Archive for the ‘Women’ category

Fit Tip #9

July 6, 2009

Women work out to get happy, healthy, light. Who knew that since childhood? We tomboys were right! 🙂

Returning Home: Playing Basketball at 51

November 3, 2007

“Take a camera,” suggested a friend. But I wasn’t attending as a spectator. My goal was to PLAY.

Ever since I heard about the senior women’s basketball league in my area, I was intrigued, enticed, and drawn to return to this place — the basketball court – that had been my home as a child and young adult.

I knew people over 50 competed in softball, golf, and dozens of other sports in the Senior Games. Friends rave about this experience, and my own mother has competed in swimming meets there, winning medals in the 75-79 age group.

But basketball? Who knew that women between the ages of 50 and 85 can still play HOOPS?

Having turned 50 myself not long ago – and having retired from college, professional, then recreational basketball in 1981 – I was fascinated to learn that women my age, and MUCH older, are still playing.

My own retirement had been forced by chondromalacia (softening of the cartilege) in both knees – and it had not occurred to me that other hoopsters my age had escaped a similar fate. Though I successfully grieved my disability and shifted my attention to swimming — SUPERB — and golf — GREAT — basketball is simply THE BEST.

So when Helen White, coordinator of the NOVA United teams, invited me to “coach or give a pep talk or something,” I said, “What I’d really like to do is play.”

I then explained my knee situation – I cannot even go downstairs without limping; picture O.J. Simpson, of all people, as he painfully descended the staircase after his latest arrest – but somehow I just had to try.

When I pulled up to the recreation center, the first person I saw, as she unfolded her long body from her car, was a five-ten sixty-two-year-old with white hair.

“This must be the right place,” I thought. My peeps!

For the next three hours, about thirty women (up to age 72 on this particular evening) ran, rebounded, set screens, executed give-and-go’s, shot, high-fived, got knocked down, got back up, and kept moving, moving, moving.

And it WAS moving – to see the delight on their faces. I’ve met so many women over the years – easily hundreds – who have told me that they didn’t get a chance to play sports when they were young. Those women were angry about that, and sad.

No longer. Some of the women were from that three-dribble generation, when players were limited to one half of the court. Others had no athletic background at all. “Sports were not for girls,” said 71-year-old Jeannie, a children’s book author. “We were supposed to do embroidery.”

But the times, they are a changin’. “When we looked around for a gym, they didn’t know what to make of us,” reports Bonnie, a-62 year-old who plays on the 50-54 team and coaches the 60-64 team. “Rec centers are used to seniors playing bingo, but not seniors playing basketball.”

“I teach senior fitness at a local community college,” another player told me. “It used to be chair exercises. Increasingly, they want sport skills.”

The other early-arrivers welcomed me warmly and tossed me a basketball while they stretched. A standard women’s ball, it was smaller than the traditional (now men’s) ball I’d usually played with, and lighter – much easier to handle, lift, shoot.

(Karen Logan, with whom I played in the WBL, actually invented this smaller ball and we did use it in that first women’s pro league.)

For a while I was alone with the hoop. As in a dream, everything I shot went in. From the right, from the left, from the corner, from the free throw line: Swish. Swish. Swish. Swish.

Shooting a basketball through a hoop, and seeing it – no, FEELING it – swish through the net is one of the most satisfying physical activites, in my experience. Being back on the court felt so natural, so right, and so downright ecstatic, I’m sure that if someone else had brought a camera, they would have caught me BEAMING.

When it came time to scrimmage three on three, reality hit. I could not jump for a rebound, race after a loose ball, or even drive to the basket and extend upward, leaping off one leg (a basic layup). My knees are just plain too sore for such maneuvers.

Still, I could pass. I could shoot. I could play defense, in a gimpy kind of way. And since we played half-court, I was able to keep up enough to enjoy a few key assists, a few blocked shots, and a few more of those smooth swishes.

Peggy is a former history teacher who now works for the Department of Justice. Carol played college basketball at Indiana with Tara Vanderveer, Stanford University women’s coach. Sue played at the University of Pennsylvania. Gwen, a software engineer, is “just a rec league player” who recruited another player she met in her church league. Mothers and grandmothers, business owners and assistant bookkeepers and government employees, they have an easy camaraderie, joking with each other and encouraging each other: “Good shot!”

