When the alarm goes off, what do you do? (Besides hit snooze, that is!) Pop out of bed and get going?
Guess what: you're doing it wrong. And I was too.
When you bolt upright from lying prone for several (several) hours, says physical therapist Erika Mundinger, you run the risk of hurting yourself before your feet are even on the floor. No joke — we've all probably heard someone say they hurt their back literally just by getting out of bed in the morning, or first thing, when they get in the shower, say. Going to bed stiff, or sleeping funny, combined with the rapid transition up getting up could be all it takes to strain something.
Mundinger, who works with patients at TRIA Orthopaedic Center in Bloomington, Minnesota, also says that there's a lot more going on when we wake up than just getting upright. “You're changing blood pressure, breathing rate, brain waves,” she explains. These changes are all part of the recovery and repair our bodies do while sleeping. Then if we have to fly out of bed, she says, we don't get the slow acceleration we need.
In her own life, “if I just pop up and get going I really struggle,” she says. “I've had enough injuries from skydiving and skiing and being a reckless idiot that it is hard for me to get going. It is hard to get up, she acknowledges. “It does suck getting up.”
And think about it. At night “we don't just walk around, walk around, then fall into bed, go from completely upright to completely flat,” she says. “We probably have a routine — sitting and watching TV or lying down reading. We transition [to bed]. So why not transition when you wake up?”
Good news: that transition means a few extra minutes in bed. With a few simple stretches before leaving our sanctuary we can ease all of our systems into waking up — in addition to getting blood flowing and the spine warmed up.
We should be taking cues from our pets — they instinctively know what to do. Every morning I watch my dogs stretch leisurely before hopping off the bed (granted, they don't have deadlines looming!).
So what are the best stretches to do first thing in the morning? Choose any or all of these movements Mundinger recommends, skipping any that don't feel good.
“What's nice about these is they're general mobility but they're also what we give people with back pain because they're so safe and so gentle,” she says. “They tell the back it's ok to move, we want to move, it's not going to hurt. It's a very gentle way to get the body woken up.”
With three to five of the stretches you're getting good general movement and it takes only five minutes, she says — and as tempting as that snooze button is, it's much better for you than a five minute snooze. Focus on slow movements with each of these, and don't hold the positions too long, she notes, which could be too much strain first thing.
The Big Stretch
This is one we probably already do subconsciously, Mundinger says. Just stretch your arms overhead and “try to get as long as possible, lengthen your spine. It gets everything opened up for good blood flow — that's a good one to start to get things moving.” (It's the same one I see my dogs do.)
Supine Twist, 5-10 reps
Twists are good prep for the spinal twist involved in getting out of bed; this one twists from the bottom up. Begin lying on your back with your feet flat on the bed and your arms straight out to your sides. (Or if you have a partner in bed or a small bed your hands can be resting on your stomach.) Lower your knees to one side, return to center, and repeat on the other side. Move slowly and only move as far as pain/comfort/flexibility allows. It is ok to allow your pelvis to come up a little bit but keep feet in contact with the bed.
Side Lying Twist, 5-10 reps
This one will twist from the top down. Begin lying on your side with your legs bent at 60-90 degree angle at the hips and your arms together straight in front of you on the bed. Slide your top hand forward slightly then raise it up and over your body, twisting to the other side. Follow the movement of your hand with your head and eyes. Keep your knees together and only rotate your back and upper arm. Your hips should stay facing forward.
Pelvic tilt, 5-10 reps
This movement opens up the spine with a gentle flexion and extension motion. Even though it helps turn the core muscles on, it's from a safe, protected position on our back, Mundinger says.
Begin by lying on your back with your knees bent and feet resting on the bed. Slowly tilt your pelvis forward, then tilt it back to neutral, and tilt it backward. Repeat these movements. Concentrate your movements only on your pelvis.
Knee to Chest, 15-30 reps
If Mundinger does only a couple movements herself in the morning, this is one.
Begin lying on your back with your knees bent and feet resting flat on the bed. Grasp your legs behind your thighs and slowly pull your knees toward your chest until you feel a gentle stretch in your lower back. Make sure to not strain.
Supine Bridge, 5-10 reps
This is like the pelvic tilt but a larger motion. Mundinger says. “It's really turning on the abs and glutes and getting muscles to fire a bit before we're getting out of bed.”
Begin lying on your back with your arms resting at your sides, your legs bent at the knees and your feet flat on the ground. Gently tighten your abdominals and slowly lift your hips off the bed into a bridge position, keeping your back straight. Make sure to keep your trunk stiff throughout the exercise and your arms flat on the bed.
The next few may be done in bed if your mattress is supportive enough, or you may like to move to a yoga mat next to the bed.
Cat Cow, 5-10 reps
Begin on all fours with your arms directly under your shoulders and knees bent 90 degrees. Slowly round your back up toward the ceiling, then let it sag down to the floor while looking up, and repeat.
Make sure to use your entire back for the motion and keep your movements slow and controlled.
Quadruped twist (aka thread the needle), 5-10 reps
Begin on all fours. Lift one arm out to your side, then to the ceiling, rotating your trunk at the same time. Next, reach that arm all the way under your body, through your opposite arm and leg, rotating your trunk in the opposite direction. Repeat these movements. Keep your movements smooth and controlled. Follow your arm with your head as you move.
Child's Pose, 15-30 second hold
Begin on all fours. Sit your hips back while reaching your arms overhead and lowering your chest to the ground. Hold this position. Relax into the pose and try to sit your bottom back to your heels as much as possible.
Downward Dog, 15-30 second hold
Begin on all fours. Prop your feet up on your toes, then push your body up into an inverted V position with your elbows and knees straight. Hold this position, feeling a stretch through your back and legs.
Keep your shoulders down, as well as your hands and feet flat on the floor during the stretch.
Finally, for bonus points, do some standing stretches after you get up, some side stretches, arm circles and hugging yourself then opening up.
Who knows, adding these movements each morning — a relatively small commitment, compared to a big resolution like going to the gym every day — may just be the spark needed to get us adding even more movement. Even for fitness professionals like Mundinger, “it's easy for us to fall out of the routine. [And] if it's hard to build that routine, why don't we just get our day started a little better?”
And while your mileage may vary, when I did the complete set of stretches before leaving my nice warm bed this morning, the back pain that plagues me more days than not eased considerably. Count me a convert to the stay in bed later club.
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