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.

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.

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

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

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!

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.

Don’t Forget Exercise! When Discussing Depression

The Washington Post reported this week (“Antidepressants Can Be Helpful but Risky”) that the use of depression medication has nearly doubled since the mid-1990s.

The article mentions dangerous side effects — drowsiness, feelings of panic, nervousness, sexual problems, and thoughts of suicide or weight gain — but fails to mention this proven alternative method of treating depression: exercise.

We have known for a while now that exercise can be as effective or more effective than medication for treating depression. A 1990 meta-analysis of 80 studies on exercise and depression showed that:

  • “Exercise was a beneficial antidepressant immediately and over the long term.
  • “Although exercise decreased depression among all populations studied, it was most effective in decreasing depression for those most physically and/or psychologically unhealthy at the start of the exercise program.
  • “Although exercise significantly decreased depression across all age categories, the older people were (the ages ranged from eleven to fifty-five), the greater the decrease in depression with exercise.
  • “Exercise was an equally effective antidepressant for both genders.
  • “Walking and jogging were the most frequent forms of exercise that had been researched, but all modes of exercise examined, anaerobic as well as aerobic, were effective in lessening depression at least to some degree.
  • “The greater the length of the exercise program and the larger the total number of exercise sessions, the greater the decrease in depression with exercise.
  • “The most powerful antidepressant effect occurred with the combination of exercise and psychotherapy.” — “Exercise Can Keep Your Psyche Fit,” Psychology Matters

A September 2009 article in the Washington Post (“Running for My Life”) made this same case: that exercise can cure depression at least as well as drugs — and of course the “side effects” of exercise beat the side effects of depression medications hands down.

Yet The Washington Post and other media outlets tend to forget about exercise when bemoaning the escalating use of anti-depression medication, and the drugs’ myriad side effects.

True, it’s difficult to persuade depressed people to get off the couch and lace up their running shoes. Pill-popping requires less effort. But we need more medical professionals to prescribe exercise, and we need consistent media reminders that the path to mental health, as well as physical health, is through fitness.