“We’re changing the face of aging, and changing the perception of aging,” said Bonnie.

We all chatted for a while afterward, and I cautioned them to take care of their bodies, especially their knees.

“Will you be back?” asked 60+ player named Hope.

I smiled at these happy, sweaty women. They’re having the time of their lives.

“YES,” I said.

(Want to play? Contact Helen White:

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation

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Regular Old Athletes

October 29, 2007

A 78-year-old friend of mine climbed Mt. Fuji last week. A lifelong Japan-ophile whose powder room has a Japanese sign on the door that translates, literally, “Honorable Hand-Washing Place,” she has lived in Japan, and speaks Japanese, but this was the first time she had climbed the “mythic, mystic” mountain, as she put it.

“I don’t even know why it was important to me to do it, but it was,” she said after the successful 18-hour round-trip hike. “Probably something about getting older, and seeing friends sometimes be so feeble, living in assisted living homes.

“One friend said, ‘Why in the world would you want to do something like that?’ But I do feel different now. I feel changed.”

The Japanese talk about how shy “Fuji-san” is, always skirted by clouds. The mountain appears suddenly and mysteriously, almost magically, on very clear days. “When we were living in Tokyo, we used to joke about the Japanese having the mountain on wheels, because it was always showing up in unexpected places,” says my friend, who prefers to remain anonymous.

“I enjoyed reading about routes, and buying hiking boots, and entering into whole ethos. It was fun, until I got to the base of the mountain and looked up and thought, Oh my, what have I done!”

Six hundred thousand people climb the mountain every summer – “so it can’t be that difficult,” says my friend, who ran her first 10K in her early sixties and raised five children, including a mountain climber.

“When you start out, it’s not that steep. It just takes persitance and tenacity and endurance.”

This friend is the founding member of my reading group, which has been meeting monthly for fifteen years. Last night we discussed The Blue Flower, by Penelope Fitzgerald, while my friend and her husband served us a dinner on china plates called, thematically enough, “Blue Rose.”

For dessert we enjoyed a homemade Mt. Fuji ice cream sculpture made of Rocky Road ice cream, complete with tufts of whipped cream snow.

On her way up Mt. Fuji, my friend learned that last year, a 100-year-old man made the journey. So she doesn’t feel particularly remarkable.

“The last 200 meters were tough, and downhill was tough too, because my quads were like rubber,” she recalls.

But she took it all – even the falling – in stride. “Every time I fell, the guide would say, “Good time for a rest,” she relates, laughing.

What’s extraordinary about this story is that it’s not extraordinary any more. Every month, AARP: The Magazine receives story pitches about older (or downright old) athletes who have achieved things someone considers remarkable. The editors turn them down, explaining that impressive athletic accomplishments by older people simply aren’t unusual enough to make the news.

Which is not to say they’re not important – to the people themselves. “I don’t like to toot my own horn, but I do find myself telling people, ‘We just came back from Japan, and I climbed Mt. Fuji!” says my friend.

“I don’t think I’ll do it again,” she continues. “The Japanese have a saying: “Every Japanese wants to climb Mt Fuji once, but only a fool wants to climb it twice.”

No need. Sounds like once was just right.

Now, as for you, Dear Reader: What’s YOUR Mt. Fuji?

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation

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Leg Lifts in the Hospital (Mom, Continued)

September 11, 2007

Yesterday morning Mom, last seen Sprinting Up the Staircase at 83, had to return to the hospital for more major surgery, again involving general anesthesia.

It’s not about her knee this time – that’s working fine – but nor is it the kind she wants her daughter blabbing about on the Bodies in Motion blog.

Fine. We won’t go into specifics.

We’ll go directly to the story: Mom’s surgery takes place three hours later than originally scheduled. So Mom and Bernie, her husband, have to wait. Mom’s already got her hospital gown on, and she’s supposed to be lying on the guerney like any other compliant patient, waiting.

Except Mom’s never been the sort to lie around.

