Movement is a sign of health. Air moves through our mouth to our lungs causing tides of chest movement. Blood is pumped through our body resulting in a throbbing pulse under our fingers. Chewing pulverizes food that moves down the esophagus and through the intestine, ending in digestion, which moves nutrients out of the food and into our cells. Our musculoskeletal system has the inherent ability to obey our commands, which allows us to move to the bathroom where waste material moves out of our body.
And what is exercise? Exercise isn’t just getting hot, sweaty, and tired. It is movement. Exercise is the deliberate effort to perform various types of movement through our musculoskeletal system. The musculoskeletal system is interwoven with our nervous system and cardiovascular system. So, exercising the musculoskeletal system also exercises our nervous and cardiovascular system. This combined effect is fitness. While much of what happens in our body is unconscious, exercise is conscious and under our control. We control the type and intensity of the movement.
When we lack mobility in a part of our body, it impacts our musculoskeletal, nervous, and cardiovascular system. If we are immobile for a short period of time, such as a plane ride, we might experience a bit of stiffness but it goes away with walking and stretching – movement. However, immobility over a prolonged period of time causes muscles to weaken and soft tissue to “forget how to stretch.” The lack of movement will have a negative impact on our nervous and cardiovascular system as well . . . our nerves will “forget” how to use our muscles quickly and our heart and lungs will lose endurance. This is called deconditioning and it is the opposite of fitness.
Before birthing my children, I had never been in a medical or surgical situation and what surprised me was how eager they were to get me back up and walking. I was like . . . lay off . . . I just labored for 12 hours and delivered without drugs. Let me rest. My first daughter was born in a military hospital and in the middle of the night, I called the nurse to tell her that my bed needed to be changed and she actually gave me directions to where the sheets were. She wanted me to get out of bed, walk to the linen closet, get the sheets out and make my own bed. I was shocked. At the time, I was so swollen that I ultimately needed help but she was helping me get back to moving as soon as possible . . . or being lazy, I’m not sure which. But let’s think the best.
Whether immobility is due to a prolonged illness or a job that keeps you in a chair eight hours a day, even for a very fit person, immobility for as little as ten days will begin the process of deconditioning, which will reverse the benefits of regular exercise. Unfortunately, no excuse prevents deconditioning from happening. It just happens. So, we are either improving our fitness or deconditioning.
While much of our musculoskeletal system is under our control, there is a portion that is not under our control but rather, controlled by our nervous system. This portion provides a baseline tone to our muscles which keeps them primed and ready for use when we need to move them. Unfortunately, this same system allows our muscles to twitch, tighten, and possibly spasm, even if we are trying to deliberately relax them. This is not inherently bad, but it can decrease mobility which may lead to further inhibited movement . . . potentially creating a self-perpetuating cycle.
What can intervene in this cycle?
Massage. By shortening and lengthening the muscle tissue, the massage therapist facilitates communication with the nervous system to return muscle tone to a more normal baseline, ensuring the muscle can contract and lengthen smoothly when called upon to do so. With this freedom of movement and increased range of motion, it creates a window of opportunity to move more freely, more often and more assertively in exercise. Moving becomes more enjoyable. When moving is more enjoyable, health is more easily attained.