In a perfect world, we'd all be in shape and stay there. But working out too hard can be almost as hurtful as being the couch potato who gets exercise by walking to the fridge.

In a perfect world, we'd all be in shape and stay there. But working out too hard can be almost as hurtful as being the couch potato who gets exercise by walking to the fridge.

Too much of either extreme — sloth or exertion — eventually tweaks something, and that's when the intelligent hands of a massage therapist, like the 10 who work at Ashland's Siskiyou Massage, can come in handy. A good "rub down," as massage used to be called, will calm the nervous system, stimulate injured tissue to heal, reduce inflammation, widen range of motion, relax muscle spasms and improve breathing and posture.

While 95 percent of people who walk into Siskiyou Massage on Fourth Street do so because they got hurt or went into muscle spasms, many people — especially professional athletes, dancers and such — soon learn it's cheaper and less painful to just schedule a massage every month, says clinic director Philip Whitmore.

"The biggest benefit is prevention," he says, noting that in vehicle accidents, the damage happens more to the muscles that are tense and therefore inflexible.

In the old days, before all our labor-saving machines, people were in shape from walking, chopping wood, doing laundry, dancing and all the rest, he says. Today we're hunched over laptops, steering wheels and plates of food — and that weakens muscles and pulls them out of place, especially the neck and lower back.

Doing massage on client Paul Grilley, who suffered shoulder injuries in a jiu-jitsu workout, Whitmore explains how he's "stimulating the tissue response" by stretching Grilley's neck fascia.

When you push on it, says Grilley, a yoga author and instructor, it pushes back, becomes more toned and improves posture.

"It's most important (when you have an injury) not to surrender to the fear response," says Grilley, "that is, not freeze up, lock up and don't move."

With a new injury, says Whitmore, it's good to practice RICE, which stands for "rest, ice, compression and elevation." Also, drink lots of fluids, which help carry off toxins created by injury. Ice is important, he notes, as it brings down inflammation and contracts swelling. Alternate it with heat, which dilates veins, bringing in fresh blood to oxygenate the area and flush out toxins.

However, nothing heals better than rest and sleep.

"Sleep is the best anti-inflammatory," notes Whitmore, adding that massage therapists give clients stretches and strengthening exercises to top it off.

While exertion can cause injuries, inactivity is worse, says Whitmore, who advises everyone to have an enjoyable activity they can do regularly, such as yoga, dance or martial arts.

So, what's all this about flushing out toxins?

"Tight muscles don't get as much oxygen from the blood," says massage therapist Jennifer Kuehnle. "So there's a buildup of metabolic wastes, and that waste needs to move out of the tissue."

The clinic gets lots of athletes — especially bicyclists and runners so plentiful on Ashland's many trails — and it gets lots of people who have been injured in vehicles because massage often is covered by insurance, along with regular medical treatment, even if you're at fault in an accident, says Whitmore.

Demonstrating how to use a fat, 4-foot-long, foam roller (you roll around on it on the floor), massage therapist Philana Shallcross says another big benefit of massage is that, in a world where we hardly ever get touched, we get lots of it on the massage table.

"It stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the 'rest and digest' aspect of the nervous system," says Shallcross. "It's the opposite of being under stress, in fight-or-flight. It puts you at ease so you can heal."

Whitmore adds, "When you lay on that table for an hour, it's amazingly helpful and healing. You can oxygenate your tissue and breathe and talk and be listened to."

Former Oregon Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Libbey Appel credits massage with getting her body ready for hip-replacement surgery last April. Massage prior to the procedure undid bodywide muscle tension and knots, enabling her to go in for the procedure with confidence, she says.

"I think it saved my life," says Appel, who received her bodywork from Shallcross. "I was crippled over and walking with a cane. It unwound the pain in my neck, shoulders and back."

Afflicted with back, hip and neck pain, Marc Cooper of Ashland went to a series of physicians and physical therapists before he was diagnosed with rotator-cuff problems and hip displacement.

After seeing Kuehnle and a chiropractor, it turned out to be a misaligned C-1 vertebrae (where the neck joins the skull).

"When I saw Jenny, I got immediate relief and went once or twice a week for a month," says Cooper. "She knew the spots to work, and she doesn't mess around."