Q: I'm great at taking care of others. I spend most of my time taking care of my 87-year-old father who lives with me and my family. But when it comes to my own health, I come up very short. I've really let myself go, and I would love some tips for making a fresh start. Can you help?
-Brenda M., Milwaukee, Wisc.
Most of us don't have a problem keeping up regular maintenance on our cars, our homes, and even our computers. But taking care of our most valuable asset-our health-often seems much more difficult. Why?
Well, for one thing, you can hire someone else to take care of the car or the house or the yard. But it doesn't work that way with your health. Sure, you pay to consult doctors and other health professionals, but for day-to-day maintenance (eating right, drinking plenty of water, getting enough sleep, and exercising), no one else can do it for you.
It also takes time-quite a bit of time. And, let's face it, keeping up a healthy regimen isn't always a barrel of laughs. With that in mind, here are three simple ideas that go beyond the basics to help make self-care more efficient, effective, and entertaining.
Treat yourself to a massage. You can often find self-massagers online-or even at garage sales-for less than $10. I especially like the "BackKnobber," a simple S-shaped tool that can be readily applied to hard-to-reach spots on the back to help tickle apart tangled muscle fibers.
Here's a tip that I picked up from one of my favorite massage therapists. Start comfortably seated. Hold the S tool upright. Place the top knob on your back-try starting with the upper shoulder-and then loop your thigh over the lower part of the S-curve. This way you have both hands free to lightly guide and stabilize the knob into your back, while employing the weight of your leg to drive the tool as deeply as desired into the trigger point. This allows your arms and upper-back to stay relaxed while you're working that area. This method is especially excellent when you're seated in a hot tub.
Pamper your teeth. Another self-care activity that doesn't take long but can produce good results is an ayurvedic technique known as "oil pulling." Take a teaspoon of good-quality oil, such as sesame oil (not toasted), into your mouth before you brush. Then "pull" the oil through your teeth and all around your mouth. Try to keep your cheeks and jaw relaxed-if your facial muscles tense up, don't "pull" so vigorously. Then just spit it out and rinse with some lightly salty water.
This simple exercise is great for oral health because the oil absorbs toxins readily. If you have a really sticky stain (such as tar) on your clothing, you know that oil is the best solvent for removing the gunk. The same goes for whatever might be in your mouth. I think this technique is particularly useful for folks who are working through dental issues. Many of my patients have reported better breath, improved sleep, and clearer eyes after a few weeks of regular oil pulling. Some even credit it with helping them eat less.
Get moving. I can't overstress the importance of daily movement. Homo sapiens evolved to run, climb, and swim. Unfortunately, our current culture has deeply attached our backsides to chairs and sofas-so much so that many of us can't even squat anymore.
The best way to get yourself moving is to explore local classes. Find out what's available in your area, and pick something that sounds fun. Try Pilates, Zumba, or Tabata (Japanese-based interval training). Check out a swing dance class. Go rock climbing, swimming, or mountain biking. It doesn't really matter what you do, as long as you do it.
Also, try to sprinkle in some simple fitness routines throughout your day. Walk to work if you can, or take a walk at lunchtime, for example.
If you're really pressed for time, here's a quick and effective toning routine you can do in just 15 minutes: Start with 6 sets of a 45-second yoga plank pose (using your forearms eliminates wrist stress) with a 15-second recovery period in between. That's for your core. Then do 10 deep squats, pushing your tailbone down and diagonally away from your forehead with your upper legs parallel to the floor, holding for 8 seconds. Next, strike a 90/90 yoga pose against a wall, holding for 45-60 seconds. (This is a "supported squat" with your thighs parallel to the floor and your back pressed flat against a wall or door, which requires both core and leg strength; see youtube.com for demonstrations.) Then return to squats until your 15 minutes is up.
I also recommend working to improve your balance every day, because you're much less likely to injure yourself if your balance is good. And it's not hard to do. Just try standing on one leg while brushing your teeth or washing the dishes, alternating legs every so often to give equal time to each side.
You can hire someone else to take care of the car or the house, or the yard. But it doesn't work that way with your health.
Emily A. Kane, ND, LAc, has a private naturopathic practice in Juneau, Alaska, where she lives with her husband and daughter. She is the author of two books on health, including Managing Menopause Naturally. Visit her online at dremilykane.com.