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.

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!)

Toothpick Bones

In my lifelong quest to understand this particular body — this “experiment of one,” as running guru George Sheehan memorably put it — it never occurred to me until this week that being tall might be contributing to some of my challenges (such as muscle spasms in my back.) Weird that I would not think of this! At six-two, of course I’m aware that my body is unusual, and if I ever forget that, even for a few hours, a stranger comes along to remind me: “Wow, you’re tall!”

Perhaps due to my insistent perception of myself as “not the freak that strangers imply I am,” I didn’t consider that my height could have a negative impact on my physical functioning. In fact, in many sports, such as basketball and volleyball, being tall seemed a distinct advantage.

(Short basketball players have reminded me that height is not inherently helpful in basketball, since tall people tend to be less agile, and plenty of superstar players are guards or forwards… but still. Closer to the basket can be a good thing.)

Meanwhile, many men are my height, so being six-two is not odd; it’s just odd for a woman.

My physical therapist, Lyn Stewart at Capitol Rehab, said to me this week, “You know, you are tall.”

I rolled my eyes, mocking her. “Really?”

“And you’ve got small bones,” she continued, undeterred by my sarcasm. “You have the bones of a petite woman, yet those bones need to support a much longer frame.”

“Oh.” I was taken aback by the logic of her observation. “I have wondered why I seem to have more biomechanical problems than men my height.”

“They have bigger bones, and stronger, testosterone-fueled muscles to move those bones. You’re petite – and tall – which puts you in a very different position than men.”

That was the first time I’ve ever been called petite!

She continued: My vertebrae, for instance, are long and thin, like my femurs and finger bones.

When I play golf or lift weights, these toothpick bones need to support all of my weight, and also the club or barbell in my hands.

At 53, I can’t do too much to strengthen my bones beyond what I’m already doing — weight-bearing exercises and daily calcium – but somehow I take comfort in this information.

Reminds me of another “aha” that similarly should have seemed obvious to me years ago: An orthopedic surgeon told me recently that “you’re loose-jointed; that’s just how you were made.”

I knew that my knees and elbows hyper-extend, and I knew that my shoulders are prone to fall right out of their sockets. Somehow this diagnosis – chronic, structural loose-jointedness – made me feel less mystified by, and victimized by, my many joint ailments.

Similarly, realizing that I have toothpick bones feels validating, somehow – and gives me hope. Lyn Stewart and her chiropractic colleagues (Bill Booker and Ed Beck) know a lot about how bodies function, and how to help them function better, and I plan to continue consulting with them routinely, to learn (and heal) as much as I can.

Understanding my anatomical challenges makes me re-commit (and isn’t every successful exercise program one long re-commitment?) to intelligent and disciplined rehab, and pre-hab, and all the other “habs” as I let go of bad habits, adopt good habits, and discover and implement the exercises and movement patterns that are most appropriate for this particular unique body.

As for you? You’re unlikely to be both petite and tall. But you, too, have a unique body with unique needs. Understanding everything you can about that body – what I call physical intelligence – will help you make good decisions about how to move and how to live.

Fit Tip #30

I like 2 work out in the morning.
Swimming or cycling each day.
When U work out in the morning
“My health comes first,” U say.

Fit Tip #28

“You have to give your heart to the Goddess of Wisdom. The Goddess of Wealth will become jealous and follow you.” – Born to Run

Fit Tip #22

Your body’s going to go to pot
Just ask your oldest friends
I know this isn’t real good news
Or news at all: Life ends.
So what’s the point? What can you do
‘Tween now and your last breath?
WORK OUT. Each step puts distance
‘Tween you and illness, death.
(Ok, this morning’s message
Is not one filled with cheer
It’s hopeful, though, and loving too:
I want you strong. And here.)