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I Wish I Could Just Relax

Rob Stanborough, PT, DPT, MHSc, MTC, FAAOMPT

The National Sleep Foundation recently reported that worries are keeping one in ten Americans awake at night. Topping the list of our concerns: economic worries, job security, and personal relationships. If you’re one of those who can’t seem to shut off the stress when your head hits the pillow be sure to eat right and exercise.  Besides that, is there more you can do to relax?

The answer is yes. Jacobson Exercises, also called Progressive Relaxation Exercises, can help you release physical tension, and may even help you fall asleep. These exercises take about 10-20 minutes to do, and they may even be more effective than the traditional glass of warm milk, especially if you are lactose intolerant.

To perform Jacobson exercises, begin by lying on your back with your head and legs supported.  Then, following the sequence outlined below, tense and release your muscles individually. If you really want to relax, minimize distractions like excessive light and noise during the exercises. Remember to keep breathing during this process. It may help to breathe in before you contract the muscle, breathe out during the contraction, and breathe in again as you relax the muscle. While lying on your back, the sequence of contractions should be as follows:

Slowly tighten both fists while counting for 8-10 seconds, then slowly release the tension.  Rest for 10-15 seconds.

  1. Straighten your fingers and thumbs and slowly release.
  2. Tighten your biceps by bending your elbows and release.
  3. Tighten your triceps by straightening your arms and release.
  4. Raise your eyebrows high into your forehead and release.
  5. Close and slowly squeeze your eyelids tight as you count to 8 or 10 and release.
  6. Progress to your jaw by gently clenching your teeth and release.
  7. Move to your neck by gently, progressively pushing your head into your pillow, and release.  (Since this tends to be an area of tightness, you can do this twice.)
  8. Tighten the muscles in your chest by pressing your hands together and release.
  9. Pull your shoulder blades together and push your shoulders into the floor/bed, and release.
  10. Squeeze your buttocks together, hold and release.
  11. Tighten the muscles of your thigh all the way to your knees (without contracting your calves), and release.
  12. Point your feet/toes away from you, hold, and rest. Then pull your feet/toes up toward you, hold and release.
  13. Finally, curl your toes, slowly building the tension for 8-10 seconds and relax.

 Contractions should be pain-free and should slowly build for up to 8-10 seconds. After the contraction, relax the muscle for 10-15 seconds. Only tense the desired muscle group, not the neighboring muscles. For example, when you squeeze your fist, do not contract the muscles in the upper arm.

If you’ve been able to remain awake, this process should take approximately 20 minutes. 

Jacobson exercises can be done any time of day or night for the purpose of relaxation and are just one form of exercise used by Physical and Occupational Therapists. As with any form of exercise, it is always good to consult your physician or health practitioner regarding your health status and any contraindications. 

 Rob Stanborough specializes in musculoskeletal conditions and lectures regularly on the subjects of muscular pain, soft tissue injuries, and treatment