I Don’t Want to Become a Stiff, Sore, Old Person

I don’t want to become an old person with sore joints.

Is this inevitable?

Maybe. Frankly, I’m already a middle-aged person with sore joints.Mariah in the pool, post-swim

But I have a hypothesis: Stiff, sore people get that way by “baking” muscular tension into their (our!) bodies.

Whatever we practice, we reinforce. By “practicing” chronic tension, perhaps we create necks, backs, and shoulders that become permanently tight and tired.

Josh Hanagarne, who has Tourette’s, explains in The World’s Strongest Librarian that it’s “exhausting” to experience a continual onslaught of muscular contractions. Maysoon Zayid, a comedian, uses the same word – exhausting – to describe what it’s like to “shake all the time” due to cerebral palsy.

Might all of us be exhausting ourselves by inadvertently contracting, clenching, and clamping our shoulders, backs, and necks – not just at work and home but in the water, too?

As a Total Immersion student, I’m learning to swim and relax at the same time. (This one-lap video  illustrates that attempt.) During the recovery phase, for instance, Terry Laughlin teaches that the leading hand should dangle as it skims above the water.

Now I find myself wondering what might constitute a “recovery phase” on land. Can I achieve what Terry calls “effortless endurance” here, too? When walking, for instance, do I need to marionette my shoulders up toward my ears? When working, must I vice-clamp my jaw?

Not surprisingly, Terry’s way ahead of me.

“Since I started focusing on pinpoint relaxation (relaxing neck muscles to hang head, hand muscles at all times, the ulnar muscle for a ‘suspended’ forearm,) I find I’m much better at being conscious of unintended, unproductive muscular tension at all times, often related to ordinary living stress,” he explains.

I studied Tai Chi in college, and one day my teacher invited an 80-year-old Japanese master to demonstrate. Before he began moving, she said proudly, “Look at his flaccid muscles!”

Flaccidity had never been my goal. But she made a good point: Muscles are for motion. To tense them unnecessarily is to fatigue and even injure them.

This is not an argument against strength training. It’s an argument for conscious, efficient movement, in the water and on land. I don’t know if we can become flexible, pain-free, energetic old people, but I suspect that the actions we take – and don’t take – right now might make all the difference.

***

This is a guest post for Terry Laughlin’s “Swimming That Changes Your Life” blog

A former Stanford and professional basketball player, Mariah Burton Nelson is the author of six books about female athletes, including We Are All Athletes and The Stronger Women Get, The More Men Love Football. She’s in charge of innovation for ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership.

Advertisements

A Splash-Free Life?

What would it mean to lead a splash-free life?

To splash is “to cause water or other liquid to move in a noisy or messy way.”

In swimming, leading a splash-free life means gliding smoothly forward, without wastefully dissipating one’s own energy in messy, noisy, random directions. This is what first attracted me to Total Immersion: The stunningly beautiful, preternaturally graceful, splash-free stroke demonstrated by Shinji Takeuchi in his popular “Most graceful freestyle” video.

Then I heard Terry Laughlin explain why splashing is inefficient. It takes energy to send water up into the air, and this represents energy diverted from moving you forward. And—since Terry notes that human swimmers, by nature, are energy-wasting machines—a focus on minimizing even the smallest form of waste is the simplest way to acquire what he calls ‘Effortless Endurance.’  

This makes so much sense! As a lifelong swimmer, I’m shocked that I have logged 50 years’ worth of miles, including many competitions at many ages, without ever wondering how I might “shape my vessel” to slice cleanly through the water without creating a noisy mess. Dolphins don’t splash! Why should we?

I’ve been an enthusiastic Total Immersion student for about six months now, practicing mindfully and relishing my new grace and power. I’ve become a TI evangelist too. I can’t help it. Every time I meet a swimmer or potential swimmer, I feel compelled to tell them about streamlining, slipperiness, reducing drag, and the amazing power of the hip-drive.

My most recent convert is 89-year-old Mom, featured in the clip above talking passionately about Total Immersion, while demonstrating the method — and demonstrating how much energy is required for her, at this age, simply to get dressed and get into the pool. Why waste that precious energy splashing?

Now I’m wondering if it might also behoove me (us?) to splash a bit less on land, too. After practicing Total Immersion in the morning, I stride onto the surprisingly firm land like a sea creature that has recently become amphibious. Still high on the satisfying sense of grace I just experienced in the water, I wonder if I (we?) might practice the same grace with colleagues, family, and the above-sea-level world as a whole.

For example: Must I interrupt others when I’m really, really eager to share my views? Isn’t that simply splashing?

Must that colleague across the hall sing out loud all day? Splashing!

What about Metro riders who elbow aside elderly passengers on their way to the seats? Looks pretty splashy to me.

We can only control our own “splashiness,” of course – and, being fallible humans, we can’t entirely control that either. But I find that my own attempts to “splash less” make me more, rather than less, compassionate for others who are noisily and messily moving through the world. After all, isn’t that what I’ve been doing, lap after lap, for most of my life?

