Healthy Living

5 body parts to understand for exercising right

If you’re active, you might as well get the most bang for your buck.

Exercise homes in on a few main tissue types and parts of your anatomy. Being able to identify each will streamline your physical endeavors — and help you stay injury-free.

This is the 10th installment in a new WorkLife series, Healthy Living Basics for Everyone. The sanely paced plan helps you with nutrition, exercise and lifestyle and includes a mental component that helps clarify goals and identify what might hold you back.

1. Fascia: connective tissue that surrounds or goes through pretty much everything inside your body. We don’t hear much about the fascial network, but it’s there. Think of it as sticky stuff that holds your body together between your skeleton and skin. Healthy fascia is supple, but inactivity and other lifestyle and physical factors can make it get “stuck” and “dry,” causing discomfort and, sometimes, obvious physical imbalances (misaligned posture, for example).

Exercise lowdown
Fascia benefits from being massaged or stretched. Think of it like a sponge: When it’s squeezed, yucky stuff gets wrung out, and then as the sponge expands it has space to pull in fresh, good stuff. Strength and flexibility exercises help keep fascia healthy. Moving over a tennis ball or foam roller before or after exercising also is good for fascia.

2. Joint: the point where bones meet and can move (synovial joints, specifically). A joint has many components, including fascia, ligaments and tendons.

Understanding which types of joints you have and what their ranges of motion are will help you avoid injury. The most common synovial joints are hinges (elbows, knees, fingers, toes), which only bend and straighten; and ball-and-socket (hips, shoulders), which move backward, forward, sideways and rotate. If one of your ball-and-socket joints, such as the hip, doesn’t have much mobility and you try to go beyond its range of motion, the next joint down the line (your knee, in this case) often ends up paying for it — and not in a good way. Generally, you want bigger movements to initiate from joints closest to your core.

Exercise lowdown
Joints get stronger when their ligaments and tendons get stronger. They also don’t have their own direct blood supply, so movement keeps them healthy. You don’t want joints to hurt when you exercise (or anytime, really). If you feel pain in a joint, back off.

3. Ligament: dense fibrous tissue that connects bones to bones and helps with joint stability.

Exercise lowdown
Ligaments remain healthier when they periodically get very gently stressed, especially for several minutes at a time. Yin yoga, for example, achieves this: Practitioners create certain body shapes, generally on the ground and sometimes with props, to put gentle stress on specific physical areas. Don’t overdo it, though, or make severe movements — ligaments aren’t like rubber bands, and injuring them can lead to a long healing process.

4. Muscle: fibrous tissue that produces movement when contracted and generates power (skeletal muscles, specifically). If muscles don’t get stressed they atrophy and become weaker. It’s usually pretty easy to tell when you’re using muscles. That’s because they’re generally large compared with other parts of your body (your biceps, even if wimpy, are easy to spot, but you probably can’t locate a ligament). Muscles also are your main force of power.

Exercise lowdown
If you strength-train a muscle, it will likely feel sore the next day or two. That’s because you damaged its fibers a bit by stressing them. Now things are healing — and that muscle is getting stronger. You also might feel discomfort, slight pain or shake a little as you strength-train a muscle, particularly when doing an exercise you haven’t done in a while (or ever). For example, your front thighs (quadriceps) might quiver while you hold a lunge position. You don’t, however, want to bring on massive pain or intense trembling. That can put you on the path to a pulled muscle or other bad stuff.

Muscles can be stretched too. This should feel nice (picture a cat intuitively stretching … aah). Pain shouldn’t be part of the experience, nor should you be sore afterward (that might mean you pulled a muscle or tendon. Sorry!).

5. Tendon: flexible (but not elastic) collagenous tissue that connects muscles to bones. Helps joints move.

Exercise lowdown
Tendons benefit from gentle stress. Holding stretch-like positions (as opposed to doing dynamic or cardiovascular exercises) for several minutes at a time, particularly when your body is somewhat cool, achieves this.

It’s pretty easy to injure a tendon, which, like a ligament, can take a long time to heal. You might immediately feel a tendon injury as sharp pain (some people hear a popping sound) — or discover it a day or so later. To protect tendons (and ligaments) don’t make sudden or severe movements with any part of your body, especially if you haven’t warmed up. You also can get tendinitis from overuse of a joint. Rest is usually the best remedy for that.

Journalist Mitra Malek has taught yoga regularly since 2006 and was a senior editor at Yoga Journal, for which she still edits and creates content. Learn more at www.mitramalek.com.

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