Why Your Body Is Stiff and What You Should Do

Man with stiff knee while exercising outdoors

Getty Images / Oleg Breslavtsev

Feeling stiff is a common complaint, especially as you get older. Some people feel stiffer when they wake up in the morning or after periods of inactivity. Sometimes stiffness is due to an intense workout or new activity that your body is getting used to. Other times, stiffness can result from poor posture. 

There are several ways to prevent and treat feeling stiff, no matter the cause, including frequent movement, posture corrections, stretches, and home remedies.

Knowing the cause of stiffness and how to relieve it can help you prevent and treat this unpleasant feeling so you can function better. 

What Causes You to Feel Stiff?

Feeling stiff can result from heavy activity, lack of activity, or specific conditions. The reasons behind these causes of stiffness are different.

Exercise or Heavy Labor

When you exercise or perform heavy labor, especially when your body is not used to the intensity or duration of the activity, your muscles can incur tiny tears. These tears are normal and actually help you build larger and stronger muscles as a result. You may feel stiff and sore for 24-72 hours after you exercise as your body repairs itself.

Another reason for stiffness is the inflammation of the fluid surrounding your joints (synovial fluid) after heavy activity or repetitive movements.

Inactivity

As you move around during the day, the synovial fluid that lubricates your joints is secreted. When movement stops, such as during sleep or long periods spent sitting while working or watching TV, the fluid doesn’t secrete as much to facilitate joint and bone movement.

This lack of fluid after movement can leave you feeling stiff when you try to return to activity.

Poor Posture

If you routinely hold your body in a way that places strain on your muscles, tendons, and ligaments, you can end up feeling stiff and sore. Sitting or standing incorrectly due to a poor work setup or postural habits contributes to any stiffness you may be feeling.

Medical Conditions

There are medical conditions that can cause you to feel stiff such as rheumatoid arthritis, Lyme disease, thyroid disease, strains and sprains, and low levels of vitamin D. If you suspect any medical causes behind your stiffness, seek medical attention.

Some causes of stiffness require medical attention. If you are experiencing increased feelings of stiffness, pain, have been bitten by an insect, have signs of infection, or are concerned about how you feel, speak to a health care professional.

Preventing Stiffness

Depending on the reason behind your stiffness, there are ways to prevent it.

Warm-Up

Warming up before activity may help prevent some post-workout stiffness. While some soreness and stiffness are likely inevitable and part of the muscle repair process that builds mass, a proper warm-up could tame the worst of it. 

Take Mobility Breaks

Taking breaks from inactivity by getting up and moving around, walking, or performing mobility movements could increase the secretions of joint fluid, prevent stiffness, and relieve the effects of poor postural habits you may have been making.

Try setting a timer during your workday to break up periods of inactivity—getting up for 5 minutes once an hour is a small but noteworthy habit.

Stay Active

Although workouts can lead to stiffness, they can also reduce it. Exercise helps reduce inflammation, increases the secretion of synovial fluid to lubricate your joints, and helps build the muscles that support proper posture.

Take Active Recovery Days

Participating in active recovery work can help bring blood flow to the muscles and prevent inflammation that leads to stiffness. Try light cardio such as swimming, cycling, or walking, or bodyweight movements.

Watch Your Posture

Being aware of your postural habits can help prevent muscle strain that leads to stiffness.

Making adjustments to your workspace and posture might prevent stiffness, such as making sure your posterior chain—head, neck, torso, and legs are stacked (or aligned) and keeping your computer at eye level with your feet flat on the floor and back supported by your chair.

Adjust Your Diet

A diet that reduces inflammation, such as the Mediterranean diet, or one that similarly includes healthy fats, plenty of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, seafood, and whole grains, may help to reduce some causes of stiffness. Additionally, getting enough vitamin D might reduce feelings of stiffness.

How to Relieve Stiffness

If preventative measures aren't enough, there are several ways you can relieve feelings of stiffness at home, including stretches and mobility work, types of self-massage, and natural remedies.

Stretches and Mobility Work

While any stretching or mobility exercises can be beneficial, try these specific movements for relief in the most common areas of stiffness such as the hips, lower back, shoulders, and neck.

Massage

Using massage techniques can reduce muscle soreness and stiffness after exercise. You can get a professional sports massage or try different techniques at home.

Massage guns, for instance, may help relieve muscle soreness on par with a regular type of massage. For best results, try using a massage gun immediately after your workout, rather than once you feel the stiffness set in.

You can also try using a foam roller, which is a way of mimicking a sports massage at home, breaking uptight, stiff muscles and adhesions of tissues called fascia (myofascial release).

Tissue adhesions, or knots, are common no matter your age or level of fitness. They can possibly impede blood and nutrient transport to the muscle fiber, which can cause pain or injury.

Natural Remedies

Some other natural treatments for stiffness include heat and herbal therapies. Speak to a health care professional before taking any supplements.

  • Saunas have been shown to reduce perceived stiffness in those with rheumatoid arthritis. They may help those without arthritis to feel less tense and stiff as well. Far infrared saunas are still being researched, but some studies suggest they can help relieve pain and inflammation while promoting recovery.
  • Hydrotherapy such as a hot bath, shower, or whirlpool session can be an excellent way to relieve stiffness and tension. Alternating between 1-min hot (38°C) and 1-min cold (15°C) for 6, 12, or 18 minutes can reduce soreness, pain, and stiffness.
  • Boswellia is an herb that has been shown to have the potential to relieve stiffness and inflammation.
  • Turmeric has similarly been studied for its ability to relieve inflammation and feelings of stiffness.
  • Yoga and pilates may help encourage better posture and flexibility, as well as increase movement in a gentle, low-impact way that reduces stiffness.

When to See a Doctor

It’s vital to see a health care professional right away if your stiffness is due to an injury, accompanied by pain, won’t go away with home treatments, or if you suspect an insect bite or infection. If your stiffness is frequent and interferes with your quality of life, you should speak to a health care professional.

A Word From Verywell

Most of the time, stiffness can be treated at home and reduced through preventative measures. Make sure to keep active, but not go too hard while you are getting used to the activity. If you find yourself feeling stiff, try the various relief methods, such as a warm bath or self-massage. If you are experiencing prolonged stiffness, pain, signs of infection, or if you’ve experienced an injury or insect bite, seek medical attention.

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