Dance for Your Health!

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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

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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

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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.

The Doctor Becomes the Patient

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Grandma Has Hurt Herself.

Tonight at volleyball, I was given the perfect set, my timing was getting better, I sprang and hit the ball over the net… I think it landed in, but I was distracted by the crunching sensation and noise I felt in my left knee, and then breathtaking pain as I landed the jump.  Immediately I went rolling, writhing on the floor, lamaze breathing long and slow (nice how that comes in handy at times like this).

As I sat sidelined, the medical inventory began:  No torsive forces, just a buckle.  No ankle or hip pain, only knee.  It’s the bad knee, had similar pain landing a little jump a few months ago, though not nearly this bad.  Pain primarily posterior, deep, left of center, worse with knee extension and dorsiflexion.  Anteromedial joint line pain with weight bearing.  Immediate but mild swelling/effusion.  Hmmm, maybe medial meniscus, possibly also PCL strain/tear?  When should I get the MRI?  How long before I can start PT?  Where is that knee sleeve I got before?  600mg ibuprofen STAT.

The young people were so loving, gathered around asking me where it hurt, getting ice, helping me up, grabbing blocks to put my leg up, glancing over empathetically as I RICEd.  I felt cared for and also embarrassed.

Not just embarrassed.  I felt guilty, maybe even ashamed.  What had happened?  I’ve been training, I’m a good jumper, what did I do wrong?  Was it karmic payback?  I left home just as my kid was struggling with some homework—but nothing I thought she couldn’t handle.  Or maybe I had been getting too cocky that I could actually do this at my age?  Just yesterday I posted videos of my most recent progress on the TRX—I was openly bragging–“toot-toot!” I wrote gleefully.  Or it was an error in judgment: I have not slept enough this week, and I knew I was tired before I went tonight.  But I wanted to go meet my new friends, I wanted to play and have fun.

The frustration came all at once, and with considerable force.  Thankfully I had a friend nearby with a consoling ear and some crutches to lend.  All athletes get injured, she said.  I didn’t do anything wrong.  Yes, I’ve been training, and I was also weekend warrioring it all these months.  This has been my problem knee for at least 15 years, maybe it was going to happen anyway.  It’s still interesting to watch, almost from outside myself, the emotional lava lamp of fear, regret, anxiety, dread, catatrophization, and sorrow.

Experience and maturity, however, make me optimistic.  It’s a temporary setback, and I have resources available to me for recovery, growth, and even enhancement.  Now I get to learn how to use crutches, and I can relate much better to my patients with knee injuries.  I also get to test my newly formed theory that though we may slow down in general with age, we need not resign ourselves to inevitable and morose decline.  Patients ask me often, what should they expect to be able to do at this age or that, how can they know their limits?  For a long time I had no good answer.  But as I have regained strength, endurance, stability and mobility these last few years (tonight notwithstanding), I now tell them: It depends on what you want and how much you invest.  My 1977 Oldsmobile will not run like my 2012 Highlander.  But if I really want to drive that thing, I can put in all the special care and maintenance required and make it roadworthy.  It’s the same with our bodies.  They are incredibly resilient and adaptive, and also mortal.  So we must Fuel and Train, then Rest and Recover appropriately.

I guess I pushed past my current limits tonight.  Setback acknowledged.  I don’t regret the last five months–I made new friends and played and had fun!  I anticipate a high-learning road to recovery.  And I think I’ll get back before they forget me.

 

 

Aging Rocks.

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My high school friend went tubing with her kids, and her body let her know the next day, it was not happy.  As so many of us do when we realize life milestones, she posted to Facebook, “I must remember that I am closer to 40 than 20.”  Before I could type my, “Amen, sister!” another friend astutely pointed out, “Might I remind you that you are closer to 50 than 20.”  OUCH!  And, true.  We were 38 at the time.

This year I turn 44.  Sigh.  And wooo hoooooooo!!  Aging kinda sucks, and it also freaking rocks.

