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.”


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!)

Yes, Walking Counts

Talking with a 35-year-old nurse’s assistant yesterday. In response to her questions about fitness, I suggested that she could, during her breaks, walk around the building three times; that would be a mile. That would help her stay in shape, stay strong, stay healthy. “Does walking count?” she said. She was thinking she had to go to a gym, and couldn’t afford it. Couldn’t find the time either. When did we get the idea that only a “real workout” qualifies as valuable exercise? Of course walking counts. Anything counts, if you do it. It’s the doing it that matters.

Interested in walking technique? Check out these simple tips to maintain good posture.

Learn the cardiovascular benefits of walking.

And keep moving!

Mariah Burton Nelson

What Fat Students Might Learn from Exercise

National Public Radio caused an uproar this week when they reported that at Lincoln University, a historically black Pennsylvania college, students with a body-mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher must take a physical education class in order to graduate.

NPR, The Chronicle of Higher Education and The New York Times engaged dozens of readers in heated debates about whether the policy is fair to fat students. Detractors raised concerns about nutritious foods on campus, anorexic students, smokers, cooking classes, and the validity of the BMI.

James DeBoy, chairman of Lincoln’s department of health, physical education and recreation, defended the policy, which does not insist that students lose weight — only that they take a fitness-walking and conditioning class. Colleges “test, they assess,” he told NPR’s Michelle Norris. “We know that obesity and its co-morbidities are going to rob individuals of quality and quantity of life… We have to stand tall. Tell it like it is. Are we going to be criticized? Absolutely. But we have to do what is right.”

Oddly absent from the hullabaloo is this fact: Physical activity enhances learning.

Read Spark, by neuroscientist John J. Ratey, M.D. Sure, exercise builds muscle, strengthens bone, guards against heart attack and stroke, improves balance, and decreases your chances of getting depressed. But the revolutionary science presented in this book explains the effect of physical activity on the brain’s ability to absorb and retain information. Exercise is the “magic pill” that enables students – for instance, students of any size at Lincoln University — to become educated, which, last I checked, was the goal of educational institutions.

This body-brain connection is the main reason that all students, not just overweight ones, should take required physical education classes in every university, high school, elementary school, and pre-school.

“It turns out that moving our muscles produces proteins that travel through the bloodstream and into the brain, where they play pivotal roles in the mechanisms of our highest thought processes,” writes Ratey. “The neurons in the brain connect to one another through “leaves” on treelike branches, and exercise causes those branches to grown and bloom with new buds, thus enhancing brain function at a fundamental level.”

“What’s the point of this? What does my BMI have to do with my academic outcome?” asked Dionard Henderson, a first year Lincoln student, in a commentary in the university’s newspaper, The Lincolnian.

Here’s the answer, Dionard: Physical activity (not BMI) has a lot to do with your academic outcome. Weight is not the problem, and discrimination is not the answer. The answer for all of us, regardless of our weight, is exercise. Go study the relationship between exercise and the brain, and it will change the way you move, which will change the way you think, which will change the way you learn.

Regular Old Athletes

A 78-year-old friend of mine climbed Mt. Fuji last week. A lifelong Japan-ophile whose powder room has a Japanese sign on the door that translates, literally, “Honorable Hand-Washing Place,” she has lived in Japan, and speaks Japanese, but this was the first time she had climbed the “mythic, mystic” mountain, as she put it.

“I don’t even know why it was important to me to do it, but it was,” she said after the successful 18-hour round-trip hike. “Probably something about getting older, and seeing friends sometimes be so feeble, living in assisted living homes.

“One friend said, ‘Why in the world would you want to do something like that?’ But I do feel different now. I feel changed.”

The Japanese talk about how shy “Fuji-san” is, always skirted by clouds. The mountain appears suddenly and mysteriously, almost magically, on very clear days. “When we were living in Tokyo, we used to joke about the Japanese having the mountain on wheels, because it was always showing up in unexpected places,” says my friend, who prefers to remain anonymous.

“I enjoyed reading about routes, and buying hiking boots, and entering into whole ethos. It was fun, until I got to the base of the mountain and looked up and thought, Oh my, what have I done!”

Six hundred thousand people climb the mountain every summer – “so it can’t be that difficult,” says my friend, who ran her first 10K in her early sixties and raised five children, including a mountain climber.

“When you start out, it’s not that steep. It just takes persitance and tenacity and endurance.”

This friend is the founding member of my reading group, which has been meeting monthly for fifteen years. Last night we discussed The Blue Flower, by Penelope Fitzgerald, while my friend and her husband served us a dinner on china plates called, thematically enough, “Blue Rose.”

For dessert we enjoyed a homemade Mt. Fuji ice cream sculpture made of Rocky Road ice cream, complete with tufts of whipped cream snow.

On her way up Mt. Fuji, my friend learned that last year, a 100-year-old man made the journey. So she doesn’t feel particularly remarkable.

