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)

A Splash-Free Life?

What would it mean to lead a splash-free life?

To splash is “to cause water or other liquid to move in a noisy or messy way.”

In swimming, leading a splash-free life means gliding smoothly forward, without wastefully dissipating one’s own energy in messy, noisy, random directions. This is what first attracted me to Total Immersion: The stunningly beautiful, preternaturally graceful, splash-free stroke demonstrated by Shinji Takeuchi in his popular “Most graceful freestyle” video.

Then I heard Terry Laughlin explain why splashing is inefficient. It takes energy to send water up into the air, and this represents energy diverted from moving you forward. And—since Terry notes that human swimmers, by nature, are energy-wasting machines—a focus on minimizing even the smallest form of waste is the simplest way to acquire what he calls ‘Effortless Endurance.’  

This makes so much sense! As a lifelong swimmer, I’m shocked that I have logged 50 years’ worth of miles, including many competitions at many ages, without ever wondering how I might “shape my vessel” to slice cleanly through the water without creating a noisy mess. Dolphins don’t splash! Why should we?

I’ve been an enthusiastic Total Immersion student for about six months now, practicing mindfully and relishing my new grace and power. I’ve become a TI evangelist too. I can’t help it. Every time I meet a swimmer or potential swimmer, I feel compelled to tell them about streamlining, slipperiness, reducing drag, and the amazing power of the hip-drive.

My most recent convert is 89-year-old Mom, featured in the clip above talking passionately about Total Immersion, while demonstrating the method — and demonstrating how much energy is required for her, at this age, simply to get dressed and get into the pool. Why waste that precious energy splashing?

Now I’m wondering if it might also behoove me (us?) to splash a bit less on land, too. After practicing Total Immersion in the morning, I stride onto the surprisingly firm land like a sea creature that has recently become amphibious. Still high on the satisfying sense of grace I just experienced in the water, I wonder if I (we?) might practice the same grace with colleagues, family, and the above-sea-level world as a whole.

For example: Must I interrupt others when I’m really, really eager to share my views? Isn’t that simply splashing?

Must that colleague across the hall sing out loud all day? Splashing!

What about Metro riders who elbow aside elderly passengers on their way to the seats? Looks pretty splashy to me.

We can only control our own “splashiness,” of course – and, being fallible humans, we can’t entirely control that either. But I find that my own attempts to “splash less” make me more, rather than less, compassionate for others who are noisily and messily moving through the world. After all, isn’t that what I’ve been doing, lap after lap, for most of my life?

***

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 currently in charge of innovation for ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership.

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!

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

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?

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!