Dance for Your Health!

IMG_0665

My friend posted an article with this title: “Neuroscientists Finally Revealed the Number One Exercise for Slowing Down the Aging Process.”  Well who wouldn’t click on that?  I admit, I did not think long enough to guess the exercise, but I somehow knew it would not be running or weight lifting.  Turns out, according to the article and the study it cites, it’s dancing.

“Of course it’s dancing!” I said to myself and commented on my friend’s page.  That makes so much sense.  It’s fast (or at least it can be), so you get your cardio.  It requires flexibility, erect posture, and excellent core stability and strength—all physical attributes of healthy aging.  Dance steps, taken in temporal and spatial order, require visual, auditory, and motor coordination, connecting all different parts of the brain at once, in concert and synchronization.  Moreover, I’m convinced that the simple rhythm of music resonates with something deeper in us, something transcendent, which must have anti-aging neuro-hormonal benefits!

In addition, dancing is usually done with others.  This social aspect of the activity cannot be underestimated, especially as we age.  I am convinced and have said many times on this blog and in life, it’s our relationships that kill us or save us.  And when we’re having fun dancing to songs and rhythms that move collective body and soul all at once, that has to be a good thing.

So basically, dancing activates key areas of the brain and body in an orchestrated fashion, igniting motion, joy, connection, exhilaration, sensory integration, creativity, passion, cardiovascular elasticity, and fun.  How could this not make us all younger?

The article, however, describes changes in the brain that occurred in 2 groups of elderly study participants, one randomized to dance classes with varying choreography, the other to training for strength, endurance, and flexibility. The primary measure of ‘anti-aging’ was measurement of the hippocampus area of the brain and its sub-regions.  Both groups had increases in volume in this area, but the dance group had increases in more sub-regions than the exercise group.  This is a far less exciting interpretation of ‘slowing down the aging process’ than my own instant and intuitive “a-HA” conclusions above.

It’s okay though, because I can choose to follow my own understanding while the scientists continue their quest for the neuroanatomic proof of what we all know through living.  Mine is the deduction that will resonate with people and help get my kids, friends, family, and patients moving (dancing!) toward more optimal and youthful health.

I learned from my trainer about the five factors that keep kids in sports; we agree they are the same five factors that keep adults in any exercise routine:

  1. It’s FUN. Who wants to do something three to five times a week that’s a total slog?  So we gotta find something we enjoy, that we look forward to doing.  Just this brings the exercise threshold to a low enough activation energy that anyone can do it.
  2. Our friends are doing it. I have not studied the social aspects of exercise and motivation, but I know this is a common experience.  We have more fun and work out harder, and time goes by faster when we’re with our friends.  Not to mention, the exercise becomes a bonding activity.  Here is one of many summaries of the benefits of workout buddies.
  3. We feel like we fit in. I used to think this was the same as #2.  But this is more about self-consciousness.  It’s distracting and kills motivation.  Maybe all you need is to buy the cute yoga clothes and hang out at the back of the class to feel like you fit in enough, while you fake it ‘til you make it.  Or maybe you need to go with your friend who’s been a hundred times, who can introduce you to her buddies, who will welcome you, and you will immediately feel like one of the tribe.  That acceptance fosters relaxation that allows you to engage with your full presence and then some.
  4. We feel competent. This one is key, I think.  If we walk into the gym with no idea how to use the equipment, or walk on the court feeling embarrassment about our poor skills, we are far less likely to return than if we can say to ourselves (quietly), “I’ got this, bring it.”  Competence prevents injury and breeds confidence, which fuels motivation, and then–
  5. We feel we can improve. We relish the challenge.  One more push up, pull up, half mile, weight bar; better form, faster pace, farther distance—when we feel inspired to reach, stretch, and expand our limits, we cannot wait to get back at it.  Can you not hear Gloria Estefan singing in your head right this moment??

So get your groove on, my friends.  Even if it doesn’t make you younger, it’ll make whatever time you have in this life a lot more fun and memorable!

 

Stability is Strength

DSC_0486

The holidays are coming.  People will be bustling up and down Michigan Avenue with large shopping bags and puffy coats, fuzzy hats and determined gait.  If someone knocked into you on the sidewalk, would you be stable enough to hold your space and not get pushed over?

I asked this to a friend today, a woman about my height and twenty pounds lighter, ‘bird-boned’ by her own description.  I swear, she looks like a feather to me.  We were talking about our habits, what seems to be changing as we approach menopause, and how we envision our best selves in old age.  I thought about the elder women in my family, who are all healthy in general, but not necessarily fit.  What if someone knocked into them this holiday season, would I be dealing with a hip fracture over Christmas?  The mortality rate for people over 65 in the year after a hip fracture is somewhere on the order of 25%.  My friend and I definitely do not envision this for ourselves.

