How Does the Body Maintain Its Shape? – Part I

Question from Steve Bankes and Siana Goodwin.Answer from James L. Oschman, Ph.D.
Pages: 27-28
Year: 1989
Dr. Ida Rolf Institute

Rolf Lines – Vol. XVII – Nº 03 – Summer 1989

Volume: XVII
Question from Steve Bankes and Siana Goodwin.Answer from James L. Oschman, Ph.D.

This article begins a process of answering questions which Rolfers have asked about the scientific basis of Rolfing. This question arose in a 1983 correspondence between Steve Bankes and Siana Goodwin. Siana is helping us find productive ways of approaching the scientific literature; and she asks, “Can we start our literature search from what Rolfers and Rolfees KNOW from experience to be true, rather than starting with what scientist shave discovered?” The following question and its answer begin such a process.


My experience with Rolfing leads me to conjecture that the connective tissue sys-tem is subject to a number of processes which have the combined effect of ex-pending energy to actively maintain the shape of the body…. If the body is actively maintaining its shape, then there must be some physiological pathways for this. Such mechanisms may have been noticed by researchers who are working with various animal systems, but not placed in context may not seem so significant.


The question of the origin of form in animals is one that has puzzled generations of scientists. In fact, a classic work published in 1914 by British scientist D’Arcy Thompson bears the title OnGrowth and Form. Excellent discussions of the subject can also be found in The Life of Mammals by J.Z. Young and recently in an article by Francisco J. Varela and Adv. Rolfer Samy Frenk entitled “The organ of form: towards a theory of biological shape” which was reproduced in Rolf Lines (July/August1988).

In my opinion, the way this questionarises from Rolfing brings forth another level of insight into the nature of living form. This insight arises from the Rolfer’s experience of the plasticity of human structure. In your practice, you regularly observe that Rolfing can lead to virtually instantaneous changes in the structure of your clients, as well as to slower changes over periods of weeks and months. Like wise, you note that your well balance client may return years later, after some traumatic experience, seeking to be brought back toward their optimal form.

The more general question, then, is how the structure of the body changes in response to the ways it is used, to pat-terns of movement, to the loads and stresses and traumas imposed upon it. We observe such changes taking place all the time. Athletes, musicians, dancers, and other performers experience the progressive adaptations of structure and motion that occur when an activity is practiced again and again. An extreme example is the body builder, who through the stimulus of constant exertion, brings about a dramatic alteration in body form. Not only do the muscles increase in size and strength, but the other components of the myo fascial system bones, tendons, ligaments, blood vessels must increase as well. Likewise, when one stops repeating a particular activity, the body gradually reverts to its previous structure. What are the mechanisms that allow for these coordinated and reversible structural adaptations to take place?

The way our question has been asked enables us to explore pathways involved in maintaining the shape of the body. Is hall divide the answer into several parts.

This first part concerns metabolic path ways. In future issues of Rolf Lines, I will discuss biomechanical pathways and energetic pathways.

The metabolic pathways involved in maintaining the structure of the body began to emerge from research done in the 1940’s when radioactive isotopes first became available for research. An important book on the subject, The Dynamic State of Body Constituents, was published by Rudolph Schoenheimer, M.D. in 1942.

Schoenheimer describes his pioneering studies in which isotopes were used to label organic compounds that could be incorporated into the diets of animals.

The radioactivity acted as a “tag” that could be traced to see if the compounds were incorporated into the tissues of the animal or were merely excreted.

The results of Schoenheimer’s studies were totally surprising, because biologists had previously thought that the structure of the adult body was relatively fixed and permanent. Some scientists had suggest that a small part of the dietary intake might be used to repair and replace structures that under go wear and tear. To the surprise of everyone, Schoenheimer and his colleagues discovered that a very large portion of the isotopically labeled compounds provided in the diet were rapidly incorporated into the tissues.

From this discovery, Schoenheimer developed a concept called “metabolic regeneration” that states that the large molecules forming the structure of the body (fats and proteins) are constantly being assembled and disassembled. A structural protein such as collagen, for example, is composed of thousands of amino acid subunits joined together in long chains. The bonds holding the amino acids together are constantly being opened, enabling the individual amino acids to be removed and replaced.

All the pathways in the break down and synthesis of body constituents are balanced, so that the structure as a whole remains nearly constant.

Each part of the body has its own rate of turnover. Some molecules only last a few minutes, while others are replaced on a monthly or on a yearly basis. All of the constituents are replaced approximately every seven years, but this is done in such a precise manner that one’s overall structural features change very little.

From the energetic standpoint, this process seems to be wasteful. The rate of turnover of the molecules in the body is much higher than needed just for repair of worn-out parts.

The conventional scientific explanation of this phenomenon is that it enables an animal to adapt to changes in diet, hormone levels, or starvation. But from our perspective, there is far more to the story of structural adaptation. Metabolic regeneration provides nature with a means to rapidly change living structure in response to changes in the way the organism interacts with its environment. Changes in diet are just one example of this. Other examples include the healing of physical or emotional wounds, the progressive changes when an activity is practiced again and again, and the changes that take place after Rolfing when the distribution of tensions within the body are changed.

The delicate skill of the concert violinist or the performance of an Olympic athlete functioning at the limit of human potential are dramatic examples of the gradual perfection of form and motion that are possible as the body adapts precisely to the way it is used.

Schoenheimer’s work provides a metabolic basis for changes in body form. Sub-sequent investigations of biochemist shave provided a detailed description of the way proteins and other molecules in the body are replaced. We have identified enzymes that take tissues apart, and other that reassemble them. We will not describe these metabolic pathways in detail, as they can be found in any biochemistry or cell biology text. For our purposes, it is adequate to point out that specific cells in the body are involved in maintaining structure. Fibroblasts keep tabs on the connective tissue; osteo blasts maintain the bones; and myo blasts adjust the structure of muscles.

While it may seem that all of this is well understood, there are many un-solved questions. One of interest to us is the rate at which collagen is replaced. Experiments that have been done on rats indicate that collagen is replaced very slowly in the adult animal. Is this true in humans?

I suspect that collagen is turned over very slowly in a sedentary adult person, but that collagen turnover is greatly stimulated by changes in the distribution of tensions in the body as occur after Rolfing or after changes in movement patterns. It would be easy to test this hypothesis, because collagen has a high content of a particular amino acid, hydroxyproline. I predict that we would observe increases in hydroxylproline in the urine after a Rolfing session, as fibroblasts begin the process of removing excess connective tissue that has built up to support imbalanced structure, but that is no longer needed.

The next question is how the various cells that control structure “know” what to do, how they get the messages they need to adjust their activities. In future is-sues of Rolf Lines, I will discuss biomechanical and energetic pathways involved in maintaining and adjusting body shape.

Some References

Schoenheimer, Rudolph. 1942. The Dynamic State of Body Constituents. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Ratner, S. 1979. “The dynamic state of body proteins”. Ann. N.Y Acad. Sci.325: 189-209.

Schimke, R.T. and D. Doyle. 1970. “Control of enzyme levels in animal tissues”. Ann. Rev. Biochem. 39:929-976.How Does the Body Maintain Its Shape? – Part I

To have full access to the content of this article you need to be registered on the site. Sign up or Register. 

Log In