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!
When it comes to weight loss, there’s a lot of information out there. And when you start comparing the sources that rely on the most timely, unbiased exercise science out there, to those that rely on outdated information; one quickly realizes there’s just as much misinformation to sort through.
One of the most common misconceptions that I hear from students goes like this- “I love my barre workout but need to add something else for cardio in order to lose weight.”
I want to educate people that in fact they can get everything their body needs in a one-hour class at The Bar Method, three to five times a week. But to make that assertion, let’s first back up to where this way of thinking originated. For a long time, there were two primary schools of thought regarding exercise and weight loss.
- The first belief system said that the only way to lose weight was to melt fat off through strenuous cardio, like a spin class or running. If you’ve ever taken a killer aerobics class- in that moment where your face is beet-red, your clothes are drenched and you’re flirting with unconsciousness- it’s hard to imagine anything else being more effective at shedding pounds. Sure, you’re incinerating mega calories in that moment, but when we’re trying to achieve lasting weight loss, it’s important to look the other 23 hours in the day. *Note that this belief exploded in the 80s when step-classes and aerobic exercise videos were all the rage.
- The other says that by building lean muscle mass, you’ll burn more fat overall because you’re burning fat while you’re resting; it raises our resting metabolic rate (RMR). Muscle mass is built through strength-training, which can include lifting weights, resistance training or using our own body weight and good old-fashioned gravity, like we do so often in barre.
The correct answer? Well, it incorporates a bit of both- cardio does burn more calories in the moment, but it’s most effective when you’re also building lean muscle through strength training. Recent studies show that you can get better results, both aerobic and strength gains, from three strength training sessions a week than you can from an hour of cardio, five days a week. This means that, in terms of fat loss, strength training is the best way to add lean muscle and burn calories on an ongoing basis. It also ensures that we don’t lose your muscle mass while we exercise and eat for fat-loss.
Ever heard the term skinny-fat? The number on the scale is dropping and you may be able to zip those skinny jeans but without adding lean muscle, it also means a saggy butt, flabby tummy and loose-feeling skin. Probably not the outcome you were working so hard for, right? You’re losing weight, not necessarily fat.
How Barre hits the Weight Loss Spot
In a one-hour class at The Bar Method, our heart rate is elevated to that sweet spot just under our anaerobic threshold. Here, we’re burning fat but cortisol levels are lower than they are after an aerobic class, allowing the body to more effectively release fat stores, especially those around our waist. We’re enjoying the cardio benefits of an anaerobic workout in class, but energy continues to burn for several more hours as our bodies work to repair and build the muscles we exhausted in class.
Did you know that women lose an average of 5% of our muscle-mass every 10 years after age 35. Since the presence of lean muscle increases our resting metabolic rate, this is one reason it’s easier to pack on extra weight and can be more difficult to shed it as we age (it’s not just in your head). This only means that strength-training becomes increasingly important as we outsmart the aging process and keep our metabolisms revved through the decades- not to mention the benefits of strength training on bone density, posture and mental health as we age… but that’s for another post.
I say all of this to tell you that, you can get everything your body needs in a one-hour class at The Bar Method, three-five times a week (consistency is key). However, there are so many benefits to moving in general that, if you find any form of exercise you love- dive in headfirst! If your body and mind are craving the “high” that comes after a long run- then, run, Forest, run! Paddleboard, climb, spin, lift, down-dog and, of course, barre- with wild abandon. Movement is life and, aside from the cardio or fat-loss benefits of an active lifestyle, it just makes the journey a lighter, brighter, happier one.
But for me, personally? I’ll see you at the barre.
Want to experience the unique blend of cardio and strength training that come from a one-hour class at The Bar Method? Book a class at The Bar Method Atlanta, either at our Lenox (Buckhead) or East Cobb (Marietta) locations.