Especially when she’s still post-op from the knee surgery, and concerned that too much lying around is going to make the knee stiff.

So, even though she’s already got an IV dripping into her arm, Mom wraps the hospital gown around her, hops off the guerney and starts doing some exercises – wheeling the IV bottle and its metal cart behind her. “Nothing fancy, just some leg lifts, toe raises, flexion and extension, that sort of thing,” she explains to me later, when we talk about it.

I bet the nurses are still talking about it too. As they walked by, they were overheard exclaiming,

“What is she doing?”

“Is that the patient?”

“Why is she kicking her leg like that?”

“She looks like a New York City Rockette.”

“I think she’s EXERCISING.”

“Isn’t she, like, 83 or something?”

“She can’t be.”

“Have you ever seen such a thing?”

“No, but I’ll bet you one thing: She’s going to recover in record speed.”

And she did.

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation

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Sprinting Up the Staircase at 83

August 22, 2007

Talked with Sarah on the phone tonight. She had her knee replaced two months ago. The first doctor had said, ‘When does it hurt?” “When I’m flying from Arizona to New Zealand,” she replied. “Then don’t fly to New Zealand,” said the doctor.

She had to go to three more doctors before finding one willing to do the surgery. But now the knee is getting stiff and problematic, Sarah says. She can only bend it 125 degrees, she says, which is bothersome.

“What does it prevent you from doing?” I ask, unable to picture exactly how 125 degrees of flexion differs from 135 degrees, which she had attained shortly after surgery.

“When I’m in the pool, I can’t bend it enough to put my fin on,” she says.

Sarah’s a swimmer. She’s my best friend, and also my mother. She’s 83 years old. I laugh.

“Mom, does this flexion problem prevent you from doing anything anyone ELSE would consider a necessary daily activity?” I ask. “Oh no,” she says. “I can climb up and down stairs, and hop up and down from chairs and toilet seats. It’s just the fin thing. But it’s so annoying!”

You might wonder why a swimmer NEEDS to wear fins.

Answer: To keep up with the 40-year-olds in her lane. You might also wonder whether Sarah will read this. She stars in many of my articles and books (with a character like this, SOMEONE in the family HAD to become a writer.)

But Sarah may never get around to reading this. It’s not that she lacks computer literacy. It’s just that, when not swimming or traveling or showing off her newfound ability to sprint up and down staircases (“Watch this! Watch this!”), she’s busy uploading photos to her website. True story. Go Mom!

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation

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Women Over Fifty Just Wanna Have Fun

August 6, 2007

I spent the weekend in Orange, Virginia, with my friend Ellen Wessel, who co-founded Moving Comfort women’s sports clothing company back in 1977, sold it to Russell Corporation, and now works at Montpelier, the home of James Madison.

The other co-founder of Moving Comfort, Elizabeth Goeke, also lives in Orange. With her partner Jay Billie, Elizabeth bought a 1910 farmhouse on 15 bucolic acres with a barn, paddocks, gardens, and woods, and they’re converting the place to a bed and breakfast, so I visit Elizabeth and Jay too, to admire their remodeling project. The Inn at Westwood Farm is opening in early September 2007, and all of us are excited about it.

Here’s what else Ellen and I are excited about: our own strength, balance, flexibility, and aerobic capacity. Maybe that sounds selfish or vain. But our bodies are not an obsession. We don’t hate our bodies, or starve them, or cover them in shame.

In fact, we celebrate them – through movement.

This morning, Ellen and I walked three miles among farms filled with scenic green roofs and serious black cows. We chatted about James Madison and retirement plans and good books we’ve read recently (March and Quarantine.) We stopped to pick up trash (Ellen’s one-woman community service project) and listen to cicadas and admire a tree frog and laugh at two “teenage” cows as they playfully trotted down a gentle hillside.

“Want to do a yoga tape?” asked Ellen when we got home.

An hour later, she asked, “Wanna do a Pilates tape?”

An hour later, after we’d contorted and stretched and lunged until we could contort and stretch and lunge no more, we rested on our purple and red “sticky mats.”