***

This is a guest post for Terry Laughlin’s “Swimming That Changes Your Life” blog

 A former Stanford and professional basketball player, Mariah Burton Nelson is the author of six books about female athletes, including We Are All Athletes and The Stronger Women Get, The More Men Love Football. She’s currently in charge of innovation for ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership.

Pat Summitt R Us

When we talk about Pat Summitt, we’re talking about ourselves.

We’re talking about her, too. Alzheimer’s is a progressive, terminal illness. Unless a cure comes along, the University of Tennessee’s women’s basketball coach was recently handed a fatal diagnosis. Her legendary steely resolve notwithstanding, this is a heart-breaking situation for her, her family, and everyone who cares about her – and millions do.

But when we talk about Pat Summitt, we’re also talking about ourselves. All of us who admire brilliant female leaders are reeling from yesterday’s news. One reason some of us are reeling, I believe, is because we identify with Pat.

This is often true of sports fans. When we celebrate a Women’s World Cup soccer victory by saying, “We won,”  we’re identifying with the team. “We” won because we feel empowered by their victory.

In Pat’s case, we identify with her because she’s incredibly strong and successful. We don’t share her career victory total (no one does) nor her determination or drive (“You don’t know who you’re dealing with!” she told one doctor) but like her, we care about success. We care about young women. We love basketball. We’re athletes.

I have only met Pat a few times, have interviewed her briefly, edited a book (The Summitt Season) about her back in 1988, and last saw her at the 2011 Final Four, where we chatted about the agony of defeat. Yet I feel like I’m taking this news personally – and surmise that others (especially athletic Baby Boomers?) might be as well.

She’s vulnerable; therefore we’re all vulnerable. An unsettling reminder.

My father has Alzheimer’s, and lives nearby. For the past seven years I’ve been visiting him, overseeing his care, and watching as he loses the ability not only to remember, but to read, write, tell time, shave, bathe, dress, speak clearly, understand what I’m saying, and manage the telephone, the remote control, and silverware.

It can be a strangely blessed thing, shepherding someone through the mystifying haze of Alzheimer’s. But for caregivers, it’s also just plain upsetting.

And I identify with Dad and Pat. So I have to wonder: Will Alzheimer’s be my fate?

I’m not alone. Baby Boomers are notoriously nervous about memory lapses that physicians try to assure us are “normal at your age.” A recent international AARP poll showed that Alzheimer’s is the second-most feared disease after cancer – despite the fact that many people polled do not even realize Alzheimer’s is fatal.

Exercise, healthy food, mental stimulation, quality sleep, stress management, and active social engagement are the six “pillars of a brain-healthy lifestyle,” according to researchers. Sally Jenkins tells us in a heart-breaking article in today’s Washington Post that Pat is determined to improve her cognitive abilities through reading, puzzles, and math problems.

But Ponce de Leon was wrong. Ballroom dancing and sudoku will not save us. Yoga will not save us. Nor all the Body Flow classes at the new gym. With each step, we’re descending toward death, just like every other living being.

My friend Kate Cudlipp died last month after a bicycle accident in Rock Creek Park. Kate was an avid cyclist with an inner strength reminiscent of Pat’s.

Kate knew how to ride a bike. But accidents happen, and Alzheimer’s happens. The strongest women in the world are also vulnerable. They (and we!) live in bodies that will decay, or break, and die.

Last week I had lunch with a colleague in her thirties, a committed weightlifter. “After menopause, it’s harder to build muscle,” I told her. “Fortunately you don’t have to worry about that for a while.”

“I don’t think it will affect me, because you’re thin, whereas I’m bulkier,” she responded.

“She doesn’t get it,” an older friend commented later, laughing. I don’t blame my young colleague for not getting it; I didn’t get it either, in my thirties. But each news flash about a friend, relative, or basketball icon who succumbs to death or disease deepens our growing sense of “getting it.”

Like Pat, we are mortal. When Pat gets sick, we all feel sickened – and reminded that we, too, will die.

I hope you don’t think I “should” be focusing only on Pat, and not on myself. I do grieve for Pat. “It’s not going to be a pity party,” she insists. I hope it will be a “compassion party” instead. My heart goes out to her, and I’m sure yours does too. I admire her courage, and feel sure her candor will help raise money for Alzheimer’s research and treatment.

But our feelings about other people are never just about them.

It’s always about us too.

Mariah Burton Nelson played basketball at Stanford and now serves as Executive Director of the American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation.

Women Who Exercise (and Sing)

One of many pleasures of public speaking is engaging an audience in something new and slightly risky. A tension builds: Who will participate? What will happen next?

Most adults do not consider themselves singers, and are reluctant even to sing Happy Birthday among family and friends.

Therefore – to create dramatic tension and challenge audience members to “practice taking a small public risk,” I write songs that reinforce the messages of my speeches, invite some singers to join me on the podium, then encourage everyone else to sing along.

(“How many of you cannot sing well?” I ask. “Fine. Please tell the person next to you, so that they won’t be surprised when they hear you singing off-key.”)

Here (by request) is a song I shared with the Executive Women’s Golf Association last week, the Bethesda AAUW in January, and the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport last spring. I’ll probably share it (or some variation on it) at the upcoming Iowa Women’s Leadership Conference too. You’re welcome to use it too; please just give me credit.

