Here’s something we’ve all had:

You've been sitting a while on long car drive, you pull over, get up to take a walk, and find that you need to stretch. You get back to driving feeling better, but come a few hours longer you need to stretch again.

You see, when you’re stretching you aren’t fixing the problem, you are only relieving the symptoms. In this case, these symptoms all point to a single root cause: You aren’t able to move around and get proper circulation in a seated position. The real solution? When you get to your destination, don’t go right back to sitting; Move around and get some exercise.

This sounds obvious, but it is so easy to forget a problem once the symptom is gone. The real purposes of having symptoms is to DETECT, not to treat. If you remove just the symptoms, the problem will persist, and get worse over time.

A better approach

Imagine your doctor had found a large growth in your armpit during your annual physical. If the growth were the problem, the doctor could simply refer you to a surgeon who would cut it off, give you some pain killers, and send you on your merry way. This is almost never the case.

The unfortunate truth is that the lump is in fact, a SYMPTOM of the issue at hand. Before blindly removing it, the doctor will perform a few tests to explore the cause of the growth. Perhaps they think that it is a bacterial infection; they would prescribe antibiotics, and have you return once the prescription is done. If all symptoms are gone, your doctor makes a note of the issue, and assumes for now that is okay. If the symptom doesn’t go away, or it comes back again, then we have to consider other possibilities. You may be sent for and XRAY, ultrasound, or other test to determine what is actually causing the lump to appear.

The key difference is that the doctor is testing, and retesting. If a fix temporarily relieves the symptom, but it quickly returns, then we clearly haven’t gotten to the root of the issue. Instead, we continue to dig deeper and deeper to figure out what, exactly, we need to change.

Diagnosing your own lifestyle issues

Implementing this logic in your own life is easy, but requires you to treat any concern with this diagnostic mindset. When you notice an issue, you test the problem, you perform an appropriate exercise or fix, and then you retest to see if the real symptom has disappeared. The key is that you also make note of the symptom so that you notice any recurring issues. I do this, by keeping a “lifestyle progress” journal. In it, I record the date, a simple explanation of the problem, and an overview of what I tried and what seemed to work.

Let’s see this in action. Lets assume that you’ve been sitting for some time, and you are experiencing knee pain:

First, you’ll want to determine what is likely to be causing the problem. There are several techniques you can use for this:

1) You can try using self-massage. Can you feel tenseness in the tissue around the knee and inside of the hip? When you press into the tissue, does the feeling stay local to the press, or does it radiate?

2) Try changing the position sligthly. Does opening your hip more take the pressure of the knee? Is your torso perhaps leaning forward, backward, or to either side?

3) Try actively engaging the muscles in the chain to recover full range of motion. If you flex or point your toes, is there relief? Does squeezing your butt help you open the hips more?

Second, you will then attempt to treat the symptom. Perform some simple stretches for any muscles you think are tight (for instance, perform a slow forward fold to release the hamstrings, or hold a squat to open the hips).

After each stretch reassume your position and verify if the tension has disappeared, remained the same, or moved to another location.

  • If the position is easy to hold, make note of which muscle was being misused, as something in the way you move and hold yourself must have caused it.
  • If you feel less tension, but the tension seems to have moved, reenact the first steps to figure out which tissue is compromised.
  • If you feel the same, you will continue honing to locate the source of the pain.

Following this, I will often record in my “lifestyle improvement” journal. I simply turn to the next page, add the date, and the results of what I did and what worked to remedy the issue.

Continuous improvement

After you’ve been doing this for a while, the test-stress-retest cycle will become second nature. From there you can continue to use the technique to improve your way of functioning. If you notice that a certain stretch alleviates the symptom temporarily, but that the symptom keeps returning, consider what is causing the tightness in the first place. Are you sitting too much? Do you walk with your feet pointing outward? Are you wearing shoes with too much arch support?

As you get better and better at the technique, you will be building your toolkit towards a healthier lifestyle.

Have you ever used a diagnostics-based approach to your own health? Let us know in the comment section below!

(I read each and every comment, and will try to reply to most)