Giving massage all day is a physically demanding job—and as working massage therapists, we all face a daily physical challenge that can be met with ease or dread, depending on how we feel, emotionally and physically, that day.
Burnout in our profession is notoriously high for a variety of reasons. As someone who has previously employed massage therapists, I know massage therapists commonly leave our profession because they develop pain problems themselves.
As a full-time massage therapist for more than 31 years, I understand these challenges firsthand. In this article, I would like to share some of the strategies I have used to stay healthy and pain-free.
I use the Active Isolated Stretching method of stretching to keep my whole body flexible and to reduce any fatigue or soreness I might feel at the end of my workday. I have stretched my way out of out of acute pain situations such as neck pain and spasm, as well as to relieve minor low-back achiness and fatigue, with the AIS method of stretching more times than I can count.
When your neck or low back hurts, or even if what you feel is stiffness, spending 10 to 15 minutes doing these routines can be completely restorative. The breathing component of AIS facilitates the effectiveness of the stretching and acts on the nervous system like a sedative, leaving one feeling calm and relaxed.
Before I go into the how-to of these stretches, I would like to speak more generally about other strategies for ensuring your longevity as a massage therapist.
You are an Athlete
Look at yourself as an athlete preparing for an event or race. If you are giving massages for four, five or even six hours a day, that’s a lot of energy output. If your energy reserves are low, your body will be more quickly depleted and susceptible to breakdown than if you have trained for the event—the event being your workday.
Exercise of any kind increases your energy reserves and will give you more stamina. I am not here to promote one type of exercise over another, but rather to emphasize how important it is that you do something to increase your strength and endurance on a regular basis.
This can be as simple as a 45-minute walk three or four times a week. Pilates, yoga, weight-training, running, cycling, swimming or water aerobics—any of these activities are good options.
When I am working with my health-coaching clients, I suggest they look for an activity they love and look forward to with anticipation. If it’s drudgery, you won’t stick with it.
If you hadn’t considered that the work you do every day as a massage therapist is akin to an athletic event, I hope this discussion will spur you to action if you need to build up your energy bank. If you adopt just a little of the athlete mentality, I guarantee you will not be as fatigued at the end of your workday.
The beauty of this system is these stretches can be done no matter how limited or painful the neck or low back may be.
Of course, as massage therapists, we know it is better to prevent the onslaught of pain, and using AIS stretching can help you do just that. AIS is a unique approach to stretching because, unlike traditional stretching, one only holds each stretch for two seconds. In this way, you never trigger the stretch reflex, and most importantly, stretching doesn’t hurt.
Another feature is you move in and out of the stretch. That’s the active part, meaning there is a starting point and an ending point at the end range of motion where you go two to three degrees past your active end-range to apply the stretch. This active motion helps move blood and lymph, which increases oxygen and nutrition.
The other feature of AIS that assists this detoxifying effect is breathing. As you do each stretch, you exhale during the stretching phase and inhale as you move back to the starting position between each stretch. Each stretch is typically repeated 10 times during a stretching session.
Even if you have pain or very little range of motion in your neck, you can still do these stretches. Because you repeat the stretches, there is no need to push yourself to achieve your deepest stretch on the first one. Especially if you have a tender, sensitive neck, you can actively move to a place where you feel a little pulling sensation then apply a gentle assist with your hands to increase the range of motion, counting 1, 2, 3 as you exhale, then releasing the stretch and moving back to the starting position.
With each repetition of a stretch, you will feel your active end range of motion increase. To incorporate some AIS stretching into your day, I would recommend warming up before seeing clients using a few of the photos and instructions in this article. You can easily do one or two stretches between clients, and it also feels lovely to decompress before bed with stretching.
If you find yourself reading this article and thinking, “What’s the big deal? It’s just stretching,” here is what I must say to you: You will probably be familiar with most of these stretches but just try doing them the way I describe: with short duration, moving in and out of the stretch, for 10 repetitions. You have to feel it to understand the benefit, just like someone does with massage.
5 AIS Steps
1. Move the body part being stretched to the starting position for the stretch.
2. Gently stretch the body part two to three degrees past the end point and hold the stretch for two seconds (count 1, 2, 3).
3. Inhale during the movement phase of the stretch and exhale during the stretch.
4. Move the body part being stretched back to the starting position between stretches.
5. Repeat each stretch 10 times.
AIS will enhance the health of your muscles, tendons, ligaments, fascia and joints, and decrease your vulnerability to injury. I hope you will find it easy to make these stretches part of your daily routine.
About the Author:
Lois Orth-Zitoli, LMT, CHHC, s a public speaker, teacher, massage therapist and health coach. Lois owns Full Circle Health in Chicago, Illinois, and teaches workshops in the Benjamin method of orthopedic massage and injury assessment, as well as stretching workshops. She wrote “Active Isolated Stretching: A Revolutionary Approach to Self-Care” for MASSAGE Magazine’s October 2016 issue.