Suddenly I started laughing. It struck me as funny that, at 56 and 51, this is what Ellen and I choose to do for fun: exercise all morning. Combined, we’ve lived as athletes for about a hundred years so far, and we’ve worked for about 60 combined years in the fitness industry, so of course we know that exercise is good for us – and for other women, men, and children. Obviously.

We know that, as Moving Comfort says so brilliantly, “A fit woman is a powerful woman.”

And we dig being healthy and powerful.

But we also exercise for fun. We exercise because we feel like it. Because Ellen has a glorious neighborhood and two DVDs she wants to share. Because walking outside and doing power yoga and Pilates feel good to us – right then and also later, like now, when I’m sitting at my computer and still feeling strong and healthy and happy.

This is what Ellen and I know that many of my friends and colleagues don’t know. It’s like a secret I try to tell them but they can’t hear me, because I’m speaking another language, the language of the body. They know the “exercise is good for you” part of the message. The media (and I) have been clear about that.

It’s the “exercise is fun” part that’s so hard to convey to people who did not grow up climbing trees, who were limited to cheerleader roles in high school, who forget (though I’m certain they did know once, when they were very young) the intrinsic pleasures of effort and extension and movement through space.

When I say, “It’s fun,” they look at me with a blank stare.

The joy of movement is not something that can be communicated in words.

It’s a physical message that can only be communicated physically, as when one person takes another by the hand and says, “Let’s ______.”

“Let’s go. Let’s swim. Let’s put on our sneakers and take a long hike along a rambling country road.”

If you know what I’m talking about, know deep in your gut and your muscles and your bones that exercise is fun, then do us all a favor and spread that message to someone who does not know.

Or spread that message to someone who has forgotten – especially if that person is you.

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation

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Not-Overwhelming Disability

July 20, 2007

At my Aunt Mary’s recent memorial service, my mother, describing her sister’s “severe, paraplegic stroke,” said that “the stroke was overwhelming, but Mary was not overwhelmed by it.”

For 16 years, between the ages of 63 and 79, Mary could not use her left arm, could only limp on her left leg, and could not speak – at least, not the way most of us do.

She could say only five words: “Yes,” “No,” “And,” and “Oh Boy.”

But oh boy, did she communicate. With intonation, inflection, facial expression, and sheer willpower, Aunt Mary asked myriad questions and expressed surprise, doubt, alarm, fear, humor, amazement, pride, compassion, excitement, gratitude, and every other conceivable message.

It didn’t happen automatically, or fast. To communicate with Mary required incredible, almost saint-like patience on the part of her husband, Peter, and other family members and friends. Every conversation started with 20 questions, and expanded from there. “Are you asking about something in this room? Something that happened today? Are you hungry? Is the person you’re talking about in our family?”

In Mary’s case, the problem was not just aphasia – the inability to speak – but apraxia: the inability to indicate what one wants. So she couldn’t point to a water glass, or move her good hand the way one might if one wanted to mime drinking. She could only say her five words. And we could only guess.

Did we all get frustrated? Sure. We also gave up sometimes. When all the “yes no and oh boy’s” in the world failed to tell us what she wanted to say, we shrugged and smiled together. Mary was a good sport about that, laughing rather than crying after her sincere and focused efforts to tell us something, or ask us something, proved fruitless.

My friend Madelyn Jennings tells me that, incredibly, her brother-in-law, also a stroke survivor, has the exact same vocabulary as my aunt did. Maybe those are the core essential communications: that’s all any of us really need:

1) Yes: affirmation

2) No: Negation

3) And: Let’s continue the conversation, and

4) “Oh Boy”: The whole range of emotion.

Many people become depressed in response to such a stroke; Mary did not. Although “the stroke was overwhelming, Mary was not overwhelmed by it.”

And therein lies Mary’s legacy. She amazed us all with her positive spirit in the face of devastating loss.

All of us face the prospect of losses, changes, and disabilities, in ourselves and our loved ones, over time.

May we all rise to the occasion, as Mary did, with humor, persistence, and grace.

Yes. Yes. Oh boy.

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation

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Dads, Daughters, and Sports

July 10, 2007

Gard Skinner, founder of and a fan of We Are All Athletes, asked me,

“If you were speaking to a room full of men who, perhaps, had few sports experiences themselves growing up….

