Fascia is a complex network of connective tissue which lies just beneath the skin. Made of collagen, this stretchy, white, mesh-like substance interweaves through and around your musculature, surrounds and supports your organs, and shrink-wraps your entire internal structure like a second skin. Fascia has a key role to play in the everyday healthy functioning of the body.
The musculoskeletal system consists of thousands of separate parts: hundreds of bones held together by more than 600 muscles and vast numbers of ligaments and tendons. It is the fascia though that links the entire system, not just muscle to bone but muscle to muscle, along with all the other structures in the body, like organs, ligaments and tendons. Rather than thinking of the body as having 600 plus muscles, instead think of it as being one single muscle with 600 plus stopping points, all linked together by a fascial web that is sensitive, dynamic and extremely adaptable. There are 10 times as many nerve endings in the fascia than there are in the muscles, making it far more susceptible to pain and sensation in general than the muscles. Most injuries are in fact problems with the fascial structures, not the muscle tissue.
Anatomists say ‘muscles attach to bones’, but muscle can’t attach to anything. It’s the fascia that goes over, around and through your muscles that organises that tissue into linear pulling machines.
The fascial webbing itself is organised into distinct meridians, or “trains” — dense bands connecting multiple muscles and spanning multiple joints, tacked down at numerous bony “stations” along the way. There are about a dozen of these fascial superhighways, which help in understanding how we move and help in treating pain and dysfunction. Some run the length of your body, head to toe; others spiral the torso, pass over the top of your head, and run down the middle of your back.
Like guy-wires on a well-rigged boat, a balanced, harmonious tension among these myofascial meridians helps support fluid, effortless movement. Too much chronic tension or slack in key meridians can lead to poor posture and pain — and not always in the places you’d expect. Trace the fascial lines through the muscles and across the skeleton, and it’s possible to see, for instance, how shoulder pain might be caused by dysfunction in your opposite ankle, or how tight hamstrings might actually be caused by tension in the soles of the feet.
It is through these myofascial lines, moreso than through individual muscles, that the body adapts to and reinforces alignment and movement. Fascia adapts to every move we make — good, bad or indifferent. Over time, the fascia in the front of the rib cage of someone who sits at a desk all day may become thick and short to reinforce a habitually caved-in posture. And injuries, even minor ones, often result in fascial “patches” in the muscles that can cause restricted motion, leading to compensations in gait and movement. These might remain long after the injury itself has healed.
Injured or poorly adapted fascia can start to act like glue, binding to muscles, other fascia, even your ligaments. Your entire individual life history — exercise habits, injuries, common sitting and sleeping positions — is effectively written in your fascia.
How Pilates can improve your fascia
Targeted Pilates exercises which aim to strengthen and stretch the body in fascia-friendly patterns, can help to improve the quality and elasticity of the fascial web.
The Pilates method involves slow, controlled movements timed with the tidal rhythm of the breath. If we stretch too quickly or intensely the muscles go into a protective mode, contracting and resisting. Pilates gets round these protective mechanisms, by romancing rather than attacking the body. When we are in a relaxed, calm state, our muscles and connective tissue are much more responsive to working. Pilates favours smooth motion over thrusting, ballistic actions, and encourages us to work within a range of movement that feels comfortable.
Each Pilates exercise slowly and rhythmically moves our limbs in a series of shapes, which usually increase incrementally in size with each repetition. These gently expanding movements can elicit a soothing, parasympathetic response from our nervous system, much like rocking in a chair or swinging in a hammock. Pilates never pushes the joints to their limits, instead the exercises carefully test the boundaries of the range of movement we are capable of on that day and in that moment. The slow, rhythmic tempo provided by the Pilates approach to breathing, lowers apprehension, allowing us to get past resistance in the fascia and work the muscles more effectively.
This calm state also primes the client for learning new movement patterns, while at the same time, the broad, multi-dimensional movements associated with Pilates exercises, stretch the entire fascial fabric in ways that conventional stretching doesn’t.
Pilates is particularly effective at redressing imbalances in the fascia because rather than stretching one muscle group at a time, the exercises encourage us to stretch an entire plane of the body at once, involving long movements that extend and spiral the body head to toe. Pilates exercises also provide the chance to stretch the body in multiple planes, releasing the fascia and improving flexibility.
For greater suppleness throughout the fascial network, Pilates exercises that incorporate some kind of bouncing are beneficial. As we age we lose elasticity in our fascia. Children exemplify the bouncy elasticity in their fascia. Bouncing helps us hold on to this fascial elasticity.
The best safeguard against tightness and adhesions in the fascia is variety. Repetitive physical action — including forms of exercise like running or cycling — can leave its mark on the fascia, unnaturally tightening certain areas and eventually leaving us more susceptible to injury. The key thing to do is mix things up, constantly changing the Pilates exercises we do in class and finding new ways to move. Just as the fascia links the muscles together in interconnected chains, so integrated exercise and movement link the muscles functionally, through dynamic, coordinated movement patterns.
I recently discovered Dr Michael Greger’s book, How Not To Die, which identifies the foods scientifically proven to prevent and reverse disease. It is a fascinating read and a must for anyone intent on achieving immortality!
