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.

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!

Exercise Is Medicine: But Not for Children

My brother, a very active, adventurous dad, concocts a unique obstacle course for each of his kids on their birthdays, so that “in order to turn 7,” for instance, the child has to “pass the 7-year-old test.” The kids train for it, and help design it, and love him — and themselves — for it.

This is a great example of how parents can affirm for children the joys of movement.

Parents should model enjoyable physical endeavors themselves, and invite their children on exciting family adventures involving hikes, bikes, boats, and myriad creative games and sports.

We’re in danger, however, of imposing on children a “move because it’s good for you” philosophy — which could be counter-productive.

It’s appropriate for adults: The American College of Sports Medicine’s “Exercise is Medicine” campaign calls on “all health care providers to assess and review every patient’s physical activity program at every visit.” Brilliant!

Of course exercise is essential to physical functioning; our very cells cannot live without it. The campaign is working, too. How I love it when my own physician asks me about exercise!

But… let’s not tell kids.

Have you ever met a child who likes medicine?

If we approach kids with an obesity-prevention, “you must move for 60 min per day” approach, excercise might become, in their minds, just another thing grownups want them to do, along with homework and housework.

Kids SHOULD be taught the benefits of exercise, along with the nutritional value of food, but let’s ALSO nurture their natural passion for movement, so that throughout their lives they stay in touch with their natural desire to play, explore, experiment, discover, test, and express themselves with their bodies.

When necessary (and if often is), we can offer children or adults appropriate incentives to overcome the inertia of  sedentary lifestyle. But eventually, the incentive becomes intrinsic: moving feels good, during and afterward – especially when it’s in the context of play.

Myriad studies confirm: the primary reason children play sports is this: FUN.

Therefore, to promote physical activity to children, we should not limit our discussion to physical health, mental health, or cognitive function.

What we should be promising is what Frank Forencich (of Exuberant Animal fame) calls “physical happiness” – and who doesn’t want that?

Of course, adults who are lifelong athletes don’t need to perceive exercise as medicine either. We’ve never forgotten how fun it is.

Off to train for my own upcoming (April) 55-year-old test!

Tweet #imove to be an inspiration

Today’s a Gym Day. Yesterday: Bike ride. Every day’s a good day to move. Join me by tweeting to #imove. What’s shaking? Be an inspiration.

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

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?

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.

The Best Diet of All

Eat like a cave person, say the “Paleo” people, who claim that our bodies were designed to digest only meat, fruit, nuts, and vegetables. The Washington Post describes the diet today: “Some Dieters Have Chosen Paleolithic Fare — and the Rest is Prehistory.”

A Colorado State University professor, Loren Cordain, popularized the diet with a book called “The Paleo Diet.”

Jennifer Jeremias, one devotee quoted in the Post article, learned about the diet from CrossFit MPH, which offers nutrition counseling and group workouts. Since starting the diet last spring, she sleeps better, experiences fewer allergy symptoms, and has lost ten pounds.

The rationale is that eating the way our ancestors ate is more natural – and thus more healthy. Supposedly the diet balances insulin and glucose levels, prevents heart disease, and trims weight. In addition to CrossFit training gyms, the grandnephew of Jack LaLanne advocates the diet.

Most striking (but not surprising) to me is the fact that the diet makes Jeremias feel better. When she “cheats,” she says, “I immediately feel physically ill, bloated, and really lethargic. I think [before eating Paleo] I was probably feeling like that all the time.”

This is the “missing ingredient,” so to speak, of most diets. People look for results on the scale, instead of inside their own bodies. Truth is, it doesn’t matter which diet you follow, as long as you follow your body’s own feedback mechanisms. The only question that really matters is, How does food make you feel?

To be more specific: What happens when you gorge on cookies, alcohol, or foods you’re allergic to? Conversely, how do you feel after eating whole, healthy foods?

Answer those questions, and let the answers dictate your decisions. We have a lot more choices than our ancestors did, and a lot more information. Most important is not what the cave people did, but how food affects us as individuals. Just listen to your own body, and eat accordingly. I know it’s not easy, but it’s a better plan than following the advice of any expert, or any fad.

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.