“The last 200 meters were tough, and downhill was tough too, because my quads were like rubber,” she recalls.

But she took it all – even the falling – in stride. “Every time I fell, the guide would say, “Good time for a rest,” she relates, laughing.

What’s extraordinary about this story is that it’s not extraordinary any more. Every month, AARP: The Magazine receives story pitches about older (or downright old) athletes who have achieved things someone considers remarkable. The editors turn them down, explaining that impressive athletic accomplishments by older people simply aren’t unusual enough to make the news.

Which is not to say they’re not important – to the people themselves. “I don’t like to toot my own horn, but I do find myself telling people, ‘We just came back from Japan, and I climbed Mt. Fuji!” says my friend.

“I don’t think I’ll do it again,” she continues. “The Japanese have a saying: “Every Japanese wants to climb Mt Fuji once, but only a fool wants to climb it twice.”

No need. Sounds like once was just right.

Now, as for you, Dear Reader: What’s YOUR Mt. Fuji?

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation

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Women Over Fifty Just Wanna Have Fun

I spent the weekend in Orange, Virginia, with my friend Ellen Wessel, who co-founded Moving Comfort women’s sports clothing company back in 1977, sold it to Russell Corporation, and now works at Montpelier, the home of James Madison.

The other co-founder of Moving Comfort, Elizabeth Goeke, also lives in Orange. With her partner Jay Billie, Elizabeth bought a 1910 farmhouse on 15 bucolic acres with a barn, paddocks, gardens, and woods, and they’re converting the place to a bed and breakfast, so I visit Elizabeth and Jay too, to admire their remodeling project. The Inn at Westwood Farm is opening in early September 2007, and all of us are excited about it.

Here’s what else Ellen and I are excited about: our own strength, balance, flexibility, and aerobic capacity. Maybe that sounds selfish or vain. But our bodies are not an obsession. We don’t hate our bodies, or starve them, or cover them in shame.

In fact, we celebrate them – through movement.

This morning, Ellen and I walked three miles among farms filled with scenic green roofs and serious black cows. We chatted about James Madison and retirement plans and good books we’ve read recently (March and Quarantine.) We stopped to pick up trash (Ellen’s one-woman community service project) and listen to cicadas and admire a tree frog and laugh at two “teenage” cows as they playfully trotted down a gentle hillside.

“Want to do a yoga tape?” asked Ellen when we got home.

An hour later, she asked, “Wanna do a Pilates tape?”

An hour later, after we’d contorted and stretched and lunged until we could contort and stretch and lunge no more, we rested on our purple and red “sticky mats.”

Suddenly I started laughing. It struck me as funny that, at 56 and 51, this is what Ellen and I choose to do for fun: exercise all morning. Combined, we’ve lived as athletes for about a hundred years so far, and we’ve worked for about 60 combined years in the fitness industry, so of course we know that exercise is good for us – and for other women, men, and children. Obviously.

We know that, as Moving Comfort says so brilliantly, “A fit woman is a powerful woman.”

And we dig being healthy and powerful.

But we also exercise for fun. We exercise because we feel like it. Because Ellen has a glorious neighborhood and two DVDs she wants to share. Because walking outside and doing power yoga and Pilates feel good to us – right then and also later, like now, when I’m sitting at my computer and still feeling strong and healthy and happy.

This is what Ellen and I know that many of my friends and colleagues don’t know. It’s like a secret I try to tell them but they can’t hear me, because I’m speaking another language, the language of the body. They know the “exercise is good for you” part of the message. The media (and I) have been clear about that.

It’s the “exercise is fun” part that’s so hard to convey to people who did not grow up climbing trees, who were limited to cheerleader roles in high school, who forget (though I’m certain they did know once, when they were very young) the intrinsic pleasures of effort and extension and movement through space.

When I say, “It’s fun,” they look at me with a blank stare.

The joy of movement is not something that can be communicated in words.

It’s a physical message that can only be communicated physically, as when one person takes another by the hand and says, “Let’s ______.”

“Let’s go. Let’s swim. Let’s put on our sneakers and take a long hike along a rambling country road.”

If you know what I’m talking about, know deep in your gut and your muscles and your bones that exercise is fun, then do us all a favor and spread that message to someone who does not know.

Or spread that message to someone who has forgotten – especially if that person is you.

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation

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The Woman Who Goes for a Walk

Women who walk are women on the move, literally. They’re going places.

Where? Away. Away from stress, away from closets too full of the wrong clothes, away from mirrors, and away from old-fashioned ways of thinking and experiencing about themselves, their bodies, their lives.

They’re also going toward. Toward friendships, toward adventures, toward new ways of thinking about and experiencing themselves, their bodies, their lives.

When you’re walking, you’re not worried about whether your tummy is poking out. You’re breathing deeply, enjoying the scenery and your friends and your own strong body. You’re celebrating the simple joy of putting one foot in front of the other.

