I’d like you to try a quick thought experiment: Imagine doing one intense workout in the course of a month. You charge yourself up, you break through your mental block, and you finally go to that fitness bootcamp you’ve been dreading. You lay it all on the line, and you kick butt. What effects will this have on your health?
Over the short term, there will be huge effects. Protein synthesis and catabolism will both be through the roof. You might burn in excess of a thousand calories, prompting significant lipolysis. You’ll spend a couple of hours bathed in adrenaline, and then you’ll get some feel-good chemicals in the aftermath.
Over the long term, what is the effect of a single intense workout over the course of a month? Probably… nothing at all. A single workout isn’t capable of moving the needle on your scale, let alone prompting lasting physical changes in your body, or biochemical changes in your brain. Why? Because of negative feedback. Because of the inertia of homeostasis. When your body notices big changes in your blood, it releases hormones to counteract that. When your sympathetic nervous system is in an unusual state of overdrive, it will tip the balance in the other direction until you can relax and digest.
Now, I say this in the aftermath of a truly enjoyable run, the first one I’ve taken in two weeks. I’m not trying to be discouraging, any more than I’d want to discount my own achievement. What I’m trying to say is that, when we’re devising our own self-care strategy, or when we’re advising clients about how often they should receive massage, we need to think about the inertia of homeostasis.
Let me define my terms. Inertia is that property of matter that makes it hard to push a boulder, but easy when it’s already moving. “An object at rest tends to stay at rest.” Homeostasis is the tendency of the body to return to a state of balance, both at a small and large scale. If you eat a lot of sugar, your body will release insulin to bring you back to a normal level.
So, to make long-term changes, we must overcome the inertia of homeostasis. We need to demonstrate to the body that a new balance is needed, that the old “normal” won’t quite cut it any more. A single extraordinary event isn’t going to do the trick, because your body will make the adjustments needed to bring things back to normal, and then move on.
The magic, then, is in regular exposure to a stimulus. You see, the body is interested in maintaining the status quo, but it’s also incredibly adaptable. It doesn’t want you to fall behind when life has changed! And so, consider what you can do to signal to your body that things are different these days. As you do that, think about how you can institute these changes in a way that will be body- and mind-friendly.
Maybe you don’t need to start with that brutal bootcamp, for instance. That’s so much stimulus all at once, much of it somewhat traumatic. While that can be a good way to jumpstart change and impress upon your body that there’s a new challenge that needs to be met, will it be significantly more successful than a couple of light jogs with some pushups over the course of a week? Is it worth the extra risk of injury and downtime, as well as the aversive effects of a few days of soreness and malaise?
The same might be considered when you’re approaching massage with a new client. An extra deep session with plenty of trigger point work might be extra effective in jumpstarting the histological and neurological changes that will lead to pain relief and body ease. But is it worth that chance of negative outcomes like soreness or spasm? Is it necessary, especially in the context of a series of sessions?
I submit that the magic of massage is also in regular exposure. Like a single workout, a single bodywork session is something that the body’s homeostatic mechanisms can deal with. No matter how much inflammation we cause or relieve, or tissues we stretch, or parasympathetic nervous system activity we promote, the body will return to baseline. It’s only with repeated exposure that the body might start to adapt, integrating this new information into its idea of “normal.”
All of that said, we aren’t just our status quo-obsessed bodies. We are also thinking creatures with incredibly complex nervous systems, so transformation in that realm can take place in a single massage session, or a single workout. For instance, my run today helped me break through my writer’s block 😁 So, what I’m saying is to remember that transformation can happen, but don’t forget about the inertia of homeostasis. If nothing else, let this be a reason to be patient with your body, and kind to yourself. Your body listens to every input, and will faithfully adapt if you give it sufficient reason. Let me know what you think!