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3 Simple Stretches To Relax Your Neck And Shoulders

And you don't even have to leave your chair.

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Photographs by Bee Trofort (Wardrobe Stylist: Bailey Harrs; Hair Stylist: Rachel Reid; Makeup Artist: Danielle Mitchell)
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Many of us are spending more time in front of our computers these days, which often results in neck and shoulder tension. If you have only a few minutes between video calls, here are three easy exercises, recommended by a certified physical therapist, you can do to release stress without leaving your chair.

I began to notice an increase in neck and shoulder pain soon after I started working from home, but I thought it would go away on its own. Unfortunately, a stiff neck became an everyday occurrence. So, I consulted Daniel Mortimer, owner of Regenerate Physical Therapy and Performance in San Marcos, California, to find out how to reduce the pain. I found I wasn’t alone; Mortimer has seen an uptick in neck and shoulder pain in his clients since we shifted to home offices. First, he asked about my daily habits, including how long I spend sitting at a desk, looking at a computer screen, and how often I get up to stretch. After this, he suggested that I incorporate these three exercises throughout the day. I was relieved to know I could alleviate the tension by making these simple changes to my daily routine.

Cervical Extension with Towel

Cervical Extension With a Towel

The first exercise Mortimer recommends is the cervical extension with a towel. Sitting upright, place a small rolled towel around your neck, holding the ends with both hands. Gently release your head back so you are looking up at the ceiling. Maintain pressure by pulling down on the ends of the towel; this provides support to the cervical spine. Return your head to the original position, looking forward. You should feel a nice stretch and no sharp pain. Do 20 repetitions during your stretch break.

Cervical Snags with Towel
Bee Trofort-Wilson

Cervical SNAG With a Towel

A cervical SNAG, or sustained natural apophyseal glide, is another exercise you can perform seated, using a small towel. Sit up straight and place the towel around your neck, in a position similar to that of the cervical-extension exercise, above. This time, cross your arms to hold opposite ends of the towel, with the right arm on top. Turn your head to the right while pulling the towel with your right hand over your left jawline. At the same time, pull down toward the middle of your chest with your left hand, providing support. Hold briefly at the end of the rotation, and return to the neutral position, maintaining the towel pull as you release. Adjust the angle, looking slightly up or down to find what feels good; the exercise should be completely pain-free. Do 10 repetitions on one side, then switch to the opposite side, with your left arm on top.

Thoracic Extension
Bee Trofort-Wilson

Thoracic Extension

This thoracic-extension exercise targets the mid back and thoracic spine. Start by sitting up straight, interlacing your hands behind your head like you’re taking a break and admiring your work. Bring your elbows out in front and lift your chest forward while “scraping your elbows across the ceiling.” Perform this exercise anytime you notice you’re slouching forward in your chair and need a little reset.

Move It!

Although these exercises can offer relief, Mortimer says that “the number one recommendation is always to get up and move throughout the day.” I have tried using the Pomodoro method — getting up every 25 minutes — however, I’m often in the middle of a project and just ignore the alarm. When I asked Mortimer about this, he said, “I recommend getting up and moving around when you have a natural break in your work. This allows you to continue your flow and not disrupt your work but also gives you the ability to get up, stretch and take a mental break.” Since talking with Mortimer, I’ve been making a habit of getting up between projects and have noticed a significant improvement in neck and shoulder tension and in productivity.

Don’t Ignore It

The most important lesson I learned was to take action and not let the pain or tension go untreated. Many of us muscle through the pain, but Mortimer reminded me that “neck and shoulder stress are precursors to injury and pain, which is the body’s way of letting you know that a problem is developing. Pain and injuries arise when we don’t listen to that discomfort and continue our poor habits.” These stretches are just one way to help mitigate pain; if your tension persists or worsens, see a physical therapist in person for a diagnosis. Small changes can have significant impacts, so schedule some SNAGs into your day!


Do you try to stretch on a regular basis? Let us know in the comments below.

Follow Article Topics: Health