My latest book is called We Are All Athletes.

This is also true: We are all walkers. We are all naturally drawn toward adventure, exploration, investigation of what might be around the next bend. We’re drawn toward testing ourselves, seeing how far, how fast we can travel.

When we become daily walkers; we make a commitment to become the kind of person who goes places. This changes how we see ourselves, and how others see us. A walk is a journey. It’s an adventure.

The woman who goes for a walk is not the same person as the woman who returns home.

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation

Walking as a Spiritual Path

When I lived in California in the eighties, I studied Zen Buddhism with Cheri Huber, author of There Is Nothing Wrong with You and many other books.

We did a lot of sitting, as Buddhists are wont to do. We did some working meditation too — cooking, for instance, while maintaining a silent meditative focus, or trying to.

My favorite part was walking meditation. We’d take slow, deliberate steps around the monastery. The turtle gait gave us a chance to pay attention to everything: our bodies, our breath, our environment, and our seven trillion racing, often ridiculous thoughts.

As an athlete, I learn by doing – by PAR-ticipating, as we say in AAPAR, the American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation. So walking meditation offered me a valuable opportunity to observe, understand, and develop compassion for my own body and mind (which is “the point” of Zen training, though purists would say there is no real “point.”)

The labyrinth offers a related form of walking meditation. These ancient mazes are increasingly popular throughout the world, as people look for a way to deepen their spiritual practice through walking.

I’ve tried the plastic kind they sometimes carpet church halls with, but it was difficult for me to put aside my alienation from the plastic long enough to experience any sort of enlightenment (except the awareness that I’m not fond of plastic.)

Then last summer I discovered a labyrinth on Block Island (a ferry ride from mainland Rhode Island,) high on a green hill overlooking the bay. With the view of the ocean and the breeze in my face, that was more conducive to insight, awareness, and peace.

Most mall-walkers and fitness walkers don’t tend to think of their journeys as spiritual ones. But why not?


Try not to let a little plastic – or traffic, or pollution – get in your way. Who knows what enlightenment, peace, or insights one might gain when body and mind are free to roam?

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation

Walking: One Step at a Time, Literally

People rarely brag that they’re good walkers. Even athletes tend to think of walking as easy.

Actually it’s a complex process requiring considerable coordination.

As Frank Forencich points out in Exuberant Animal, about eighty percent of time, you’re balancing on one leg or other. Which is why anyone committed to fitness should spend integrate lots of one-legged exercises into their daily routine (lifting weights, for instance, while standing on one leg, or on one leg on a balance board of “bosu” ball. Try it. It’s fun!)

We’re not even really bipeds, Forencich says. We’re basically monopeds.

Laurie Anderson seems to have known this when she wrote the lyrics: “When we’re walking, we’re really falling.” The accomplishment: We catch ourselves, over and over again.

What distinguishes us from apes? Spoken language, you might think. But the most important adaptation in human development was upright walking.

Millions of years before language and culture developed, we stood up.

In this sense, walking connects us to our ancestors & also represents progress: moving forward, one step at a time.

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation

Walk Tall

At six-two, I’ve always loved Bruce Springsteen’s line, “Walk tall or don’t walk at all.”

But I didn’t really become a walker until about ten years ago, when my partner and I began spending lots of vacation time in Rehoboth, Delaware.

There, you can park your car once, then walk everywhere you need to go: restaurants, shops, and for miles along the beach. We enjoyed the scenery, the fresh air, the conversation, and the endorphin high you get when you walk for hours on end.

When we returned home to northern Virginia, we kept walking: to the video store, to the gym, to restaurants, to the movies, to the Metro, to parks.

Soon, any question, “Shall we go…” was followed by, “Sure – and let’s walk.”

We began to think of walking as a way of life – not only for exercise, but for transportation and socializing – a chance to catch up with each other, think things through together, simply enjoy each other’s company in a healthy environment.

Walking is good for our health. The 20-year Nurses’ Health Study of 72,000 female nurses showed that just half an hour brisk walking a day decreased heart disease risk 30% to 40%.

Other studies show that walking reduces the risk of stroke, high blood pressure, colon cancer, and diabetes. It reduces body fat and helps control body weight. It increases bone density, helping to prevent osteoporosis.

The Surgeon General, the American Heart Association, and the Centers for Disease Control all recommend “moderate to vigorous activity on most days.” People make it complicated, but it’s really not. Walking counts.

In older adults, walking also enhances cognitive ability. It improves flexibility, coordination, and balance — key to reducing the risk of falls. It helps control joint swelling and pain associated with arthritis.

Wait, there’s more! Psychologists at USC and Cal State Long Beach have found walking increases energy level, and the more the merrier: “The more you walk in a day, the more energy you experience.” It also improves mood, reducing anxiety and depression.

No wonder we like it so much!

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation