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.

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Running Club Gets Kids on the Move

Children at an elementary school in Maryland are voluntarily participating in a running club, with unexpected consequences: Not only are fitness scores soaring, discipline problems are declining and test scores are on the rise. So says The Washington Post in today’s paper.

I’m not surprised. This is what we at the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance have been advocating. The article quotes Charlene Burgeson, executive director of one of our five associations. This year, we launched Let’s Move in School, which encourages educators to provide physical activities throughout the school day, not just in PE class. Almost 5,000 schools with more than 3 million children have signed up to participate.

The results also support the work of John Ratey, author of Spark, the book that demonstrates the relationship between physical activity and improved cognitive function.

One striking element of the program: Tangible rewards. Virtually every child in the school is running at recess now, counting laps, and receiving, in exchange, a plastic pendant. These charms, worn on necklaces, have become the “in” thing, akin to friendship bracelets. Students also see their names posted on the gymnasium walls, with additional recognition for children who accumulate marathon and 100-mile totals.

My only objection: Assistant Principal Marilyn Mathews is quoted as saying that the school has long promoted physical activity because the school happens to have 11 percent more boys than girls. The author, Robert Samuels, goes on to say, “Of course, girls and boys alike benefit from the exercise,” but readers could be left with the impression that boys need more exercise, or that it’s logical for school administrators to provide more activity opportunities to boys than to girls. What’s up with that? A very old-fashioned and sexist notion.

Nevertheless, the main point here is one all schools should note: Offer kids opportunities to be physically active, build in rewards, then sit back – or join them, as some teachers do – and watch them improve their behavior, their fitness, and their academic achievement.

See New York Road Runners for how to bring free running programs, resources, and activities for educators who want to bring fitness into their schools. A series of A Running Start videos offers games, activities, and training techniques.

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!

Learning Math Through Movement

The more we involve our whole bodies in learning, and the more we incorporate music with learning, the better we learn. Check out this math class and ask yourselves how these kids will do on the test! Plus they’re getting fit, and having fun, in math class! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YAjp5noDVE0&NR=1

Two Skills Children Need: Exercise, Teamwork!

Is this the Tipping Point? Last week, Michelle Obama announced her Let’s Move campaign to end childhood obesity. Physical activity is one of four pillars of success, along with healthy eating, healthy choices, and accessible, affordable healthy food.

This morning, “exercise” and “teamwork” make  Jay Mathews’ list of top eight skills and habits children learn to develop in order to be successful for a lifetime. Mathews, a longtime Washington Post education reporter, writes in today’s Washington Post (and on his education blog) that children need to develop these eight essential life skills:

1. Organization

2) Music

3. TEAMWORK (ta-da!)

4. EXERCISE (hallelujah!)

5. Friendship

6. Arguing

7. Thinking Critically

8. Presentation

This never would have happened when I was growing up. Exercise was a synonym for “upset” (Oh, don’t get so exercised about that!), and sports were for boys, not girls. And “teamwork” was baseball blather, but not much more.

The President’s Council for Physical Fitness has long been a proponent of children’s skill development, but the concept that kids need daily exercise is finally catching on. Two signs of these times are that the First Lady makes Let’s Move her national campaign, and that a general education writer includes both exercise and teamwork in his top-eight life skills list.

Parents and teachers take note: Daily physical activity is the foundation upon which learning happens, and the foundation upon which health is developed and maintained.

Get kids outside, get them moving, and join in the fun!

And Shoveling Counts! Weight Lifting Improves Thinking

Why go to the gym when you can shovel for exercise?

If you’ve been in the Washington, DC area during this fourth-biggest snowstorm ever, I’m sure you agree that shoveling counts as weight-lifting. Good thing, since weight-lifting, besides keeping bones and muscles in good shape and contributing to good circulation, the maintenance of a healthy weight, good posture, and a decreased chance of getting heart disease, stroke, or osteoporosis, has now been shown to improve cognitive function in “older” women. Great news!

The New York Times reports in “Exercise: In Women, Training for a Sharper Mind,” that older women who lifted weights for an hour or two per week showed improved cognitive function a year later as compared to women who did balance or toning exercises. “Older” in this case meant aged 65-75. Personally, I’m still more than a decade away from that age cohort; maybe you’re not there yet either.

But strength training is likely to provide similar gains in “younger” women. In any case, this new research offers great news — and, combined with other similar research, is creating a clear picture that there ARE things all of us can to do prevent cognitive decline.

Alzheimer’s Association research (based on the classic Framingham studies) shows that at 65, a woman’s chance of developing dementia stand at about 22 percent.

Yet the Times article, citing an Archives of Internal Medicine paper, reported that the women who did strength training actually IMPROVED their performance on “executive function” tests by 10.9 percent to 12.6 percent. A control group, which exercised gently without weights, experienced a slight deterioration in cognitive function: About 0.5 percent. The strength-training group’s improvements included an improved ability to make decisions, resolve conflicts, and focus. Wow!

“Exercise is good for you” is not new news. But researchers are getting so much clearer about exactly how it’s good for you, and which kinds matter most. (All of which proves my point: Tomboys were right! 🙂 ) With such overwhelming evidence of profound physical and cognitive benefits, how can one not devote time each day (whether lifting weights or lifting snow) to physical fitness?