Back pain, jaw tension, leg cramps — so many common health problems involve your muscles, those powerful tissues that make up about 40 percent of your body. And yet, “most people don't think about their muscles until something goes wrong,” says Michelle Schoffro Cook, doctor of natural medicine, holistic nutritionist, and author of The Ultimate pH Solution (HarperCollins, 2008). But because a loss of muscle mass and proper function may cause you to be less active, it's essential that you nourish, strengthen, and stretch your muscles every day. Doing so can help prevent serious health issues such as osteoporosis, heart disease, and even cancer, suggests Robert R. Wolfe, PhD, a researcher at the University of Texas in Galveston. Adding the following steps to your daily routine can keep you feeling strong from head to toe.

Eat muscle-building minerals

One of the most vital aspects of muscle health is the tissues' ability to contract and relax properly. Because magnesium and calcium are essential to those functions, Cook recommends loading up on both every day. Dark green leafy vegetables offer a hefty dose of magnesium and calcium, as well as potassium, which is crucial for muscle growth. “You can never eat too many greens,” asserts Cook, who encourages having a salad full of arugula at lunch and sautéed kale for dinner. (See “Mineral-Rich Foods for Muscles,” page 44, for information about the mineral content in particular foods.) “It can be very hard to get enough calcium and magnesium, even if you're extremely conscientious with your diet,” says Cook. For insurance, supplement with 100-200 mg of each mineral, twice daily at mealtimes.

Boost your B vitamins

Dubbed “nature's energizers” by Cook, B vitamins help supply cells with the energy they need to function. By supporting the nervous system, they also help improve communication between muscles and the brain. Moreover, taking a B-complex supplement may help reduce leg cramps in pregnant women, according to a 2006 study published in the International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics. Get plenty of B-rich foods, including bananas, fortified cereals, and chickpeas, says Cook, and take a 50 mg B-complex supplement twice daily with meals. “B vitamins can increase your energy level, so it's better to take them with breakfast and lunch, and not within five hours of bedtime,” she cautions.

Mineral-rich foods [for muscles]

Magnesium

Pumpkin seeds (151 mg per ounce)
Quinoa (89 mg per ¼ cup dry)
Almonds (78 mg per ounce)
Spinach (78 mg per ½ cup cooked)
Soybeans (74 mg per ½ cup cooked)

CALCIUM

Low-fat yogurt (415 mg per 8 ounces)
Calcium-fortified tofu (204 mg per ½ cup)
Calcium-fortified orange juice (200-260 mg per 6 ounces)
Salmon (181 mg per 3 ounces)
Cottage cheese (138 mg per ½ cup)

Add spice

To prevent muscle pain, perk up your meals with inflammation-reducing herbs and spices. Cook suggests experimenting with bright orange turmeric in rice and curry dishes and adding fresh, chopped ginger to soups, stir-fries, sautéed vegetables, and tea. A report released by the University of South Carolina last year concluded that curcumin, a compound found in the curry spice turmeric, tames inflammation and eases exercise-induced muscle damage. And in a 2005 study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food, researchers found that eating fresh ginger alleviated muscle pain and inflammation more effectively than taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.

Exercise, of course

Your muscles thrive on regular exercise, says Rebecca Anne Demorest, MD, a physician at the Women's Sports Medicine Center at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. Exercising daily can go a long way in preventing muscle problems, but maintaining truly healthy muscles calls for keeping active throughout the day, not just for 30 minutes in the afternoon, says Demorest. “A lot of people spend their entire day sitting — in their cars, at their desks, on the couch when they get home,” says Barbara Templeton, a yoga instructor in Redding, Connecticut, and author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Stretching (Alpha, 2007).

Staying sedentary can even impact your muscles on a biochemical level, according to recent research from the University of Missouri. Fat-burning enzymes in the muscles may become dormant within hours of sitting, scientists found. Just getting up and moving around throughout the day — walking to the watercooler, strolling at lunch, or even working while standing up — can re-engage those enzymes and keep your metabolism active.

Stretch it out

Stretching soothes muscle tension and promotes circulation, which are increasingly important as you age, says Demorest. “When we get older, our muscles tend to become less flexible, which can lead to muscle pain and injury,” she says. Set aside at least ten minutes to bend and flex each morning, recommends Templeton, and make your spine top priority. “All of your core muscles are connected to your spine in some way,” says Templeton. Be sure to move in all four directions: gently bend forward, stretch back, and twist to one side, then the next.

Practicing yoga delivers muscle benefits beyond the basic stretch. By applying pressure to different parts of your body, says Templeton, yoga can tone and massage your internal organs, including the most precious muscle of all: the heart. According to a study conducted at the Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research in Pondicherry, India, yoga even helps strengthen lung muscles and enhance lung function.

Relax

Chronic tension takes its toll on your muscles, says Cook, leaving you more prone to aches and injury and contributing to issues such as temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder. What's more, chronically high levels of the stress hormone cortisol may actually damage muscle tissue, says Cook. Don't overlook the power of regular exercise and stretching to melt stress, which can prevent further damage, she says. “Even 30 seconds of deep breathing — while you're commuting or sitting at your desk at work — can lower your body's levels of cortisol.”

Templeton recommends practicing self-massage once a week, kneading all your major muscle groups with sesame or jojoba oil. Rub your arms and legs with long, heavy strokes, but use less pressure and circular motions when massaging your knees, shoulders, and hips. Or try progressive muscle relaxation, says Cook: As you lie in bed, alternately tense and relax each muscle group one at a time, starting with your toes and working up to your face and scalp.

Jumpstart your noontime exercise routine!