5 Foam Rolling Moves That Can Ease Your Aches And Pains—Physically And Emotionally
When Lynda Ellison walked into her first foam rolling class, she was desperate for help. Over the past decade, she'd experienced a series of devastating losses. First, her 30-year-old daughter died of a drug overdose. Two years later, her mom had a fatal heart attack. Then she lost her 29-year-old son to heart failure and her father to lung cancer. "My grief felt like a cold, black ache in my heart," says the 61-year-old bookkeeper from New Bedford, MA.
On top of that, Ellison suffered from fibromyalgia, which left her in such constant pain that she had a hard time working, cooking dinner, or even getting out of bed most days. She couldn't tolerate medication because it made her brain foggy, and other things she had tried—physical therapy, chiropractic care, and acupuncture—provided only limited relief. Then Ellison heard about foam rolling—a gentle form of self-massage that eases aches and pains by using spongy balls and foam cylinders to apply pressure to specific points on the body. She found a class and signed up.
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To her surprise, she felt relief almost immediately. After several minutes of slowly rocking side to side on a cylindrical foam roller centered beneath her head and spine, Ellison's habitually hunched shoulders relaxed, and the pain in her legs and lower back started to subside. (Feel 10 years younger with these 5 foam-rolling exercises.) But that wasn't all: She felt the tension and sadness in her chest start to seep away, too. By the time the 60-minute session ended, she felt more clearheaded and peaceful than she had in 10 years.
"I was shocked at how much better it made me feel," she says. "Now I try to roll every day. Even 5 or 10 minutes reduces my pain from a 9 to a 3 on a 10-point scale, but the real blessing is how it has helped me cope with my grief. I'm surprised at the powerful effect something so simple can have on the mind."
Ellison is one of a growing number of people who are discovering that the benefits of rolling go far beyond its original intent. As recently as 10 years ago, the technique was used mainly by professional athletes and physical therapists. But as an expanding body of research has shown that rolling (technically called self-myofascial release, or SMR) has a profound ability to relieve muscle and joint pain, reduce the risk of injury, and make exercise feel easier, classes have proliferated in gyms and fitness studios around the country, introducing the technique to everyday fitness buffs. And now, as more people embrace the practice, word is spreading that what rolling can do for your mind and mood may be as remarkable as what it can do for your body.
"Many of my students say they use self-myofascial release instead of painkillers, mood-regulating pharmaceuticals, or alcohol," says Jill Miller, a specialist in therapeutic exercise who created Yoga Tune Up and the Roll Model Method, both of which incorporate SMR.
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That was the case for Carolyn Phillips, 60, a deputy city attorney in Rolling Hills Estates, CA. Before she started taking Miller's foam rolling class in 2009, she had been drinking up to a bottle of wine a night. "I had terrible guilt about exposing my kids to an abusive marriage, long after I left my ex," says Phillips. "I have the kind of personality where it's tough for me to get in touch with my feelings. When the therapy balls pressed into my tissue, the emotions started bubbling up, and I had to face them. I eventually worked through that difficult time and stopped self-medicating with alcohol," says Phillips. "Now I roll every day to cope with work stress. Even a few minutes helps me feel in charge of my life again."
The Science of Foam Rolling
SMR's life-changing effects—for both pain relief and emotional wellbeing—are tied to the tissue that lies just beneath your skin: your fascia. This extraordinary web of highly sensitive connective tissue (it has 10 times more nerve endings than muscle) is a stretchy, meshlike substance made primarily of collagen that acts like a type of shrink-wrap for the internal structure of your body. It weaves around and through your muscles and supports your organs, holding everything together. Age and injury cause sticky adhesions to develop in the fascia, making your body feel stiff, achy, and less flexible. Massaging the fascia by rolling your body over foam cylinders or soft rubber therapy balls keeps the tissue smooth and malleable, allowing you to move with greater ease and fluidity—and less pain.
If you've never heard of fascia, you're not alone. The tissue was largely ignored by the medical community until researchers from 28 countries presented their findings about its importance for human movement at the first International Fascia Research Congress at Harvard Medical School in 2007. Since then, fascia has become the focus of intensive study, with many experts concluding that keeping this tissue supple, with a combination of exercise, stretching, and, most important, SMR, is crucial for healthy aging.
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The idea of using myofascial release tools to ease emotional pain is so new, however, that it hasn't been subjected to scientific scrutiny. But instructors who have taught thousands of women to use foam rollers and therapy balls say that kneading the fascia and the muscles underneath can produce emotional benefits that are at least as profound as those of regular massage, which has been shown in dozens of studies to reduce anxiety, stress, and depression, as well as help with sleep. "Fascia is a sensory organ," says Lauren Roxburgh, a personal trainer and fascia, alignment, and foam rolling expert in Los Angeles. "We feel everything there, including emotion. I've seen clients literally roll off all sorts of negative emotions—grief, anger, anxiety, childhood trauma. This can be very powerful stuff."
