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There’s nothing worse than spending hours folded like origami into a cramped seat only to arrive at your final destination with sore muscles and cranky joints. According to Bob Anderson, author of the best-selling book Stretching (Shelter Publications, 2020), that lack of physical exertion leads to tight, weak muscles. “Stretching is that important link between sedentary life and active life,” he explains.
Travel forces you to remain sedentary for long periods and is generally hard on the body, but that doesn’t mean you have to start your vacation off with miserable muscle aches and tightness. Here are five stretches for traveling you can do anytime — even when stuck in a plane, train or car.
1. Cat Cow
Anyone who’s attended a yoga class is likely familiar with this animal-inspired sequence. It usually involves flexing and extending the spine from an all-fours position, but it can be modified to perform while sitting or standing. This stretch is a great way to relieve stress and tension in the spine while promoting better blood flow. In fact, you can modify most of your favorite stretches for traveling so you can stay loose and limber anytime.
To perform Cat Cow stretch while traveling, shift forward onto your seat so your back is free from the backrest. Place your hands lightly on your thighs and straighten your spine to its full length, taking extra care to make sure your neck is in line and neutral.
From this position, inhale by pushing your bellybutton out as you gently lift your chin and chest to extend your spine. Allow your hips to rock forward slightly. Next, exhale and pull your bellybutton in, tilting your hips back and under as you round through your back and drop your chin. Inhale and extend back up. Exhale and round your back.
Continue alternating between these movements for eight to 10 breaths. Follow the same steps to perform this movement while standing, placing your hands on your hips instead of your thighs.
2. Flex and Point
As frequent travelers already know, fluid retention in the lower legs can be a not-so-pleasant side effect of prolonged hours in a seated position. This is especially problematic when traveling by plane, where opportunities to stand up and move around are both impractical and discouraged. Lymph fluid requires muscle contraction to move, which is why it tends to collect when we are still for long periods.
To counteract this effect, use this simple flex-and-point stretch while traveling to engage the muscles in the lower legs and encourage better fluid dynamics.
While sitting, rest your heels on the floor or prop your lower legs up in a way that allows your feet to move freely. Keeping the rest of your body still, flex at your ankles to lift your toes toward your head. You should feel a stretch in the back of your calves.
Hold for a few beats, then reverse the motion to point your toes like a ballerina. This should engage your calves.
Continue alternating between these two movements, repeating for 15 to 20 reps. You also can alternate feet, flexing one foot while pointing the other. Use this any time your legs feel stagnant or tight.
3. Seated Figure-4
Sitting for long periods is hard on your hips and lower back, tightening muscles that contribute to lower-back pain, exacerbate poor posture, and can even cause nerve impingement and sciatica. This simple stretch targets the glutes and piriformis, the small muscle that runs across the back of the hip, to keep your hips and lower back healthy and happy.
In a seated position, lift one leg up and place that ankle on the opposite knee. Allow your lower leg to lay as flat across your lap as possible, making a figure-4. If your back and hips are particularly tight, this alone might be enough of a stretch. If not, extend up through your spine, keeping your abs engaged and your neck neutral.
Maintain this position and keep your chest up as you hinge forward from your hips to deepen the stretch. Hold this position for a minimum of 30 to 60 seconds, but feel free to remain in the stretch for as long as is comfortable.
When finished, set your foot down and repeat on your other hip.
4. Seated Twist
Another pesky side effect of travel is GI discomfort. While there are several reasons for this phenomenon — including disruption of normal routine, unfamiliar foods and pressure changes from altitude — the bottom line is an unhappy digestive system can seriously disrupt and even ruin vacation plans.
The seated twist is just what you need to put your belly troubles to rest. In addition to elongating the spine and encouraging better blood flow, twisting stretches are extremely beneficial for relaxation and proper digestion. This is precisely why so many yoga sequences incorporate twisting poses.
To perform a seated twist, sit forward on your hips so your spine is straight and your back is free from the backrest. Take a deep breath in and imagine elongating the spine as you inhale, pulling yourself up through the top of your head. Exhale as you simultaneously twist to one side, keeping your spine straight and long as you turn your shoulders and ribs 90 degrees from your hips. Hold this twist for three to five breaths, elongating with each inhalation and twisting deeper with each exhalation. Come back to center, then repeat the twist on the other side.
The hip flexors are an important muscle group to stretch under normal circumstances, but stretching them while traveling is absolutely essential. That’s because tight hips can pull your pelvis out of alignment, placing unnecessary pressure on your lower back and causing all sorts of postural problems and pain. While most hip stretches require standing or kneeling, the butterfly stretch can be performed while seated and targets the hips, inner thighs, groin and knees.
To perform the butterfly, sit forward on your hips with your back straight. Draw both legs up, bringing the bottoms of your feet together. Let your knees fall out to the side, keeping your chest up and your back straight as you lean forward slightly from your hips to stretch your inner thighs. Hold this stretch for at least 30 to 60 seconds, or as long as feels comfortable.