Before I go on and on about how amazing this little-talked-about system actually is, let’s start at square one… what the heck is fascia?
If you’re reading the word “fascia” and a flower (or “fascist”… be honest), comes to mind you’re not alone. A lot of other people reading this are thinking the same. Until I dove headfirst into exercise science years ago, I only vaguely remembered hearing the word in high school anatomy.
Even those of us who vigilantly seek out the latest health and fitness news may have only recently come across the subject of fascia and how closely it’s connected to virtually every area of our health.
And here’s the kicker- fascia is literally the biological fabric that holds us together. Imagine a densely woven, slippery web of fibrous proteins that wrap around and in between every muscle, bone, organ, vein and nerve in our bodies. It simultaneously connects everything and keeps our parts separate so they can slide smoothly as we move. Fascia is the difference between the finely tuned, complexly engineered machine that our bodies are, and a blob of mixed-up, blubbery flesh. Yuck.
To understand how important fascial health is in our daily lives, keep in mind that there are 10 times more sensory receptors in our connective tissue than in our muscles. Additionally, most injuries occur in these tissues, not in our muscles.
So why don’t we hear about it more often?
It wasn’t until a decade ago that the mainstream medical community really started paying attention to fascia. Up until that point, it was largely believed that fascia’s primary function was to- very simply put- keep our parts in place. But in 2007, at the first international fascia research conference at Harvard University, the concept of fascial elasticity and how closely fascia works with our muscles was revealed more clearly. Doctors learned that fascia is not only more elastic than we once believed but that it provides us the stressors and counter-stressors that are necessary for mobility, stability and strength.
In a healthy state, our fascia is relaxed and soft; it stretches and moves without restriction. However, many environmental and lifestyle factors tighten our fascia, making us more susceptible to injury and illness.
Factors that can damage the fascia are:
- Inflammation, which makes fascia more susceptible to damage.
- Repetitive movements, like typing or factory work pull fascia into ingrained patterns, making it less pliable.
- Emotional stress, which causes fascial tissue to thicken in an attempt to protect the muscle.
- An accident- this can tear or twist fascial tissue.
- Sitting for long periods of time or a sedentary lifestyle.
Many people who are suffering from pain, soreness and lack of motion may really be experiencing undiagnosed damage to their fascial system.
So how do you know if your fascia is in need of repair? Most commonly, you may find yourself continually tight and achy, with muscle soreness that you can’t attribute to any particular activity. You may feel uncomfortable in your body but not really be able to pinpoint the source of your pain. Since fascia is so lengthy and interconnected, damage to one area, may cause a discomfort in an entirely different one.
Common symptoms of damaged or tight fascia:
- Limited mobility or flexibility
- Numbness or a feeling of “pins and needles”
- Difficulty breathing
- Chronic back and neck pain
- Muscle pain and/ or spams
- Poor posture
- Recurring injuries
How barre protects and repairs the fascia
One of the most effective ways to heal and protect our facial system is through exercises that incorporate stretching and a large range of motion like those we do in barre (think of the large ranges your bar method teacher will incorporate into parallel thigh or foldover). Whole-body movements engage a long stretch of fascial tissue, which strengthens the system more effectively than when we isolate one area of muscles and move repetitively, like on an elliptical or bike. Note that these types of exercise have other immense benefits; but we’re talking about strengthening the fascia specifically here.
Since fascial tissue stretches slower than muscle, the deep stretches and fluid movements we do in class, work on a deeper level than workouts that incorporate quick, jerky movements. These dynamic stretches work to increase circulation and lubricate our joints, tissues and- you guessed it- fascia.
Ways to protect our fascia health, in addition to barre:
- Eat an anti-inflammatory diet. These foods that reduce internal inflammation are gaining attention as we discover a growing list of diseases and conditions that are linked to inflammation, including many types of cancer, arthritis, asthma and high blood pressure.
- Stretch or do a little yoga right when you get out of bed. As we sleep, our fascia, like our muscles, can become stiff and “gooey”. Start the day right, by doing some spinal twists, flex your hands and feet; these will lubricate and loosen your fascia so it’s ready to withstand anything the day may throw at you.
- Myofascial Release Therapy. There are several fascial release techniques that range from gentle, sustained pressure to extremely deep massage in areas where fascia is restricted. This damage often occurs during some sort of physical trauma, like in an accident or surgery. In these treatments, a therapist manually manipulates or unwinds fascial fibers that may have become twisted during trauma, chronic stress or a condition, like Fibromyalgia. While the deep-tissue massage can border on excruciating, many people report lasting repair from physical and even emotional trauma. Our very own Stacey Henke is incredible at this type of massage!
- Work it out with a foam roller. If you’ve been to class at The Bar Method, you’ve likely heard us discuss using foam rollers and this is why: fascia goes deep beneath the skin’s surface and rigid foam rollers work wonders softening our fascia and tight muscles. It’s actually a way to perform the fascial release therapy mentioned above on ourselves. Rolling around in controlled movements on a tennis ball is also effective for a smaller area.
- Water, water, water. You may have noticed that we’re a little crazy for water around The Bar Method. (“Water Wednesdays”, hello!), but it’s for good reason. Drinking plenty of water, from the minute you wake up in the morning and throughout the day, helps every single system in your body function better, including your fascia, as a dehydrated body means more rigid fascia. So, drink up!