***

Recently our babysitter invited me to volleyball night at her church.  I played in high school and college; it’s how the hubs and I got together.  We relived those days briefly in 2015 when some local people organized a loose pick-up group.  Like many such groups, the level of play varied, and we had fun, but weren’t challenged much.  I expected the same last week, but nope.  I walked into a small gym filled with people averaging, by appearance and vernacular, about half my age.  I watched wide-eyed as they leapt Michael Jordan high, serving, hitting, blocking, and digging better than any team I had ever played for or against.  AWESOME!!!  I finally get to play, after all these years!  And yikes.  I got a little nervous.  These people were intense, skilled, and young.  “Take a seat, Grandma,” I imagined them saying.  But I was a guest of a regular, so I had a little street cred.  And, everybody was very welcoming and friendly.

I stretched discreetly on the narrow sidelines, something we old people must do to prevent injury.  I reminded myself to take it easy, no need to go all out and pull something.  A few more full circle arm wheels and test jumps, and I was ready to go.  I felt my heart pounding a little as I stepped onto the court.  I was one of two women on my team, and my sitter-friend (the other woman) was very encouraging.  I served underhand, as I can no longer rocket it overhand like I could 30 years ago (working on this).  Two thirds of the way through the night my right knee started to get a bit wobbly, and I sometimes felt a strange zinging sensation up and down my lateral thigh.  Grandma, I thought.  It’s usually my left knee that aches.  This was a new pain, with no attributable trigger.

I had so much fun.  The general skill level ranged wider than I had initially observed, though it still skewed high.  I estimate that I ranked in the upper half, maybe upper 40%, rustiness not withstanding.  Everybody was mindful to make sure we all touched the ball, a very egalitarian league.  As such, I got to pass, set, dig, and even hit a few.  I held my own, and it felt good.  One young man gave me the compliment of my month when he said I seemed ‘not that old’ and ‘nimble.’  I could have hugged him.  I went home a little sore, and more than a little high.

***

I credit the last three years of fitness training for my utter lack of pain the next day.  After all, I’m doing things on the TRX that I could not have done at 16, and I’ve exercised 5 days a week, most weeks for the last 18 months.  I’ve relearned how to ride a bike, I can run 5K as a casual jog, and I’m as strong as I’ve ever been in my adult life.  I just need slightly more maintenance nowadays.

But the best part of the night was mental.  25 years ago my worry over what people thought of me loomed over my consciousness in a way that robbed my fun.  Back then every mistake I made on the court chipped away at my confidence, and more mistakes inevitably ensued.   Sometimes I’d have an “on” night, and I always had enough fun to keep me coming back, but too often I’d go home wondering if my teammates regretted my presence.

No more.  I no longer have anything to prove to anyone but myself.  I’m just here to have fun and maybe make myself better—and I can only do that if I’m with people who play better than I do.  I’ll own my mistakes and not beat myself over them—we all mess up sometimes.  I know what I can and cannot do.  I own all of me, and I’m okay.  Looking back, my self-defeating attitude was probably worse for team morale and performance than any dig I missed.  Not anymore!

Maybe some people already had this kind of self-efficacy in adolescence.  I can recall a few peers in my youth who had that calm, collected aura about them.  It wasn’t arrogance or superiority.  Rather, it was an unassuming and authentic self-assuredness, which often translated into a generosity that attracted others to their orbit.  That’s how I feel now, and I think this manner of self-confidence comes most organically with age.  It’s the same confidence I see even more in my older, wiser friends.  I might have run faster, jumped higher, and hit stronger in my teens and twenties, but I would never go back.  Life is too good now, with decades of accumulated experience and integrated learning.

My kids were there last week.  They watched me participate with enthusiasm, mistakes and all.  When I commented that I might not have helped my team much (we lost all our games), my daughter sounded surprised.  “But you’re good!” she said.  Like I said, I left more than a little high.