Pilates to Work the Fascia

Veiled dancer

What is fascia and why is it important?

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.

Lady beneath the veil statue

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.

Source material for this article:

To close, here’s Bowie’s famous song about fascia…beep beep!

Easter Holidays 2016

Ballet dancer dressed as a rabbit

The Easter Holidays are on the horizon so to confirm, the usual sessions on the following days during the Easter Holiday weekend will not take place at The Wellbeing Studio:

Easter Saturday 26th March
Easter Monday 28th March

For those who normally attend the 10.00 Saturday morning and 12.30 Monday lunchtime sessions, you’re very welcome to come along to any of the other classes on the weekly schedule.

There will also be no Piloga class at Strode Leisure Centre on Easter Saturday.

Looking for a healthy, chocolate-free Easter present?  Why not buy an Embody Pilates gift card for a friend or family member?  They’re available from as little as £10.  More information about the gift cards on offer and how to buy one, via the link.

To close, here’s fake cleric and folk rock god, Father John Misty with his thought for the day…

 

New Clinical Studies on the Benefits of Pilates

street yoga

When Pilates is the subject of repeated clinical research, you know it’s a form of exercise the medical profession takes seriously.

This week I came across the findings of three new clinical studies, which proves the positive effect Pilates can have on depression, postpartum fatigue and urinary incontinence.

Pilates versus Depression

A research study into the mental benefits of Pilates involved depressed females at a residential battered women’s centre who did 30-45 minutes of Pilates, 3 days a week in a group class setting over a 12 week period.

The researchers measured levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter well-known for its mood-boosting effects, before the women began Pilates and once again after the 12 weeks were completed. In addition to serotonin, they measured depression levels (by means of a 21-question survey called Beck Depression Inventory commonly used in research and clinical settings), blood pressure, flexibility, endurance, and strength (via a tool called a dynamometer) before and after the intervention.

After 12 weeks of regular Pilates classes, the women had a significant increase in serotonin and 34% drop in severity of depression. That level of improvement rivals the effects of some SSRIs, a class of anti-depressant medications that target serotonin’s action in the brain.

Using Pilates as a tool to control your mind is one of the primary ways to fight against depression.  Many people become depressed because they feel they are losing control of their lives. With Pilates, you are required to mentally and physically control every aspect of each exercise, giving you the mental practice to help you gain better control of other aspects of your life.

Pilates exercises perform moves that help improve muscular strength as well as relieving muscular tension. So, while performing Pilates, you’re also relaxing your body and mind.

Jessica Tremp

Pilates versus Postpartum Maternal Fatigue

A total of 80 women participated in a clinical trial into postpartum fatigue, a debilitating phenomenon affecting mothers after they have given birth.  The women were randomly divided into two groups – the intervention group and the control group. In the intervention group, the women performed Pilates exercises five times a week (30 minutes per session) for eight consecutive weeks. The first session was conducted 72 hours after delivery. The control group did not receive any intervention. Each woman’s level of fatigue was evaluated at hospital discharge (as a baseline), and at four and eight weeks after delivery, using the standard Multi-dimensional Fatigue Inventory (MFI-20) questionnaire and repeated measures analysis.

During the eight weeks of follow-up, the study found that the intervention group had lower mean MFI-20 scores than the control group meaning that Pilates was able to reduce general, physical and mental fatigue, and improve activity and motivation.

A short break from the science bits…

Pilates versus Yoga

Apologies to cat lovers and yogis everywhere!

Click on the cartoon to enlarge it…

Pilates versus yoga

Pilates versus Urinary Incontinence

A three-year pilot study at Colchester General Hospital has shown that Pilates can help people with urinary incontinence.  Funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), the clinical study was carried out jointly with academics from the School of Health and Human Sciences, and the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Essex University.

A total of 73 women took part in the study.  All received pelvic floor exercises and lifestyle advice, with a second group also attending a six-week course of Pilates classes. Both groups were assessed at the start of the study, when they completed their treatment, and five months later. Questionnaires explored topics such as severity of symptoms, frequency of incontinence, quality of life, and self-esteem.

The study found that classes in Pilates were most beneficial to women whose symptoms were less severe. In addition, the study found there were also some benefits for those women whose condition was more serious.

The chief investigator in the pilot study was a physiotherapist at Colchester General Hospital.  The findings from the pilot study are sufficiently encouraging for the researchers to now develop a larger clinical trial, the findings from which could ultimately influence the treatment of urinary incontinence for people throughout the country.

Great to see further clinical proof of the positive benefit Pilates can have on people’s physical and mental health and well-being.

Continuing the Pilates, depression, cat theme from above, here’s Henri, le chat noir, who seems to be having a bit of an existential crisis.  Pauvre Henri!  He would definitely benefit from doing Pilates…