What You Never Knew You Wanted To Know About Muscles

Our whole system is inter-dependent. When one system is weak, the others are affected. You wear a pair of broken down shoes, or too high of heels, your back hurts. You use your arms painting high cupboards or hanging curtains all day, your neck hurts. Hamstrings that are too tight invariably lead to back problems, even neck problems – and poor posture can make your feet hurt. It’s all connected.

The fact is, the muscles and tendons in your lower legs and bottom of your feet are ultimately connected to the small muscles in the neck and at the base of the skull. Next time you lay on your back to stretch your hamstrings and flex your foot, feel your head pull back. If you tuck your chin, you’ll get a better stretch in the back of the leg. It’s all connected.

Now, I happen to believe that the best way to take care of your self is to treat the body as a whole, not just some of the parts. I also believe the most effective way to do this is to learn how the “whole-body” works together to support itself.

It’s like all the years the “mind-body” connection was scoffed at as a new age fad. Don’t those folks feel foolish now? The body can’t do anything without the head- brain, or at least the Central Nervous System… except maintain a heartbeat. Isn’t that trippy? The reason?…the heart has a brain of its own, but you’ll need to keep your eyes out for another article to learn about that!

Every muscle in the body moves something… that’s what muscle does, as it contracts, it pulls. There are three types of muscle tissue: Smooth muscle, which is involved in movement inside the body, like in the intestines, the bladder, the uterus, etc.; Cardiac muscle contains an electrical circuitry of it’s own which runs the pumping of blood into and out of the heart, creating our heartbeat; and skeletal muscle which is the way we pull bones together to produce external movement.

Both smooth muscle and cardiac muscle are “involuntary”. That simply means we don’t have to think about moving the food we eat along our digestive tract, nor do we have to remember to tell our heart to keep the blood moving.

On the other hand, skeletal muscle takes some thought… unless it is an involuntary action caused by a reflex in response to a given stimulus, i.e., when something flies near your face, you don’t stomp your foot, you wave your hand by your face to shoo the object away.

Otherwise, external movement takes at least an initial conscious thought…”I think I’ll go get something to eat.” So you get up out of your chair and either walk to the fridge and grab a piece of fruit or stuff to make a sandwich – or – to jump in your car and drive to the nearest fast food place. Hopefully you do the first, but either way you made a conscious decision to move your body. Now luckily for us, we don’t have to think about the mechanics of putting one foot in front of the other or opening the refrigerator door, we learned that in toddler 101. But the sequence of movements were orchestrated by a series of nerve signals sent from the brain, through the spinal cord nerves to the muscles involved in the motor activity; that is a convincing argument that we need to think about our body/brain as a whole.

Okay, back to the muscles, because if you are now convinced that it’s better to keep moving than not, you want to learn how to make exercise both safe and effective, as well as fun. In order to do that you need to learn how that happens. Basically what skeletal muscles do is to pull bones together or apart. It is the result of muscles in the front of the upper arm that bend the elbow (pulling the bone in the lower arm closer to the bone in the upper arm), and the muscles at the back that straighten the elbow. Picture this: The bicep muscle group brings your sandwich to your face; the triceps muscles take it away. Not too complicated. During movement, muscles perform one of three tasks. The muscle that actually produces the movement is called an “agonist” or prime mover. The opposing muscle is called the “antagonist”, because its job is to control the speed and force of the prime mover. The third task is helping with the movement. These muscles are called “synergists”.

Obviously, eating a sandwich takes the cooperation and coordination of many, many muscles; the hand, wrist, upper and lower arm (both front and back) along with muscles in the face head and neck. It also involves muscles in the chest, side of the ribcage and the back. (Don’t forget cooperation of your good judgment and will-power also!).

Think how enormous AND miraculous that is…and we never even think about it as we devour that fat, juicy sandwich. The sad fact is, we take the miracle of our bodies completely for granted!

