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Six Daily Stretches and Strengthening Exercises for Teachers

Across the vast expanse of human history, countless peoples have believed in a holistic balance of personal wellness that includes the mind, the spirit, and the body.  Teachers have no issue exercising their minds in the classroom with ample problem solving and quick thinking.  Our boundless energy, passion, and enthusiasm for learning invigorates our spirit.  In our mission to improve and enrich the lives of our students, however, our bodies—our personal health—often gets pushed to the wayside.  It’s too often the last thing on our “to do” list.  And yet, the old adage, “you can’t take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself first,” is no silly fable.

And the field of education certainly lends itself to some physical feats.  Teachers spend most of their days on their toes, and when they get a moment to rest, it is so often spent bent over a computer screen: crafting lessons, doing research, maintaining timely feedback.   

Alex Lagase is a personal trainer for the JCC Association, an organization committed, as a part of their mission, to improving the health and wellness of our communities by providing fitness sanctuaries that offer group exercise classes, intramural sports, aquatics, health spas, and nutritional education.  Lagase also holds a degree in Physical Education and Health, and understands all too well the ways the classroom can tax the strength and flexibility of the body.  “When we’re talking about the stress of teaching on the body, we’re mostly talking about posture,” he says, “Whether you’re sitting and typing or standing up, it’s a lot of stress on the back, the hips, and the knees.  And we start to slouch.”

Recently, Education World worked with Lagase to identify some of the key stretches and movements that might keep us fit and flexible during the marathon of the school year.  Although certainly leading to improved strength and range of motion for anyone in any field of work, Alex has tailored these exercises specifically for teaching professionals in the classroom.  He wants to help you strengthen your core, stretch overused and taxed muscles, and increase your body’s overall flexibility.

Exercise One:  The Upperclassman

Why you need it:  Much like the upperclassmen in your schools, tackling AP essays, college research, and completing their post-high school applications, teachers spend a lot of time in front of the computer.  “If you sit a lot, for example over a computer, the body tends to slump, and the spine will actually start to curve that way over time,” says Lagase.

What it does:  This exercise stretches out your neck and shoulders, preventing that hunch, and keeping your posture in alignment.

How to do it:  Stand straight, feet together.  Lock your fingers and reach up, up, up, above your head, palms down.  As your arms go up, tuck your chin down for a full elongation of the spine.

Exercise Two:  The Hallway Floater

Why you need it:  We all know the student that is perpetually in the hallways, wandering aimlessly.  And yet we tend to stretch our bodies with the same unfocused aimlessness.  We might stretch an arm, twist our backs to the left or right, but would we ever think to focus on our hips?  Lagase takes us to class:  “This area tends to weaken because there’s less stress placed on the body when you’re sitting: there’s no load-bearing going on, as the chair is taking on the load, so over time your hips and knees will start to weaken, and you want to stretch those out,” says Lagase, “There’s a tendon from your hip to your knee—the IT band—which will start to tighten and cause pull on the knee, pull on the hip, and cause discomfort.  It’s the leading cause of knee problems.”

What it does:  Strengthens your hip flexor.

How to do it:  Standing up, mimic sitting with one leg crossed over the other.  Two right angles with your legs, one resting on the other.  Sit, hold it, and then switch.  “You feel it deep in that hip and it feels wonderful,” adds Lagase.

Exercise Three:  The Common Core Burner

Why you need it:  The Common Core State Standards have the goal of increasing rigor in our classrooms and raising the bar for real-world 21st century education across the states.  We know all too well that there’s no place for slouching in our curriculum, and perhaps just as important, when we’re standing all day.  “The core is just as much responsible for posture as the back,” notes Lagase, “If your core isn’t strong enough, it’s going to help with that slouch forward, and it’s going to throw your lower back out of alignment.”

What it does:  This core strengthener is preventative, focusing on the abdominals.  It stops you from slouching when you’re standing up all day.

How to do it:  Stand up, nice and tall, arms out wide, and just lean back, looking straight up.  Arch your back toward the ground.

Exercise Four:  The Curved Grade

Why you need it:  For a uniquely challenging assignment, we might grade students on a curve and spend some more class time on a particular skill.  And so, when struggling with back pain due to excessive standing, another core exercise that can strengthen up a particularly challenging muscle group might be useful.  This time, we’ll focus on the obliques.

What it does:  Another preventative core strengthener, focusing on the obliques.

How to do it:  “Kneel down, like you are in the front row on school picture day,” quips Lagase.  Kneel on one knee.  You can either grab onto something nearby for balance or put your hand on your hip, whatever’s comfortable.  Reach the arm opposite of your forward knee above your head and slowly arch your body to that side.  Then switch to the other side.  “Often, when you’re working the obliques, you get a nice stretch in the back, too,” mentions Lagase.

Exercise Five:  The Lat Pass

Why you need it:  It might floor you to see how many students come late to your class.  Well, with this exercise, we’re going to get you on the floor to improve and strengthen your posture, focusing on the shoulders.  We have to “catch up” our late students, but we definitely don’t want to be “catching up” with taking care of our upper back later in life.

What it does:  This exercise strengthens your upper back, lats, and shoulders, and ultimately helps with posture.

How to do it:  Lay down on the ground, face down (depending on your school climate, this might be one you save for at home).  Place both hands behind your head, fingers interlocked.  Lift your upper body up…and come back down.  You want to keep your neck straight.  You don’t want to tilt the head too far back, because then you’re putting pressure on the upper spine.  Your interlocked hands should provide stability.

Exercise Six:  The Friday Fixer

Why you need it:  Before you hit the couch on Friday afternoon, you might want to hit the floor one more time.  Since we’re on our feet every day, all day—twisting, bending, and squatting—our bodies tend to tense up and stay “at the ready”.  This simple exercise can provide a much-needed rest for your back.

What it does:  This movement lets your spine—particularly your lower back—relax after a long day of tension.

How to do it:  Lay down in front of a flat surface (like a couch, ottoman, chair, or even steps) you can put your feet up on, legs anywhere from a 45 to 90 degree angle.  Let your back relax down, breathing deeply.  “You can actually feel the spine relaxing to the floor and the tension just melts away,” says Lagase, “It really helps with lower back issues.”

“I Don’t Have the Time for This Sort of Thing”

“You can do these stretches any time during the day,” says Lagase, “If you’ve got five seconds in between classes, use your chair or desk for support.”  If you’re more of a routine person, hit up each of these movements once in the morning and once in the evening to keep things loose.  Lagase notes, however, that variety is key.  “You don’t want to do one stretch all day, every day.  You know: ‘I love it so much, it feels good, I’m going to do it all the time.’”  It’s important to work different parts of the body throughout the day or week, or risk overwork.  “There’s the general rule of thumb of, ‘if it starts to hurt, stop doing it’”.

The real virtue of stretching and strengthening the body lies in its benefits as an anticipatory practice.  “For many people, once it has become a chronic issue, then they will have wished they had gotten into stretching proactively,” mentioned Lagase, “It’s a preventative measure.  You change the oil in your car.  Your body’s the same way.  You’ve got to put in the time and effort now, and you’ll reap the benefits later.  Think the long game.”


Written by Keith Lambert, Education World Associate Contributing Editor

Lambert is an English / Language Arts teacher and teacher trainer in Connecticut.