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What can you do to reduce stiffness?

Stiffness.

We all experience it. Some more than others depending on your activities and age. It doesn’t exactly stop you from doing things but it sure makes you feel slow to start, especially in the morning.

Stiffness is a universally unpleasant sensation, so many people would like to know how they can reduce or eliminate it. But first, let’s explore what that “stiffness” is.

Stiffness is a subjective sensation, sort of like pain. It can exist with or without actual tissue shortness or inflexibility. Most people who feel stiff will assume they are inflexible and that they need to stretch more. But even gymnasts who can do the splits will feel stiff from time to time, so stiffness can’t be considered an accurate gauge of flexibility. When we’re talking about stiffness, we’re talking about a feeling, not the mobility of your muscles and joints.

Complaints of stiffness seem most prevalent when people are first starting to move after a period of immobility—like after sleep—or after people have done LOTS of activity—like exercise or lots of manual labor. My guess is that both extremes—being sedentary or doing lots of activity—have similar effects on our tiny little nerves. Namely, it aggravates them!

When you’re sedentary your circulation to some of these nerves is decreased. Greedy little energy hogs that they are, they start to get irritated. When you finally do move, you tense and compress these primed nerves and they all fire off and you feel a sensation that you call “stiffness”. After moving a bit, the circulation is restored to the nerves and they shut up quickly and the feeling goes away, as it usually does, within minutes or seconds.

On the other end, after you do lots of physical activity you’re likely to end up with some amount of inflammation around the body parts that you worked most. Inflammatory chemicals are irritating, so all our little nerves are bathing in the stuff and getting irritated and sensitive themselves. It won’t take much for them to react, and just like in the last scenario, when you move around a bit and tense and compress them they fire off and you feel a sensation, which might be “sub-pain” but still unpleasant, i.e. stiffness.

Arthritis is also a common reason for feeling stiff. Our joints are bathed in slick joint lubricant. When we aren’t moving, our cartilage absorbs some of this fluid like a sponge (it’s how the cartilage gets nourished). When we start moving that fluid gets squeezed out and lubricates the joint. When we’re young this happens quickly after we move. When we’re older, there’s less joint fluid and the process happens more slowly, so are joints feel stiff and literally creaky for a bit.

Enough talk. What can be done?

 

Stretching

Let’s start here since I know it’s what you’re all thinking. While I won’t tell you not to stretch if you like to do it, I’m not sure it’s going to have much effect on the feeling of stiffness or preventing it. (I’ve previously discussed how stretching is over-hyped here). Think about it: you’re probably feeling that stiffness with normal movements (getting up from a chair, walking, going up stairs), that are all well within normal ranges of motion. It’s not like you’re getting anywhere close to your end-range for the muscles involved, so a stretch wouldn’t help too much. Make sense? A brief stretch like you do when first getting out of bed may temporarily reduce feelings of stiffness, but I file that under mobilizing, which I discuss below.

 

Hydrate

File this one under “Couldn’t hurt to try.” After scouring the research, I can’t find anything discussing a link between hydration status and feeling stiff. BUT we are 70% water yadda yadda yadda. It’s possible that if you’re dehydrated the viscosity of your joint fluid could increase and you’d feel more stiffness. Possibly. Drinking fluids throughout the day so that your urine is light yellow or almost clear should keep you and your joints hydrated enough.

 

Heat

Stiffness is a subjective sensation and, subjectively, most people feel that heat makes them less stiff. A nice warm shower in the morning is usually effective for fighting off the stiffness of waking up. A heat pad or hot water bottle on your neck or upper back can be helpful for stiffness in those areas. Neoprene sleeves for your elbows or knees help trap your body heat. And the most effective form of heating is to produce it internally…through exercise. Have you ever felt stiff in the middle of your exercise routine? I’m betting no.

 

Mobilize…often

I’ve saved the best and most effective strategy for last. As I stated earlier, I think a lot of the sensation of stiffness comes long periods of inactivity. SOOOO, don’t be inactive for a long time! Break up periods of inactivity frequently with some form of gentle mobilization aimed at whatever parts feel stiff to you. You’ll improve circulation in areas that have stagnated. You’ll get muscles, tendons, ligaments, and fascia moving around. You’ll redistribute joint lubricant. It’s all good! Best of all, if you’re an office warrior I truly believe these habits will help prevent a host of work-related pains, especially in the back and neck. Try to mobilize at least every hour. If you’re still stiff, you may have to up the frequency. You have the power.

Here are some of my suggestions:

Neck circles, shoulder circles, and torso twists

 

Back bends

Squats

But, really, just move whatever is stiff often!

 

P.S. If you’re getting LOTS of stiffness at work that is bordering on soreness it’s a good sign that you need to change something up or you may be heading for full-blown neck pain. Check out the tips in our free report to head it off before it becomes a real issue! CLICK THE REPORT.