by Charlotte Watts
First featured in NHS Your Choice Magazine May 2009
Your body contains around 650 muscles, most of these are skeletal, holding your bones in place and allowing us to stand upright, but you also need strong muscles to ensure the efficient running of your heart, digestive system and lymphatic flow.
Exercise is of course key to build strong, toned muscles – yoga and Pilates or the Alexander technique are particularly beneficial as they support good posture, but all forms of exercise have different ways of using muscle and a good mix helps balance, release and strengthen.
Muscle health doesn’t just rely on exercising to contract muscle but relaxing to release for recovery and building up new muscle fibres. This needs to involve relaxing the whole body as this stimulates the calming (parasympathetic) mode of the nervous system that releases muscles. The breath is quickened by exercise and stress; relaxing allows the full, calm breathing that fully oxygenates muscles, reducing build-up of lactic acid, which can lead to muscle soreness or pain.
- Good quality protein is the first consideration for replenishing muscle stores lost through exercise and daily wear and tear. High quality protein is needed in the diet such as fish, organic meat and eggs; alternated with good quality plant proteins such as quinoa, lentils, peas and beans for a good mix. These particularly supply the amino acid (protein building block) L-glutamine; important in muscle production and detoxification, also fuelling gut, brain and muscle cells.
- Calcium and magnesium help tense muscles ready for action and calm them after; recovery after stress or exercise becoming difficult if levels are low. Eat food sources that provide both like green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds and fish. More calcium intake through dairy and our water sources can result in the need for a balancing magnesium supplement (200-450mg magnesium citrate daily), especially if you have muscle cramps, anxiety and insomnia.
- Hydration is essential as a dehydrated muscle is compromised in function, repair and detoxification. If you are not used to drinking up to 2 litres of water per day then increase slowly and try not to have more than 500ml in any one hour period. Non-caffeinated and unsweetened drinks can be included to make up this amount.
- We release endorphins, ‘feel-good’ chemicals in response to exercise, socialising, laughing, listening to music, a healthy sex life and other pleasurable activities. These help relieve pain and stress. Balancing blood sugar through diet and relieveing tress helps us to release these more easily throughout our daily lives.
- Outdoor activities allow us to breathe more naturally away from pollution and so take on more oxygen. This supports muscle health and reduces the stress hormones that keep muscles tense and more likely to injury.
- Epsom salts baths help relax and detoxify stressed muscles especially when followed by some gentle stretching (see yoga page). Epsom salts or magnesium sulphate is easily absorbed into the skin and cheap to buy at chemists. Add up to a cupful to running water and soak for 20 minutes.