Oppressive Stereotypes for Strong Women

My letter to the editor in the Washington Post, February 19, 2014:

With all due respect for a brave person who is determined to chart her own path, Marion Cory [“Genderqueer at the gym,” Outlook, Feb. 16] inadvertently reinforced the very gender stereotypes that oppress her.According to Ms. Cory, derby cars, self-discipline, adventure, challenge, sports and weightlifting are masculine. Has she never heard of feminism? That, in part, was the point: freedom from gender roles — for all of us. Has she never watched the Olympics? When women lift weights, they’re not acting masculine, they’re acting like people who want to get stronger.And why in the world would she want to use the men’s locker room? That’s for men. She’s a self-disciplined, adventurous, strong woman — just like millions of other women. The word for these people is not genderqueer; it’s athlete.
— Mariah Burton Nelson, Arlington
Marion Cory in her apartment building’s gym. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

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.

Game-Changer: Let Athletes Major in Sports

I sometimes joke that at Stanford University, I “majored in basketball.”

Truth is, I spent hours each day immersed in a highly educational experience involving leadership and team-building lessons that were far more hands-on than anything I might have picked up at the Biz School. I also took those lessons and used them as a foundation for a career as a sportswriter.

The author shooting (#12)

But what if athletes could really major in sports? In today’s Washington Post, always-thoughtful sportswriter Sally Jenkins makes the case that NCAA Colleges Should Consider Offering Sports as an Academic Major.

Jenkins’ proposal is a game-changer because her plan would legitimize sports participation for the educational experience that it is – and encourage universities to create integrated curricula including existing courses such as sport science, sport psychology, sport sociology, sport management, physical education, kinesiology — and the currently missing piece, the connection between theory and practice: varsity participation.

Most athletes are not football players, and most sports do not generate revenue (nor do most football teams, but that’s another story). Her main point has nothing to do with money, and everything to do with challenging the way we think about sports as an educational experience.

Congrats, Sally, for raising a fascinating new subject.

Maybe if I had been encouraged to study sports as an academic discipline, I would have thought of your wonderful idea myself! 🙂

Mariah Burton Nelson now serves as Executive Director of the American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation

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!

Great Migrations: Move or Die

Tonight’s National Geographic Special, Great Migrations, will show some gorgeous images of zebras, jellyfish, butterflies, elephants, and baby crabs on the move.

“They were born to move,” intones the narrator.  “They move to live. They move to survive. They move… or they die.”

True.

My only problem is with the word “they.” Who does he think WE are? Did the folks at National Geo not recognize that movement is essential for homo sapiens as well?

Here’s the truth: We move to live. We move to survive. We were born to move. We move… or we die.

Exercise is not optional for us — any more than it’s optional for the African elephants, who trek across the arid plains in search of water and food. We cannot live – not well, and not long — without making our own daily (or near-daily) migrations – on foot, on bicycles, in the water, in wheelchairs or rowing shells. We have many options. The only non-negotiable part is this: We must move.

The animals on TV tonight will provide a good reminder. Personally, I couldn’t watch the previews without going out for a one-hour walk, at dusk, on this gorgeous fall evening. When I returned I felt alive, relaxed, nourished.

That was the extent of my “great migration”: a one-hour loop around the ‘hood.’ It was enough, though: just putting one foot in front of the other.

Because we are animals. And we are born to move.

(That’s Willow, my niece, running downhill, bringing flowers to her father. Simple pleasures!)

To Strengthen Schools, Strengthen PE

The  Washington Post’s “How to Fix Our Schools” manifesto by Michelle Rhee and other education leaders (October 10) overlooked a solution that has been shown to improve student achievement and would ultimately strengthen America: physical education.

Exercise builds muscles, enhances balance and coordination, and guards against heart attack, stroke, osteoporosis, anxiety, and depression. Recent research reveals more good news: Exercise improves the brain’s ability to absorb and retain information.

Yet only five states require physical education in every grade K-12.

Recess is not sufficient. Motor skills, like math skills, must be taught. Through PE, students develop the physical intelligence and confidence they need to make fitness a habit. Lifelong exercisers improve their ability to learn, and improve their chances of being healthy, happy, and economically successful.

A smart nation is a fit nation. When fixing schools, please start by requiring P.E.

Mariah Burton Nelson

Executive Director

American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation