Most people think of stretching as something you do before or after exercise. But stretching can be its own form of working out. Holding even very simple stretches can build strong muscles. It offers a less strenuous means of staying fit, flexible and toned while improving posture, increasing circulation and relieving tension.

Most people think of stretching as something you do before or after exercise. But stretching can be its own form of working out. Holding even very simple stretches can build strong muscles. It offers a less strenuous means of staying fit, flexible and toned while improving posture, increasing circulation and relieving tension.

Follow these simple guidelines for safe and effective results.

Stretches should be held constant under mild tension for 15 to 60 seconds. Each exercise should be repeated two or three times, three to five times per week. Stretches should be performed in a slow, controlled manner without bouncing or excessive movement. Avoid stretching injured muscles, bones or joints. Movements should feel comfortable with no pain. Stretching can be done at any time but is safest and most effective when muscles are warm.

Thanks to Women's Fitness Company in Medford for providing the space and equipment for this photo shoot.

Body Stretch

1. Lie flat on the ground in balanced alignment.

2. Comfortably bring your arms above your head.

3. Keeping abs tight, stretch your body by pointing your toes and arms in opposite directions. Your focus should be on elongating your body.

4. Do not extend past a comfortable level. Hold for 15 to 60 seconds before relaxing. Repeat.

Spinal Stretch

1. Kneel on all fours with hands slightly forward of shoulders. Back is relaxed.

2. Inhale and exhale cleansing breaths. Upon exhale, pull navel towards spine and arch back as high as possible. Keep head and neck relaxed.

3. Hold stretch for seven to 10 seconds. Return to starting position. Repeat three times.

Chest and Spine Stretch

1. Stand an arm's length from a wall, with feet hip-width apart.

2. Extend arms overhead and rest palms and fingers on wall, shoulder-width apart. Keep elbows locked.

3. Inhale, pulling navel toward spine. Keeping back straight, lift chest forward and upward while leaning toward the wall as far as is comfortable.

4. Draw shoulder blades together and down. Hold for 10 seconds. Repeat.

Leg Stretch

1. Kneel on all fours, palms flat, hands about shoulder-width apart.

2. Bring one leg forward, ensuring that knee is positioned over heel.

3. Inhale. As you exhale, shrug shoulders back away from ears, pulling chest forward until back knee lifts off the ground.

4. Lean forward gently until back leg is straight and you feel a comfortable stretch through legs and hips. Support back with core muscles.

5. Lowering rear knee, shift weight back to straighten front leg and gently stretch hamstring. Hold for 10 to 15 seconds. Change legs and repeat.

Lower-Back Stretch

1. Lie on your back with your knees bent.

2. Using gentle control, pull your head and chin toward knees.

3. For added support, hold right below your knees.

4. Hold for 15 to 60 seconds under mild tension.

Repeat.