Back when I was a much younger man, I remember the days when the cantankerous old guys at the gym used to complain about aches, pains and an inability to arrange their bodies in a manner conducive to sleeping. I may have nodded sympathetically, but my inner voice was saying, “Whatever, grandpa — if you just train regularly, you won’t have those problems!”
Well, the joke’s on me, because now I’m the figurative “grandpa” in this equation, and my body is a walking accident in search of an opportunity. At bedtime especially, I’m forced to configure myself in a way that alleviates the pressure from a lower back that’s endured far too much trauma, as well as pacify a shoulder that’s been ravaged by nearly 40 years of swimming.
Stretching is commonly proposed as a solution to such discomfort. But at least in terms of fitness, the perception of stretching has taken a tumble in recent years. Once upon a time, nearly all athletes were advised to stretch before any kind of training or competition. Recent research, however, has determined that stretching throws the natural stopping points of muscles off-kilter and makes people less comfortable within their own bodies in competitive environments. It also elevates the likelihood of experiencing an injury from the stretching itself because the muscles are being stretched while they’re cold as opposed to having been warmed up through movement.
Still, stretching before bed to rid myself of my nightly aches and pains has little to do with any of that, and frankly, sounds fantastic — not to mention, the key to a good night’s sleep.
Less pain and a good night’s sleep does sound fantastic. Does stretching before bed accomplish that?
If we look at the results from controlled experiments, all signs seem to point to yes.
In a 2018 study, both resistance training and stretching decreased the severity of subjects’ insomnia and improved their sleep quality, with stretching also minimizing tension anxiety. In an unrelated 2012 study, stretching before bedtime reduced the frequency and severity of leg cramps in those who suffered from them frequently. And finally, a 2014 study found that REM sleep was more easily achieved by those who engaged in light stretching before bedtime, while stress response during sleep was improved as well.
What stretches should I do before bed then?
That’s dependent upon what sort of pain, tightness or discomfort you’re experiencing, and where in your body you’re feeling it. If it’s your lower back and neck that’s barking, you’ll need stretches that will actually work to help you sleep properly, but which are safe enough to not exacerbate things further by either overstretching or aggressively stretching a cold muscle.
Fortunately, several of the most effective lower back stretches can be performed while you’re essentially in a sleeping position. In fact, one of the simplest can be accomplished while you’re lying supine on the bed, facing upwards; all you need to do is shift to slide your butt cheeks upwards one at a time. Another is the child’s pose, which helps you to extend your vertebrae and relieve the pressure in your spine before you nod off to sleep.
To enhance the comfort of your neck, you can begin by making large, slow, circular movements with it. From there, you can alternate by tilting your right ear toward your right shoulder while using your right hand and arm to pull your ear even closer to your shoulder while you hold it in place. After about a count of 20, change the angle of your head slightly so that it’s more diagonal, and hold that for a count of 20, too. Then repeat everything with your left hand and arm.
The final piece of the puzzle? Normally, I’d say it’s crawling into bed. But the reality is, now you’re gonna make it there much more upright.