Muscles continuously change their tasks – back and forth, depending on the movement being done. Think of some guys lifting something by a big rope from one place to another, say cargo from the dock to the ship. One big guy is the head rope- puller, and he has a bunch of helpers behind him on the rope. On the dock another guy is slowing the pull down, and he has a bunch of helpers. It is the timing coordination, cooperation and precision that pulls that off without a mishap. If one guy on the pulling end doesn’t do his job, the cargo is likely to swing the wrong direction. If a guy on the dock doesn’t do his best, the cargo will move to fast…and watch out!

That is the way our body moves effortlessly and efficiently in everyday activities, like taking a shower, getting dressed, eating breakfast, picking up the dishes, etc. Physical activity in and around our homes is important, and a useful way to maintain a basic amount of physical ability and mobility, but when fighting against ravishes of the normal aging process that will occur without significant intervention, it may not be enough. Older adults that live in an assisted living situation, or even in a condominium that has most outdoor chores done for them, may not have the need to be really active around their home…so they’re not.

Any adult not living with stairs as part of their daily experience may eventually lose the leg strength and cardio-vascular fitness that stairs can maintain.

Our grandmothers beat the carpets to get them clean. They did heavy loads of laundry by hand, and kneaded many loaves of bread while our grandfathers were cutting the wood, stacking bales of hay, mucking out stalls and driving a plow behind a mule. Just saddling up a horse to ride takes significant upper body strength.

They died of tuberculosis, pneumonia, and influenza, diphtheria and smallpox, childbirth and even heart attacks. Only about 8% of the population died of a heart attack, and even less died of stroke. Cancer was not even listed (or known) as a predominant killer. They were farmers and miners and housekeepers, fishermen, lumberjacks, nurses…they did physical labor to live.

Granted there were exceptions, the wealthy and city dwellers that relied on the labor of others. But even then walking was the mode of transportation, or climbing in and out of a buggy or carriage. Most houses in the Victorian era were two and three story. That’s lots of stairs. If you weren’t wealthy enough to live in a Victorian house, you can bet your boots you were doing physical labor for a living.

Look at the pictures of your great-grandparents, particularly if you come from pioneer stock. Most of the women were strong and healthy looking, and if you’ve ever seen the frocks from those days, they had incredibly tiny waists! They also had good posture, so did the men.

I can’t remember seeing many pictures of 18th and 19th century men or women who looked frail and bent over with osteoporosis. These days it’s a common sight. Just remember, those sizeable butts were mostly bustle!

Death statistics for the 1990’s list heart disease as the biggest killer of all, with cancer following a close second, and stroke third. These frightening numbers have something to tell us. Our diets and our lifestyles are killing us! Our highly mechanized society has removed the need for most physical activities that were once a necessary part of daily life, for both men and women. We don’t make cakes by hand any more. Even if we make them “from scratch”, the chances are we use a mixer. We have bread machines and cookie dough in a tube. Technology has produced the lightest weight vacuums and shovels. Plastic garbage cans instead of metal, or trash compacters! (How’s that for eliminating work?) We have finishes on silver and brass that no longer need polishing; automated car washes, blowers that move leaves around so you don’t have to rake – potatoes that are already peeled and diced. For heavens sake, where will it stop?

Sooo…you probably get my point. We have to find ways to be physically active these days. There are many other ways to start to add movement into your life. If you live in an area where it is safe to walk, on the neighborhood streets, the park, the school or a country road – then, assuming you like to be outdoors AND the weather is decent, walking is a great exercise. If walking doesn’t sound like much fun, check out my website, http://nancyswayzee.com and learn a fun and easy way to start getting some exercise; because since the main purpose of our muscles is to move, if you’re going to maintain your muscles and therefore your ability to move, you have to start moving!

A newspaper headline a few years ago, reported a court decision over the Right to Life issue. A woman with advanced Motor-Neuron disease and totally unable to move on her own, had requested her husband be allowed to assist her with her suicide. Someone once said, “When you lose your ability to move – you lose your life.”

copyright 2010 Nancy Swayzee