What are the best stretches when stiff after sitting?

I am often asked, “when I get stiff because I have sat at the computer for too long, or I have been in a vehicle for too long without having a break, what are the best stretches for me to do?”

Before I answer this question, I'd like to explain in simple terms the difference between muscle shortness and muscle stiffness.

When we stretch, we are generally trying to make things that are short longer. When we become stiff, as asked in the question above, have we become short? No, we have become stiff. Stiffness is a description of tone, or the opposite of loose or supple. So, what we're really asking is, “how can I restore the looseness or suppleness of the bits of me that have got stiff?”

The bits of us that have got stiff are generally referred to as soft tissue. The major culprit here will be muscle, but it might also include other soft tissues, such as ligaments or joints, for example.

What makes them stiff? Well clearly it is the lack of movement. On a cellular level, lack of movement results in lack of fluid movement, meaning blood in and blood out and drainage. This lack of drainage leads to a buildup of metabolites in the muscle, i.e. carbon dioxide and lactic acid, both of which are mild irritants, and make us ache.

So, is stretching a stiff structure (remember it is not short) the most efficient way of restoring suppleness?

No, the quickest way is to reverse the environment that has brought about this stiffness in the first place, i.e. the lack of muscle movement and hence the lack of fluid movement. The best way to achieve this is to get our muscles demanding blood, to make them work in a rhythmic manner. By getting the muscles to contract and then relax, they fill with blood and then squish the blood out of themselves, just like a pump. This is a great way of washing out the metabolites and speeds drainage of themselves and all their surrounding tissue.

Interestingly, even if you get large muscle groups, such as your legs, to work hard by doing 10 or 15 squats for example, this influences the whole body and will also relax the shoulders muscles, even though you technically haven't done any shoulder exercises. This occurs through whole body changes in the cardiovascular and nervous systems.  Anything that increases heart rate and makes you puff and pant will tend to have this effect. 

To get the best results however you also want to move all the bits of you that have got stiff and achy, like your back or your shoulders for example, so marching on the spot with high knees and pumping your arms back and forth is a great exercise to restore suppleness to most of you after sitting. But you can make up anything you like. I have some people do a mini dance routine or pretending to be shooting basketball hoops. 

‘Motion is Lotion’, is the phrase that I frequently use for my patients to remember this.  This phrase was introduced to me by David Butler, co-author of the book ‘Explain Pain’, and is a wonderful description and visual imagery of what one is trying to achieve. 

In summary: rhythmic movement is the key. You will find that your body responds quicker, and the effect lasts longer, than stretching.