your back is usually stiffest. *It’s important to avoid prolonged poor posture and sitting first thing in the morning, because this is the most vulnerable time of the day for your spine.*
Lying on your back, bend both knees so your feet are flat on the bed or surface you are lying on.
Move your knees slowly side to side to the point that you feel a stretch in your trunk. Keep your shoulders in place and do not lift them up as your knees rotate.
Hold the stretch for 3-5 seconds in each direction, performing 10-15 repetitions.
2) Neck Retraction
This stretch can be performed in a seated or standing position. Perform 2x/day or whenever you find yourself sitting with poor posture for a long time, and/or when your neck begins to feel stiff.
Look straight ahead and allow yourself to relax.
Keep your chin tucked down slightly and move your head slowly backward until it is pulled back as far as you can without straining or feeling any pain. You must remain looking straight ahead, being careful not to tilt the head back while performing this stretch.
Maintain this position for 3-5 seconds and then return to the relaxed position, perform 10-15 repetitions.
3) Neck Rotation
This stretch can also be performed in a seated or standing position. Perform 2x/day or whenever you find yourself sitting with poor posture for a long time, and/or when your neck begins to feel stiff.
Follow the first two steps of the Neck Retraction exercise, as described above.
While your chin is tucked down and your head is moved back, turn your head gently to the right, and then gently to the left. Remember not to strain your neck or push yourself to the point that you feel any pain.
Hold the stretch for 2-3 seconds before moving your head to the opposite side.
Repeat this stretch 10x in each direction.
This stretch should be performed in a seated position. Perform 3x/day or whenever you find yourself sitting for a long time, and/or when your lower back begins to feel stiff.
Sit in a chair and allow yourself to slouch completely.
Relax for 2-3 seconds in this slouched position and then draw yourself upright, accentuating the curve of your lower back as much as possible. This is the “extreme,” or exaggerated version of the correct sitting posture.
Hold this posture for 2-3 seconds, then return to a fully relaxed position.
Repeat this stretch 10-15x.
5) Extension While Standing
This stretch can be performed 2x/day or whenever you find yourself sitting for a long time, and/or when your lower back begins to feel stiff.
Stand upright, close to a stable surface that you can use to steady yourself if you need to.
Stand with feet at least hips width apart.
Place your hands in the small of your back with the fingertips pointing downward so that they meet in the center of your spine.
Bend backwards at the waist as far as you comfortably can, using your hands to keep you steady. Keep your knees straight.
Hold this position for 1-2 seconds and then return to the starting position.
Perform 10 repetitions of this stretch.
Karen Yanelli is a doctor of physical therapy at the Joint Mobility Center at Hospital for Special Surgery. She is certified in the McKenzie method of Mechanical Diagnosis and Therapy (MDT).