This article was originally published in Positive Health March 2008
We have very little of it at the beginning of life. And if we could reason and talk, we’d certainly express our frustration about the lack of it. But it increases progressively during growth and development. So much so, that when we grow old we end up with far too much of it, at least in some groups of muscles, but we usually don’t complain about it because we have been conditioned to believe (wrongly) that we have a lack of it. You’ve guessed by now, if you’ve read the title of this column, that the ‘it’ stands for muscle tone.
People often use the term ‘muscle tone’ in an inaccurate way and consequently think ‘the more, the better’. In popular parlance, it is generally applied both to muscle and skin. An excess of fat, as well as sagging skin, can make people think that they lack muscle tone. The skin may well lack “tone” and there is often too much fat underneath it, giving a soft appearance and a lack of definition, but this lack of “tone” is only skin (and fat) deep. Make no mistake, muscle deep, you will find that, in even the most ardent couch potato, there is an excess of tone in the majority of our muscles.
So, what is muscle tone? It is a permanent, involuntary and slight contractile tension which is present in resting skeletal muscles. This muscular tension is like the stand-by in your computer, a background of tension which allows you, for example, to stand upright with hardly any muscular contraction. Muscle tone develops progressively in concordance with our postural needs until around the age of 8 or 10. In the newborn, the trunk and neck lack muscle tone, which explains why a baby can’t hold its head up or can’t sit up without support. With the maturation of the brain and the acquisition of tone that accompanies it, a baby can hold its head up (when about 4 months old) and its motor skills steadily become more precise and refined.
Muscle tone is near constant. It only disappears during what is called Rapid Eye Movement (REM). It is a good thing that it does so because REM sleep is associated with an intense cerebral activity and if it was not for this deactivation of our muscles we’d be able to act out our dreams and this could lead to dire consequences, such as the accidents which befall sleepwalkers. Sadly, this useful mechanism that deactivates our muscles during REM sleep can also fail to function properly in old age, often causing injuries. This inhibition of muscle tone is not easy to observe since people normally sleep in the lying down position but everybody has witnessed people asleep in a sitting position and seen their head ‘falling’ – due to the loss of muscle tone – followed by a brusque awakening.
When muscles develop too much tone, they contract, shorten and pull unduly on the point at which they attach to a bone. Over time, this alters the shape of our bodies causing our daily activities to become painful and difficult to perform. The misguided desire to “tone up” extends to “strengthening” our back muscles as well as other muscles in the body. It is a myth which is perpetuated by most schools of physical therapy and most fitness regimes and one which is believed by the vast majority of people with bad backs. It is difficult to explode this myth even though it can be easily demonstrated that painful backs, necks and shoulders are always associated with short, tight muscles that are carrying an excess of tone.
Françoise Mézières, who developed a unique form of physical therapy designed to redistribute muscle tone harmoniously throughout the whole body, used to tell a true story that illustrates well the importance of muscle tone in relation to shape and health. There was an old lady suffering from Parkinson’s disease and scoliosis. These two conditions had severely distorted her body: she was bent double, her head was leaning to one side, and she slept with numerous pillows as she could not straighten up in bed. When this woman died, Mézières, who was living in the same village, went to see her and was very impressed to see that she was lying perfectly flat on her death bed. Of course, after the rigor mortis phase, her muscles had released their grip so that her body could, at long last, be lengthened and stretched out. Mézières was fond of saying that “In the cemetery, all skeletons are alike.”*
* It goes without saying though that when muscles pull unduly on bones for many years, the latter can and do sometimes become deformed and will obviously not regain their original shape even when the muscles release their hold.