I never understood why my dancer friends loved sitting in second position while they completed homework in high school, or even why they spent at least an hour stretching each day. I knew stretching was important for flexibility, yet I wondered why people wanted to feel pain all day. Then I realized that the initial pain from low flexibility doesn’t last long and that the benefits increase with prolonged stretching.

I used to stretch at least 15 minutes a day for color guard, but that habit stopped once I started college because I told myself I didn’t have time. I later started stretching so I could improve my swimming, but even then, I would only stretch the bare minimum amount.

This summer, I decided that I needed more flexibility to improve as a swimmer. Stretching helped me develop shoulder and leg flexibility, but I later realized that it relaxed my mind in a way I didn’t know was possible. I realized I felt more at peace after stretching, especially if I listened to one of my favorite music playlists or instrumental music at the same time.

As a result, I increased my stretching time each week and now stretch at least a half hour a day. Why does stretching work so well? Well, here’s the answer.

Stress comes from built up tension. My color guard coach in high school always told me I looked tense and would often relax my shoulders. Since then, I’ve become conscious of tension in my body. Even though I’ve relaxed my shoulders, I realize I internalize stress through other muscles. For example, I often clench my teeth, grasp my wrist, or feel cramps in my neck when I’m anxious or stressed.  Stress also activates adrenaline, which adds to the  tension and restricts blood flow.

Stretching counteracts these negative effects because it relaxes the muscles and releases tension––but only when people perform them right. You need to hold stretches for a minimum of 15 seconds (I recommend 30 seconds to a minute depending on what stretch and how much flexibility you want to build in a certain muscle group). It also counteracts shortness of breath from anxiety and helps establish normal breathing patterns. I never actually realized I hold my breath until I started stretching.

Although yoga can carry new age implications, people can still engage in this exercise without spiritualizing it by adapting the stretching techniques. These stretches are the best because they ease the mind and allow people to decompress, both physically and mentally.

I enrolled in a strength and stretch physical education class this semester after discovering how stretching helped relieve my anxiety. I’m almost always anxious when I start the class because it’s early in the morning, which  is the time when my anxiety level skyrockets. However, I feel energized during the class and at peace whenever I leave. In addition, my instructor shouts encouraging messages like “You can do it!” and “You ladies are quick learners.”

Furthermore, community stretching can increase relaxation because other people can help distract you from your worries and motivate you to follow through with your stretches.

It still shocks me how much tension builds up throughout my body in a day, but thankfully I’ve found a great way to release all that negative energy. There’s nothing more satisfying than bending over and touching my toes, sitting in second position and leaning over, or laying on my back as I (attempt to) lift my leg towards to ceiling. I instantly loosen up feel all the negativity leave my body.

Getting into a stretch routine takes some discipline, but it’s worth it. Grab some friends, create a motivating Spotify playlist, grab a yoga mat, and start! You don’t have to be a dancer or have a lot of flexibility. Just start easy and go for it.

If you’re not sure what type of stretch routine to begin, check out my Pinterest board.

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