Greger and his team of researchers studied 24,000 published papers, which resulted in the discovery of evidence-based links between nutrition and disease. Many people assume the diseases that kill us are pre-programmed into our genes, but for most of the leading causes of death, i.e. heart disease, dementia and Alzheimer’s, stroke and cancer, our genes usually account for only 10–20 per cent of the risk. The other 80-90 per cent is down to diet and lifestyle. The typical Western diet is the primary cause of premature death and disability in the UK and US. In other words, a long and healthy life is largely a matter of the choices we make.
Research shows that adhering to just four simple healthy lifestyle factors can reduce the risk of chronic illness by 75%:
don’t be obese,
take exercise every day,
eat more healthily (defined as consuming more fruits, vegetables and whole grains and less meat).
One study has shown that the drop in mortality risk amongst those with healthier habits is equivalent to being 14 years younger.
What happens to our bodies when we age?
In each of our cells we have 46 strands of DNA coiled into chromosomes. At the tip of each chromosome, there’s a tiny cap called a telomere, which keeps your DNA from unravelling and fraying, a bit like the plastic tips on the end of shoelaces. Every time cells divide, however, a portion of that cap is lost. And when the telomere is completely gone, your cells can die.
Smoking cigarettes is associated with triple the rate of telomere loss. The food we eat every day may also have an impact on how fast we lose our telomeres. Consuming fruits, vegetables and other antioxidant-rich foods has been associated with longer, protective telomeres. In contrast, consuming refined grains, fizzy drinks, meat, fish and dairy has been linked to shortened telomeres.
Research shows that by eating a diet composed of whole plant foods, avoiding processed foods and animal foods, and taking exercise could significantly boost telomerase activity. A five-year follow-up of this research found that while the telomeres of those in a control group, who did not change their lifestyles, predictably shrank with age, the telomeres of those who had changed their lifestyles had actually grown. Five years later, their telomeres were even longer on average than when they started — suggesting not only that a healthy lifestyle can boost telomerase enzyme activity, but that it can reverse cellular ageing.
Further research showed that this astonishing result wasn’t just because the healthy-living group was exercising more or losing weight. Weight loss through calorie restriction and an even more vigorous exercise programme failed to improve telomere length. The active ingredient in achieving this is the food we eat.
Nor is it to do with how much we eat. As long as people were eating a typical Western diet, it didn’t appear to matter how small the portions were, how much weight they lost, or how hard they exercised; after a year, they saw no benefit in terms of improvement in their telomeres.
In contrast, individuals on the plant-based diet exercised only half as much, enjoyed the same amount of weight loss after just three months, and achieved significant telomere protection.
In other words, it wasn’t weight loss or the exercise that reversed cell ageing, it was the food.
Food we should eat every day
Based on the above research findings on food and telomere protection, Greger says we should aim to have the recommended number of servings from each section of what he calls his Daily Dozen:
One serving of cruciferous vegetables: broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, spring greens, radishes, turnip tops, watercress. A serving is a quarter of a cup.
Greens including kale, young salad greens, sorrel, spinach, swiss chard. Two servings a day, a serving being one cup raw or half a cup cooked.
Other vegetables: asparagus, beets, bell peppers, carrots, corn, courgettes, garlic, mushrooms, okra, onions, pumpkin, sugar snap peas, squash, sweet potatoes, tomatoes. Two servings a day, a serving being one cup of raw leafy vegetables, or half a cup of raw or cooked non-leafy vegetables, or half a cup of vegetable juice, or a quarter of a cup of dried mushrooms.
Beans: black beans, cannellini beans, black-eyed peas, butter beans, soya beans, baked beans, chickpeas, edamame, peas, kidney beans, lentils, miso, pinto beans, split peas, tofu, hummus. Three servings a day, i.e. a quarter of a cup of hummus or bean dip, or half a cup of cooked beans, split peas, lentils or tofu, or a full cup of fresh peas or sprouted lentils.
Berries: any small edible fruit, including grapes, raisins, blackberries, blueberries, cherries, raspberries and strawberries. One serving a day, a serving being half a cup of fresh or frozen berries, or a quarter of a cup of dried berries.
Other fruits: apples, apricots, avocados, bananas, cantaloupe melon, clementines, dates, figs, grapefruit, honeydew melon, kiwi, lemons, limes, lychees, mangos, nectarines, oranges, papaya, passion fruit, peaches, pears, pineapple, plums, pomegranates, prunes, tangerines, watermelon. Three servings a day, where one serving is a cup of cut-up fruit, or one medium fruit, or a quarter of a cup of dried fruit a day.
Flaxseeds: one tablespoon a day.
Nuts: a quarter of a cup a day, or two tablespoons of peanut, almond or other nut butter.
Spices: every day you should have a quarter of a teaspoon of turmeric in addition to any other spices you enjoy.
Whole grains: rice, buckwheat, quinoa, cereal, pasta, bread. Three servings a day, which is half a cup of cooked rice or pasta, or one cup of cereal, or a slice of bread, or half a bagel.
Exercise: ideally 90 minutes a day of moderate activity such as walking.
Water: five large (12oz/340ml) glasses a day.
So there you have it, how not to die. However, if you find you must, do it like David Bowie, artistically, bravely and with dignity…
Bowie dies then a week later astronomers discover a new planet. Coincidence? I think not. RIP Mr Bowie and thank you.