Good habits are important for a happy and healthy life, but they can easily fall to the wayside when the onslaught of day-to-day obligations runs us ragged. Even still, there are some healthy habits we rarely let go – at least not for too long.
For example, even when we’re very busy, most of us take time every day to brush our teeth: 2 minutes in the morning and 2 minutes at night. Sure, we might not have a perfect track record, but we understand that brushing (and flossing!) is necessary for feeling fresh, having a pain-free mouth, and preventing serious disease. Even if you don’t practice the best brushing habits (perhaps especially if you don’t), you probably understand the long-term consequences and daily discomfort that inadequate dental hygiene can bring.
My goal here is to show you that our muscles* require daily, intentional movement and stretching just as much as our teeth need daily, intentional brushing and flossing.
*We are talking about skeletal muscle here, as opposed to smooth or cardiac muscle.
It’s harder to take our teeth for granted because we see them in the mirror and get them regularly inspected by professionals (at least we should). For decades there have been ads, campaigns, comics, and official health notices that regularly circulate to remind us about good dental hygiene.
Our muscles, however, do not typically get that same attention. Even athletes may find that muscular health is easier to put off than dental health. We can ignore pain and tension, take medications to mask the discomfort, and even though we go to the doctor, they are primarily concerned with healing illnesses, not necessarily assessing full-body muscular health on a regular basis. It’s not always easy, but it is essentially our sole duty to take care of our bodies every day and seek out the right treatments and professionals for what we need.
And the truth is: if we don’t take care of our muscles, our bodies will suffer immensely. Akin to our teeth rotting and falling out. Without proper care, our muscles can atrophy, becoming exhausted as they fight to hold us up against gravity. Tension and pain can develop, and we can even face serious long-term complications that leave us immoble or in constant pain. So we need to practice good muscle hygiene! We need to move and challenge our bodies – and occasionally, of course, we need to get a massage! 😉
Even if you are already dealing with chronic pain, a good stretching and mobility regimen can help to relieve discomfort and enhance your well-being considerably.
Sticking to my analogy (like tartar on teeth – hah!), think of it like this: If our teeth aren’t healthy, not only does eating become a literal pain, but our whole body ends up losing function because our mouth is a major gateway to the rest of the body.
Similarly, we need our muscles to sit, stand, and move. But beyond that, if our muscles and connective tissue aren’t maintained, the rest of the body will lose function: from physical limitations and pain to reduced mental health. Because when we are unable to do the things we are used to enjoying, it weighs us down beyond just the physical.
It’s ALL connected. I’m excited to elaborate on the interconnectedness of the body in the future, because truly it could be a whole book series. But for now, simply picture that there are sheaths of thin, responsive connective tissue (called fascia) all throughout the body that wrap around everything, connect everything – literally head to toe. When one area gets tight, everything else in the system is affected.
Tight hamstrings could be the reason our backs go out, the fronts of our shoulder blades against our backs might be making our chests hurt, and curly hammer toes could be causing our headaches, no foolin’.
And unfortunately, it is not enough that a muscle “looks good”. Muscles that “look good” on a person can still be tight and sore, even overly so.
A healthy muscle functions without pain and within a healthy range of motion. Our muscles get unhealthy and need extra attention when we:
- when we stand, sit, or lie down for long periods of time, like a Netflix marathon (“yes, Netflix! I’m still watching!”)
- when we sleep or work without proper ergonomics. If our beds or desks at work are unsupportive, all the stretching and movement in the world can’t undo what 8-16 hours in wonky positions can do.
- when we exercise or go on walks and hikes without stretching or hydrating
- when we suffer injury or psychological trauma
- when we keep our bodies on a narrow track of movement with little variety
- for example: when we are sitting at a desk all day, sitting in a car to commute, then sitting on the couch at home before going to bed – we limit the range of motion our bodies can move through. It’s easy to take the range of motion we’ve always known for granted, but it’s also easy for that to be compromised if we don’t regularly challenge ourselves a little.
So we gotta move and stretch every day, intentionally – just like brushing our teeth! At least we must try to nurture those habits as best as we can. In that regard I like to say: “what you water is what’s going to grow, but your garden won’t die if you go on vacation for a couple days.”
Ideally we stretch after we wake up and before we go to bed, and also before and after physical activity. Ideally we take some time every day or every other day to move our bodies in new ways (gym time, physical therapy exercises, swimming, dance, pilates, yoga – whatever works for you). It sounds like a lot of work, but we do our best so we can feel our best. And usually spending time with our bodies in physical activity is more fun than brushing our teeth anyway.
Even just 5 minutes of intentional movement twice a day can change the way we feel in our bodies INSTANTLY, nevermind for the rest of our lives. Many of us could feel a minimum of 10-25% better in our bodies, right this moment with the right stretches.
I highly recommend talking to your primary care physician, physical therapist, yoga instructor, or personal trainer about the right stretches for you. I’m a massage therapist, not a trainer or a doctor, so I can only recommend the most basic stretches (Patreon coming soon!). But you can find some great, safe, beginner videos on YouTube with searches like “gentle stretch routine”, “beginner stretch routine”, and “gentle full body movements”. Just always remember: if it hurts, stop. And if you want to get better or target specific concerns: talk to a professional. Physical Therapists are awesome.
If our muscles are too tight, even moving and stretching has its limitations. When our muscles are overly tight, stretching tends to only help the muscles that are already loose and we might not get a lot of play in the muscle fibers that really need it. At that point, it’s best to book a massage therapy session and get some external pressure on those piano-string fibers, which will relax the tension by flushing in good circulation, and flushing out cellular waste.
Once we get those muscles out of constant tension; daily stretching, intentional movement, and regular bodywork can help prevent tightness, discomfort, muscle exhaustion, sprains, strains, and even serious injury all throughout our lives. More than that, it can simply help us feel happy, confident, and capable in our bodies – and we all deserve that.
If you’re struggling to incorporate good habits in your life, I’ve got a lot of tips and resources I’m excited to share on my upcoming Patreon. I will also be including the full version of these blog posts with additional technical info, perspectives, pictures, and advice.
One of the simplest solutions is to set a daily alarm on your phone at convenient times to stretch. To reinforce its importance, a good time might be before/after you brush your teeth twice a day. I will say again: there are great gentle, full-body stretch and movement routines on YouTube. Try out different ones and see what works for you. Only do what feels right. Never do what hurts.
I’m excited to share my own stretches and flows on Patreon, as well as help you develop your own routines for what you need. Patrons will also have access to curated YouTube playlists of videos by other YouTube professionionals, like stretching videos and physical therapy exercises. If you’re interested in being notified when sign-up is available, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I believe in you! A small change every day compounds into a beautiful habit and a new you, so be gentle with your journey and take it one day at a time, watering your garden all the way.
Disclaimer: I am a massage therapist and therefore my scope of practice deals with soft tissue therapy and basic stretching. I do not diagnose and I do not provide treatment for specific conditions that do not pertain to massage therapy. My posts are general advice and not necessarily what you need as an individual. You should ALWAYS consult your common sense AND your doctor before modifying your exercise, diet, or sleep routine. Never do anything that brings you discomfort or pain. It’s okay if this advice doesn’t work for you, there are often many solutions to one problem – many paths up the mountain. If you’re stuck, it is best to speak with your doctor about alternatives. Only your medical health care team can give you legit medical advice personal to you.