And the key to actively enjoying life for years to come
By Trish Murray, DO
Remember when you were a kid and had lots of energy? Whatever you did, your body would recover in no time. If you hurt yourself, the injury would heal quickly. As you entered adulthood and got busy with your career or other responsibilities, exercise may have become less of a priority. In your 30s, you might not have noticed the effect yet, but then you hit your 40s and one day something happens: you’re shocked to discover that your body is not as flexible and agile as it used to be. Suddenly you wonder, “What’s going on?” You start to have aches and pains and you don’t understand why. Or, you get injured and you notice that your body doesn’t repair itself quite as well—or nearly as quickly—as it did in your youth.
Whether you like exercise or not, you have to keep moving to be healthy, especially as you get older. “Move it or lose it!” as the saying goes.
We all know that exercise is important. It helps with sleep, cardiovascular health, weight loss, and overall well-being. Did you also know that there is a holistic three-dimensional system of the body that you must understand AND actively maintain to optimize your health, move fluidly as you age, and avoid injury? It is your fascial system! Want to know more? Read on to find the missing link to aging gracefully so you can keep actively enjoying life for years to come.
The fascial system is the connective tissue, also known as the fabric of life, which surrounds every blood vessel, organ, muscle, and nerve. Just like any fabric, the fascia has threads that run through it and, therefore, it looks like a matrix or a spider web on a microscopic level. The spaces between the threads are filled with a ground substance that is a gelatinous material that biochemically sucks up water—to the extent that 90 percent of this gelatinous ground substance is water. The fascia is alive! The tendrils, or threads, of the fascial fabric move when they are well hydrated. If they become dehydrated or stiff from lack of movement, they will start to stick together and restrict muscle and joint movement, as well as blood flow and neurological communication. Healthy fascia is the key to healthy aging in so many ways!
A research study presented in the International Journal of Molecular Science in June 2022 discussed how getting stiffer is a natural part of the aging process. It is unclear whether our aging muscle fibers or the connective tissue (fascia) that surrounds and intertwines our muscle fibers causes this stiffening as we age. In the study, they compared tissue samples from young (18-year-old) and older (80-year-old) people. Researchers measured what happened with passive stretch to muscle fibers alone, versus passive stretch to a muscle bundle that included both muscle fibers and the fascia around and within the bundle. They found that there was no difference between the young and old samples of muscle fiber alone in their response to passive stretching. The tissue bundles that included both muscle fiber and fascia responded differently. The older muscle bundles were statistically stiffer than the younger muscle bundles! Researchers also noted that there was 2.5 times more collagen in older tissue than younger tissue. This study concluded that the build-up of collagen, which increases the density of our fascia as we age, is the cause of our stiffening.
So, what can we do? How do we prevent this stiffness? It is important to keep your fascia healthy, especially as you get older. In today’s world, our lives have become sedentary. Most people sit in the car and drive to work, where they sit behind a computer the whole day, then get back in the car and sit on the couch the rest of the evening.
Research shows that non-stop sitting increases the risk of cancer, diabetes, stroke, and heart disease. It also decreases life expectancy by seven years, even if you exercise an hour a day. A simple solution is to stand up every 15 minutes and move your body.
You could also get an exercise ball to sit on, or an adjustable desk so you can work standing and vary your body position, rather than just sitting still. If you want your bones to move fluidly and have your systems function optimally, you must care for your fascia by moving!
As in cooking, variety is the spice of life when it comes to maintaining your physical health. Repetitive movements, or lack of movement, create imbalanced patterns in the fascia that become set throughout the body. For example, most people are likely to stand on one foot more than on the other, which shifts your pelvis out of alignment, resulting in an imbalance in your posture. One shoulder may be higher than the other and your torso may become twisted. These imbalanced patterns or distortions in your fascial fabric cause abnormal patterns that the body thinks are normal. Over time, this causes chronic dysfunction in movement, blood flow and neurological communication, and can be the root cause of pain as well as other diseases. This is how many of my patients end up in my office needing osteopathic treatment to correct chronic imbalances and dysfunctional movement patterns.
Over time, with age, the fascia becomes denser, which causes it to stiffen. In other words, as your fascia ages, it starts to degenerate, dry up, tighten, and develop kinks. All of this leads to further and faster degeneration and a tightening of our tissues to the point that they become fibrotic rather than fluid. As this happens gradually and progresses slowly over time, it’s often not visible until you’re in your 40s or 50s and begin to notice symptoms. You may begin feeling aches and pains or get injured and not recover so quickly. When the fascia loses its flexibility, it creates problems in your ability to move, your blood flow through your vessels will not be optimal, and the function of your organs will also be affected.
Regardless of your current age, taking care of your fascia is essential to optimal well-being and healthy aging. It’s never too late to start. Here in the Mt. Washington Valley, we are surrounded by amazing opportunities to hike, walk, bike, swim, row, paddle, ski, and snowshoe our way to health.
How lucky are we? It’s not enough, however, to be a weekend warrior. Especially as you age, it is important to maintain your fascial system on a regular basis so that you can play how you want for as long as you want.
Daily stretching, hydration, a healthy diet, adequate rest, and regular movement is the key to healthy aging. Personally, I love taking advantage of all the outdoor activities this valley has to offer—and I want to be able to do so for many years to come. To continue to perform my physically demanding job and engage in the recreational activities I love as I age, I know I need to be proactive. I engage in a daily stretching routine each morning and carve out time each week to participate in movement classes at Discover Health Functional Medicine Center, including self-myofascial release, movement for longevity, and discover yoga.
We’re all aging, and although we can’t avoid the slow degenerative process of time, we CAN mitigate the effects. I choose to be proactive and to take steps to age gracefully—join me!