4 Stretches to Ward off Colds and Flu

Kate Hanley stretching

You know how you feel that first tickle in your throat, or ache in your bones, or flutter in your stomach, and think I’m just going to ignore that?

I know how tempting it is to think that you can avoid developing a full-blown illness just by refusing to pay attention to any symptoms. Nobody feels they ‘have time’ to get sick. I have definitely tried the I’m-just-gonna-stick-my-head-in-the-sand strategy.

But here’s the thing – it doesn’t help you stay well.

The good news is, you can seriously boost your immune system’s ability to ward off winter crud with some simple stretches that also feel great.

How does it work, exactly? It’s all about getting your lymph flowing. The lymphatic system is an integral part of immunity. Similar to the circulatory system, it’s a series of channels that extend throughout the body. Lymphatic fluid travels along these channels, removing waste products (including germs) and delivering immune cells. The only hitch is, the lymphatic system does not have a pump the way your circulatory system has the heart. So if you want to get your lymph moving, you’ve got to move your muscles (which the lymph travels through) and change your body’s relationship to gravity.

Here are four stretches that do exactly that. Do them the very first time you think, Hmmm, could I be coming down with something? Or, to be even more proactive, do one or two of these a day during virus season and up your odds of never even feel the tickle!


1. Upside Down L

Where to do it: Standing in the kitchen, waiting for the coffee to brew.

How to do it: Hold on to the edge of the counter with your fingertips and step your feet back until your spine is perpendicular to the floor – your feet will be either under your hips or a few inches behind them. Look down at the floor but don’t let your head hang or ribs jut down—you want a nice, long, even spine from the tail bone all the way to the base of the skull. Stay five good breaths.

What it does: Opens up the lymph channels under the armpits and in the neck; stretches the intercostal muscles in between the ribs, which paves the way for more productive breathing and, if it comes to that, coughing.

2. Neck Release

Where to do it: Sitting on the edge of your desk chair with both feet flat on the floor.

How to do it: Sit up tall with a nice long spine and then allow your chin to drop down toward your chest. When your head is as forward as it can comfortably go, stay there and take three to five good breaths.

What it does: Opens the lymph channels in the back of the neck which get congested if you have a typical tension pattern of drawing the shoulders up toward the ears.


3. Reclined Twist

Where to do it: On the living room floor while you’re watching TV.

How to do it: Lie on your back with your arms resting on the floor at shoulder height, making a T shape. Bend your right knee into your chest, then drop it across your body toward the floor on the outside of your left knee. Imagine lengthening the whole right side of the body as the right knee and right shoulder reach away from each other. Stay three breaths, then repeat to the other side.

What it does: Massages the abdominal organs and encourages digestion and elimination—which is a great thing, because 80% of the immune system is in your gut. Also opens the intercostal muscles between the ribs for improved breathing and coughing.


4. Legs Up the Wall

Where to do it: In your bedroom, just before bed or after waking up.

How to do it: Sit with your legs straight and your right hip touching a wall. Roll onto your left side and then on to your back—swishing your legs up so that they rest on the wall, outstretched. If you have a yoga block, place it under your sacrum to give you extra lift. Rest your hands on your belly or on the floor beside you and stay two or three minutes. You can also open your legs out into a wide V for a minute or two if it isn’t too much of a stretch for your inner thighs (this should be relaxing, not uncomfortable).

What it does: Helps the lymphatic fluid from the lower extremities return toward the heart. If you open the legs wide, it also opens the lymph channels that run through the groins.