Women Who Exercise
Sung to the tune of “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music

Women who exercise
build bones and muscles
Less risk of stroke and
Less strain on blood vessels.

Less diabetes
Arthritis and fat
Physical happiness!
How about that!

OSTEOPOROSIS!
Deep vein THROMBOsis!
These would FEEL so bad.

But when we get moving
We rarely get sick
More good news:
We’re RARELY sad!

We are all athletes
I hope you believe it
Fitness is yours
I know you can achieve it.

Make it a habit
and learn how to train
Your BODY will love you
and so will your BRAIN!

FEWER BACK aches!
FEWER HEART aches!
Better sleepand sex

Go golfing or swimming
Invite all your friends
Good HEALTH is all YOURS…
Go flex. 

by Mariah Burton Nelson, who did not consider herself a singer until she started singing these songs on stage at her own speeches — then noticed, over time, that her singing improved through practice, which confirmed one of her messages: Practice works!

When is a Basketball Player Not Just a Basketball Player?

In today’s Washington Post, Lenny Bernstein writes about his outing to a Fairfax, Virginia gym. There he found a basketball league where the athletes play hard, play full court, have fun — and do not keep score.

Two things make this league unusual: The not-keeping score part, and the fact that the players are in their 40s, 50s, and 60s.

However, he chose to interpret this scene through a gender lens: Because the players are female, he made enormous assumptions about the relationship between gender and noncompetitive games.

Mariah (wearing 1974 Stanford pinney - a whole other story) with Bonnie of NOVA United

(Things started looking suspicious when the author, alone in a gym with at least ten female athletes, referred to men as “the elephant in the gym.” Funny – lots of people can walk into a gym filled with female athletes and not even think about men, not beg the question: How do these athletes compare to male athletes? Those people, when they see people playing basketball, just see people playing basketball.)

Bernstein interviewed one (one!) male player who proclaimed that in his league, noncompetitive games would be “inconceivable.” That man also conjectured, based on his experience with his one (one!) son, that “competitive juices” are “hard-wired.”

I can’t tell from the Fairfax gym photos, but it could be that all of the players in this league happen to be white. Why not make gross generalizations about how black players would never dream of noncompetitive games — based on a quote by one random black player?

Brings to mind Susan Faludi‘s famous line: Feminism is the radical notion that women are people. This league’s decision to play score-free MIGHT be related to gender, or gender socialization, or age, or even race or religion – but these players are people first.

More than 3 million girls play high school sports on a competitive basis, with basketball being the most popular sport. So it’s misleading to say, as Bernstein does, that “research shows that girls tend to favor more cooperative games.”

I hope no one fills Brittney Griner in on this hard-wired, cooperative-game secret on her way to the Final Four. Could ruin things for fans if she and her Baylor teammates discovered their true nature and refused to keep score against Stanford or Connecticut.

Even if there is a gender difference, the gender SIMILARITIES are enormous. (The author admits that this league is full of former college players, and players who keep score in other leagues.)

There are many ways to play sports, stay fit, socialize, have fun — and define winning. Women of all sizes, abilities, ages, and colors experiment with all of those ways — as do men.

The real story here is that these people are still playing hoops in middle-age — and making up their own rules, to suit themselves. Good for them!

— by Mariah Burton Nelson, who recently watched two NOVA United women’s 50+ teams play at halftime of a George Washington University basketball game, who knows their founder, Helen White, who is a member of the National Senior Women’s Basketball Association, and who would still be playing basketball – and keeping score – if she had any cartilege left in her knees.

Bored with Your Workout Routine? Try Flying

When I was an undergraduate student at Stanford University, I spent a lot of time with friends in Berkeley, and every time I went there, I attended Motivity performances or classes. Motivity was the brainchild of Terry Sendgraff — and, some say, the precursor of Cirque Du Soleil.

This unique art form combines gymnastics, modern dance, improvisation, theater, and circus arts, using low trapezes and other vertical equipment in an enclosed performance space — or, sometimes, outdoors. Terry was the leader of a loosely connected troupe of women and a few men who were all highly creative, and to me, highly inspirational. (Of course I loved Terry’s Tall Women Walking series.)

I wasn’t any good at Motivity. Gymnastics and dance have never been my strong suits. But that didn’t matter, because in that era (late seventies, northern California), talent was not required. What mattered was participation. Openness. Adventuresomeness. Creativity. Courage. Those qualities are available to us all.

If you look at her Web site, which I happened across this evening, you’ll see the seeds of other aerial circuses. And you’ll see people who knew how to express themselves through strength, play, and teamwork.

In her seventies now, Terry is mostly retired, but still choreographs and offers some workshops. If you’re ever in the Bay Area, check out anything she’s touched, twirled, or flown over.

And if you’re bored with “exercise”, ask yourself, How might I discover or develop more creative ways to move, play, and express myself?

Best Winter Olympics Commercial

I got chills (and not the winter kind) within the first 5 seconds. If you’re inspired by feats of courage and determination, or love a child, or are fascinated by how all adults are somehow still children, check out this P&G commercial.