Winter Stiffness


Thanksgiving is just around the corner and the Christmas ornaments are already up.  It’s that time of year when the belt lines get tighter, we’re thinking of who’s on the ‘Good’ list, and what gifts to buy.

It’s also that time when the fall is behind us and winter is giving us a taste of what’s to come.  Which means our bodies are feeling the chill, and physiologically it can make a significant impact.

What people complain about is soreness and stiffness in the winter months.  Muscles and soft tissues can feel a lot stiffer and uncomfortable in the cold months.  Cold temperatures slow down circulation, which can lead to an increase in metabolic by-product trapped in the tissues. This is called lactic acid and it gives us that feeling of soreness or stiffness.  The cold also makes the joints feel stiffer because the fluid in the joints stagnate and getting them to move is painful and difficult.  Think of the Tin Man trying to get going without his oil can.

There are ways to avoid this.  One way is to remember is to try to warm up before you get started in your day and definitely before you try to workout.  Dynamic stretching is a good way of doing this as it lengthens and contracts the soft tissues and increases your circulation.  This leads to an overall increase in your flexibility which will reduce your complaints of stiffness.  Good examples are monster walks, leg and arm swings and hand walks or the inch worm.

Static stretching is also beneficial, but more in people who truly know their limits in their flexibility.  When you stretch ‘cold’, which is when you haven’t warmed up the body yet, you have to respect where your end range is during the stretch.  If you pass that point and try to keep going because you think you should look a certain way while stretching or disrespect the stretch pain that you are feeling, you risk overstretching or tearing the soft tissue.  This is when you can actually give yourself an injury!

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Active Movements or Active Range of Motion is another way of reducing stiffness.  It is actively moving your joint or limbs in a pain-free and available range of motion that increases mobility in the tissues, increases range and uses the muscles as a muscular pump to get more fluids in and out of an area.

Keeping your body strong during the winter months is important.  Stay strong with strength, endurance and stability exercises.  Those that are core-centric are my favorite.  The reason is that muscles that are strong around a joint, reduce the compressive load through the joint and allow for the joint to move in its fullest available range which means a decrease in the complaints of stiffness.  Squats, lunges, push-ups and planks are great whole body activities that are easy to do anywhere.  To add some fun, add some instability with exercise equipment, like the Bosu ball or Theraball.  They really challenge your balance and make it fun!

Don’t let yourself stiffen up this winter. Try the above exercises to keep the body moving, keep you warm outside and keep you strong and flexible as you negotiate your way to work. If you have any questions or want to work with a professional, contact your local Physical Therapist who can assess you and prescribe the best home exercise program for you.

Dr. Karena Wu is owner and Clinical Director of ActiveCare Physical Therapy. She has been practicing physical therapy for 16 years in New York City after she graduated from the Program In Physical Therapy at Columbia University. She received her clinical doctorate in physical therapy from Temple University. She has advanced training in manual therapies, specifically in the Maitland Australian Approach and Myofascial Release. Karena is a Certified Orthopedic Manual Therapist, Strength and Conditioning Specialist, Kinesiology Tape Practitioner and Pilates Instructor. She is also LSVT BIG, FMS and SFMA Level 1 Certified. Karena is a dedicated practitioner who takes a holistic approach to her practice. She actively networks with a team of physicians, chiropractors, acupuncturists and massage therapists. Her patient population consists of professional athletes, dancers, celebrity chefs, TV media stars, high end business professionals, and NYPD/FDNY. Karena is used as a healthcare expert on CBS, NBC, NY1, PIX11, Verizon Fios, Fox News and Dr. Oz. She is the Director of Education for SpiderTech Kinesiology Tape and is on the Medical Board of the Association of Volleyball Professionals. Visit her website at