Working out regularly will help you hold on to your flexibility, mobility, and independence. And using a simple tool may improve this grip on fitness by priming the muscles and making your workouts more effective.
The tool is called a foam roller. It looks like a fat tube or a bolster pillow for a bed. To use it, you slowly roll an area of your body — like your upper back, hips, or calves — back and forth across the top of the roller.
"Foam rolling seems to make muscles more receptive to stretching and moving. It's the best thing I've found to make people feel better immediately in the 25 years I've been doing this," says Michael Bento, a personal trainer at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.
Foam rolling benefits
Foam rolling helps release tension in the muscles, relieve muscle soreness, and improve flexibility and range of motion. It's not clear exactly how that happens. "The current theory is that the sustained pressure on the muscle signals the central nervous system to reduce tension, similar to the effect of a deep tissue massage," Bento explains.
Releasing tension makes tight muscles more receptive to stretching. "After foam rolling you get about a 10-minute window of increased flexibility," Bento says. "That enhances stretching exercises and helps you move better in a workout."
Types of foam rollers
The most common foam rollers are cylinders made of firm, compressed foam. The rollers are usually six inches in diameter, range from 12 to 36 inches long, and cost between $10 and $30.
Foam rollers come in different styles: some have bumps or ridges on them, some have gel inserts you can put in the freezer, and some vibrate. Rollers are also available in varying levels of firmness, color-coded to reflect whether they are soft (white), medium (red, blue, or green), or hard (black).
You can also find smaller massage rollers with handles (like a rolling pin), which you can roll on various parts of your body (like the top of your thighs), and foam ball rollers that you can use while standing (just place the ball between you and a wall, lean against it, and move your body over it).
Just roll with it
A personal trainer or physical therapist can help you determine which muscles will benefit from foam rolling, and then guide you through the process.
You'll typically sit or lie on a mat on the floor, place a particular body part on top of the roller, then move it back and forth until you find a tender spot in your muscle. "Hold [on that spot] for 30 to 90 seconds until you get a reduction in tenderness," Bento says. It's important to breathe deeply during that process, to help relax the muscles.
For example, to roll your calf muscle, sit on the mat with your legs in front of you and your hands behind you for support. Place one calf on top of the roller and move your leg back and forth over it.
To roll your quadriceps muscles on the front of the thigh, do a modified plank (like a push-up, propped up on your elbows) while lying with your hips and thighs on top of the roller (see photo above). Then move forward and backward over the roller.
Who's a candidate for rolling?
Bento says most people will benefit from foam rolling as part of a pre- or post-workout routine, or simply as a quick break from sitting. "The hip, shoulder, and ankle muscles can become very tight from long periods of sitting on a couch or at a desk," he explains. "Rolling for just a few minutes can help loosen them."
But foam rolling isn't right for people with open wounds, fractures, flare-ups of rheumatoid arthritis, deep-vein thrombosis, advanced osteoporosis, or neuropathy that causes pain.
Get your doctor's okay before trying foam rolling. Then work with a personal trainer or physical therapist to learn how to use the tool and roll your way toward better health.
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