Harvard Men's Health Watch

Don’t be such a stiff

There are ways to keep morning stiffness from being a pain.

Ever get that “old man” stiffness in the morning? You know the feeling: the dull, achy, and sometimes painful feeling in your joints — along with the customary grunts and groans — when you first stand and slowly move around.

“It’s not known why this happens, especially as people age, but the only common thread is that it occurs after long bouts of inactivity,” says Dr. William Docken, a rheumatologist with Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “That is why you often feel so stiff when you wake up, since sleeping is when you are inactive for the longest continuous time.”

Sleeping is not the only culprit, though. “Any prolonged period of inactivity can cause stiffness,” adds Dr. Docken. This explains the soreness you experience after sitting for long periods, like when watching TV, working at the computer, or riding in the car.

Possible red flags

Most morning stiffness lasts about 15 to 20 minutes, although some bouts end sooner or later. Most of the time the stiffness doesn’t raise a concern since it goes away quickly. However, ongoing and prolonged stiffness could signal a more serious problem. “If you don’t loosen up within 30 minutes to an hour in the morning, you should see your doctor,” says Dr. Docken.

If your stiffness lasts longer than that, it could be a sign of underlying inflammation in the joints and possible rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease. It can also be a red flag for polymyalgia rheumatica, an inflammatory disorder that causes pain and stiffness in the shoulders, neck, hips, or thighs, and is usually worse in the morning. It is more common in people ages 65 and older.

Move more, move often

Most stiffness goes away as you move around, so the more you move, the fewer bouts of stiffness you most likely will endure. Think of it like oiling a sticky door hinge and then swinging the door until it moves freely.

There are many strategies you can take to prevent and manage stiffness. For example, set a timer to remind you to move around every 20 to 30 minutes during periods of long sitting.

“Walk around your house or outside, do some chores, or even a quick series of movements like lunges and marching in place,” Dr. Docken says.

In terms of your regular fitness, he suggests including exercises or activities that help build your quadriceps muscles (at the fronts of your thighs) and your core. “Strong quads control how your knee extends and how well you move from a sitting to a standing position,” he says. “A healthy core can reduce back and hip stiffness.”

For regular morning stiffness, begin your day with a stretching and movement routine (see below).

Get moving morning routine

Here is a quick four-move sequence that addresses the main stiff areas — the back, knees, and shoulders. You can also do these moves during the day to stay active, or when you need to get loose after sitting for a long time.

1. Back bend (lower back, shoulders, chest)

Stand up straight with your feet slightly apart. Place your hands on your lower back with your fingertips pointing down. As you inhale, roll your shoulders back and gently lift your chest toward the ceiling, arching your back to the point of comfort. Gaze up at the ceiling in front of you. (Be careful not to hyperextend your neck.) Hold for three to five breaths. Release on an exhalation. Do three to five reps.

2. Cat-cow (chest, back)

Get down on all fours with your hands directly beneath your shoulders and your knees beneath your hips. Begin with your back flat. Round your back, bring your chin toward your chest, and tuck your tailbone under. (The is the “cat.”) Return to flat back position. Then lift your tailbone and shoulders toward the ceiling, and look straight forward. (This is the “cow.”) Return to flat back position to complete one rep. Continue moving with your breath in a slow and controlled movement back and forth between cat and cow until you complete five to 10 reps.

3. Chair pose (legs, hips, shoulders)

Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart; arms should be down at your sides. Raise your arms overhead. As you exhale, bend your hips and knees and lower yourself into a squat position (as low as comfortable), keeping your back straight. Hold for a few seconds and stand as you lower your arms to complete one rep. Repeat the movement until you do five to 10 reps. You can also raise your arms to chest height only or even keep your hands on your thighs, so you focus only on your lower body.

4. Arm sweeps (arms, shoulders)

Stand up straight with your feet together. As you inhale, sweep your arms out to the sides and up toward the ceiling. As you exhale, sweep your arms down to your sides. Repeat five to 10 times.

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