So what needs to happen in order for me to stand my ground in the face of some external force?  I need a stable foundation, my feet in firm contact with the ground.  I need a low, massive center of gravity.  I need fast reflexes to contract and relax opposing muscles groups to bear the sudden and unexpected load.  I cannot be rigid and brittle; rather I must exert flexibility, to absorb enough force to move with it and away from it on my own terms.  I need to stand tall and face the force head on, with openness and grace, firmness and self-assurance, ready to assess instantly whether it was inadvertent or intentional, benign or malicious.  And then I need clear-minded judgment to determine how to respond to either condition.

This may come naturally and easily in our 20s.  Today, bum knee notwithstanding, I feel confident that I could meet such a force with appropriate strength and stability.  My friend and I agreed today on a shared vision: STRONG OLD LADIES.  We understand that this will not just happen because we will it; we need to fuel and train, rest and recover, and cultivate our mind-body connections, as well as our connections with others.  Small habits, sustained over time, positive or negative, will yield predictable results.  So the time is now to pay attention and establish some excellent patterns.

It occurs to me that this idea of stability and strength relates our physical to our mental and emotional well-being.  While Amy Cuddy’s research has recently been called into question, I still adhere to the idea that power posing and physical posture can enhance or diminish confidence and self-efficacy. Wide stance, low center of gravity, elongated spine, and open arms:  Stand strong, feel strong, think strong, speak and act strong.  I have practiced power posing before presentations since 2015 and I believe I am better for it.  And if it’s a placebo, I’ll take it—the benefits so far have outweighed the risks and costs.

Lastly, I think we can also apply this stability and strength awareness to our inner lives.  Here I refer to our integrity.  Our world changes ever faster, technology offering capabilities we had not dreamed even a decade ago.  It seems every interaction these days is shorter, more ‘efficient,’ less personal.  That is the default goal—low cost, high speed above all else.  Change is often good.  But we must also exercise judgment, and practice taking the long view, casting light from our core values onto a cautiously optimistic future, attending to and addressing the shadows.  We should gut-check, with ourselves and one another.  What are we really getting here?  How will we use it mindfully? How can it serve us, rather than us serving it?  When we are stable and strong in our shared humanity and collective goodwill, we arrive at the best answers to these questions.  Then we can all be stable and flexible, and stronger as we age together.

 

Mobility is Confidence

DSC_0492

It is Day 11 of NaBloPoMo 2017: Field Notes from a Life in Medicine, Day 10 of Bum Knee Cathy.

So far, so good!  This third time through NBPM is definitely easier and less stressful than before.  It’s not my best writing, but it’s not bad.  I’m spending less time thinking and writing, and having ‘way more fun.  Can’t say that much for BKC, though.  I’ve never had an injury like this and I’m not quite sure what to expect.  The good news is, swelling is decreasing and I limp a little less every day.

I had not gone 7 days without exercise in almost three years, and it was starting to feel a little too comfortable.  It also did not help that we had a bag of Kit Kats left over from Halloween—bad planning.  So on day 8 I decided to see what I could do in the gym.  Turns out, I still need to avoid activities that require me to plant my feet or fully extend the knees.  But there is still a lot I can do, and today I found a full suite of moves, some modified, that were enough to break a sweat, woo hooooo!!  Even though I wrote that I was good about losing my training discipline, I was still worried.

Today, however, I have my confidence back.  Earlier this week I reconciled with the possibility of not playing volleyball anymore, but I have not given up on my intention to get back on the court.  And if that’s not possible, then I can try the other things on my list: martial arts, kickboxing, tennis, and who knows what else?  Still so many possibilities!

The day before I hurt myself I passed a lady on the way to work.  She was older, obese, walking with a limp and a cane.  I came up behind her, slowed down, and passed her when space opened up on the sidewalk.  I suddenly appreciated my unencumbered gait.  How ironic.  My parents are almost 70 years old and they just returned from a month-long tour of China and Taiwan.  He golfs and she still precepts nursing students in the hospital.  Neither of them has ever had a prolonged period of immobility, even after major surgery.  They still move through life confident in what their bodies can do, looking forward to their next trip.  I know many orthopaedic surgeons.  With them I have shared patients who got their lives back after joint replacement surgery—able to walk, golf, and even ski again—without pain, and with confidence.

Tonight I appreciate that much more what my parents have achieved and what my colleagues do.  I appreciate my body that much more, and what is required to maintain it.  I appreciate the importance of conversations with my own patients, when we talk about establishing habits in middle age that will allow us all to be strong and healthy in old age.

How much do we take our mobility for granted?  For myself, not as much today as I did 12 days ago.