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.

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.

Fit Tip #29

Fitness should be playful, practical, primal. Join Frank and me here: http://www.exuberantanimal.com/events/gerstung/index.php

Fit Tip #24

“When I’m not boxing, I’m bowing.” Sam Iverson, Muay Thai student. How much time do we all spend boxing, bowing?

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.)