How Rolling Releases Emotions
Although studies haven't yet confirmed why rolling on a small rubber ball or an oversize foam Tootsie Roll can have such a potent impact on our minds, one theory relates to the simple, soothing effect of touch. When moderate pressure—from a foam roller, a therapy ball, or the skilled fingers of a massage therapist—compresses your tissue, the pressure receptors in your fascia and skin are stimulated. Those receptors then send a signal to your vagus nerve, a nerve bundle deep in your brain that is part of the calming, parasympathetic branch of the nervous system. "The vagus nerve has branches throughout the body, including the heart, so triggering the pressure receptors slows your heart rate and makes you feel more relaxed," explains Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine.
"We know this from our massage studies, but there's no reason that self-massage with a foam roller wouldn't have a similar effect."
As your heart rate slows, your hormones begin to respond to the signals from the pressure receptors. Cortisol, a stress hormone, drops, and feel-good chemicals in your brain, like serotonin and dopamine, rise. "We've found that the effect on hormones is more long-lasting if you get massages frequently, and that's the beauty of self-massage with foam rollers: You can do it on your own at home as often as you like," says Field. The healthy emotional boost you get from daily foam rolling at home may actually be like a mild dose of antidepressants, she says, providing sustained relief to carry you through the day.
There's another theory about why foam rolling might be effective at eradicating negative emotions, according to researchers who study fascia. When you're stressed, scared, or angry, your muscles become tense. If the emotions are relatively fleeting, lasting a few hours or a day, the physical tension dissipates. But if you're under constant strain, whether from grief, a divorce, or nonstop demands, and your emotions remain heightened for weeks, months, or years, your muscles are constantly ready to contract. Over time, this affects the fascia, which surrounds the muscle, causing it to thicken and stiffen. "You actually start to hold the negative emotion in your fascia," says Robert Schleip, director of the Fascia Research Group at Ulm University in Germany. It's thought that SMR helps free those stored emotions, along with physical pain and tension, by digging deep into the fascia's nerve endings, which carry messages to the brain.
The idea that emotions can get trapped in the fascia isn't proven, but it rings true for Ellison, whose fibromyalgia symptoms began after the deaths of her family members. "To this day, I have times when I'm overwhelmed by grief—and when I have those emotional setbacks, I feel my body knotting up and I want to curl into a fetal position," she says. Now, though, she has simple tools to deal with those moments. "A few minutes of rolling relieves the tension in my body and clears my mind, pulling me out of that dark place," she says. "It gets me back on my feet again."
Roll At Home
Try these moves to soothe aches, release stress, and ease anxiety. All can be done with therapy balls (or two racquet or tennis balls) and a soft pillow or rolled-up towel.
This move releases tension int he abdomen, allowing you to breathe more deeeply. It also reduces pressure on the back, relieving tightness and pain.
Try It:Lie facedow on the floor or bed on top of soft ball positioned in center of abdomen. Extend legs and comfortably settle arms and head. Inhale, hold breath, and tighten abs. Hold 3 to 5 second and exhale. Repeat 5 to 8 times. Slowly shift weight from side to side on top of ball for 2 minutes, breathing deeply.
Ease Neck Tension
Putting pressure on these points at the back of the head triggers relaxation and soothes strained neck muscles.
Try It:Prop head on yoga block and place pair of balls at base of skull. Breathe deeply for 2 minutes and imagine head and neck sinking into balls. Make tiny nodding motions followed by tiny head turns while keeping neck on block another 2 minutes. Return to stillness for final 3 to 5 breaths.
Heal Your Hips
This move targets the IT band, a strong piece of connective tissue that links the buttocks to the outer knee and can cause pain when tight.
Try It:Sit on chair with 2 balls wedged against outside or right thigh. Angle right leg into balls and roll back and forth across thigh. Aim for 4 minutes on each leg.
Relax Your Legs
Liberating tensions from the calves helps the feet, ankles, and knees move properly, reducing aches and pains so you can walk more easily.
Try It:Lie on back with ball under left calf. Cross right leg over left to add more pressure if manageable. Be still fo rseveral breaths. Slowly point and flex left ankle, then do ankle circles in both directions. Move ball slightly higher or lower on the calf, working your way up and down leg, and repeat. Continue, aiming for 4 minutes on each calf.
Unlock Your Hamstrings
Prolonged sitting can cause hamstrings to become chronically stiff, which can lead to back pain and a lack of mobility.
Try It:Sit on chair with ball under left thigh. Slide left thigh from side to side so ball can strum across hamstring. Move ball slightly higher, then slightly lower, repeating while breathing deeply, working your way across back of leg. Aim for 4 minutes on each leg.
Video: Help for Tight Calves. BEST Calf Stretching and Massage Routine.
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