How would you–as executive director for an organization that is devoted to opening health doors for every single child– recommend they introduce their shy or cautious daughters to sports?”

It’s not so much that daughters tend to be shy or cautious. It’s that parents sometimes overlook a child’s natural athleticism if that child happens to be female. Fathers in particular might not know how to encourage and support a daughter’s interest in sports, especially if the fathers haven’t seen themselves as successful athletes.

The best time to start is early. Studies show that young boys have a ball tossed in their direction much more often than young girls do.

Dads can help girls develop strength, coordination, and appreciation for their own bodies by engaging them in myriad physical activities – playing catch, wrestling, hiking, camping, climbing hills, running, skipping, playing on monkey bars, even slapping high-five in celebration – to begin to give girls a sense that their bodies are sources of joy, wonder, and accomplishment.

Kids – especially one’s own kids – are inherently attractive, it seems to me, and fathers, with the best of intentions, often compliment girls for how attractive they are, hoping to instill a sense of positive body image that way.

However, what girls need much more is a sense of physical accomplishment, success, joy. This develops through physical activity.

Gard also asked, “How would you, in your experience, help us communicate that we are not trying to push our daughters to be “jocks,” but rather, to give them a healthy lifestyle and the benefits that go along with it?”

Gen X fathers know lots of strong, athletic women; many of them married one. But their mothers were raised in the pre-Title IX generation and had few sports opportunities. So we’re still in a transition phase, with many men not fully comprehending how important sports are for girls and women.

My own father, a physician and hospital president, “didn’t want his daughter to be a jock.” That conversation came up when I was a teenager considering colleges, and interested in their athletic as well as academic programs.

Stanford was acceptable to him; but the Stanford basketball program somehow threatened his sense of who his daughter should become. Homophobia was probably part of that; in my generation (I was born in 1956) athletic girls were often assumed to be gay.

When, after Stanford, I played professional basketball and had an opportunity to travel throughout Europe, Dad began to appreciate that sports had literally taken me far.

Later, when I took up golf (his sport) we had many happy days on the golf course together.

Just a few years ago, while playing 18 holes together, he finally proudly introduced me to a friend of his with this line, “This is my daughter. She’s an athlete.”

I almost fell out of the golf cart, I was so surprised – and happy. Sure, I’m proud of my professional accomplishments, and I’m glad Dad is too, but it meant a lot to me to have him finally affirm this other important aspect of my identity.

Probably the best way for dads to fully appreciate the positive benefits of sports experiences for their daughters is to participate themselves. That way, they’re modeling physical activity, physical fitness, and healthy competition — and reminding themselves on a daily basis how much joy we can all find in sports.

That’s key too – the “all” part. Daughters aren’t really very different from sons, despite the small publishing industry that claims the opposite. Kids are just people, and people inherently love to move.

Unfortunately, female people will hear many messages about the uber-importance of physical appearance. Fathers can go a long way toward counteracting the negative influences of these messages by showing daughters that what matters most is not what your body looks like, but how it can move, express itself, stay healthy, get strong, and accomplish great things, alone and with teammates of all kinds, including family members!
Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation

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Allison Stokke Rocks

May 30, 2007

What I love about Allison Stokke is not what Matt Ufford and other bloggers love about her. “Hubba hubba and other grunting sounds,” Ufford wrote about Stokke, the California high school pole vaulter whose life has been turned upside-down by unwanted Internet oglers in recent weeks.

Photos of Stokke — thin, strong, gorgeous — have been flying around the Internet faster than a sprinter round a track, and as a result, thousands of anonymous users are looking at Stokke in her tight track uniform and posting graphic sexual fantasies. Reporters from around the world are requesting interviews with this new young sex symbol.

Some female athletes would love the attention. Some would respond by agreeing to pose for risque magazines. Some have justified the sexualization of female athletes by claiming that they’re proud of their bodies, and eager to show them off – even if to an audience that treats their photos with as much respect as they afford centerfold “girls.”

Stokke is different. Wise, at eighteen years old. She can’t do much to stop the worldwide “locker-room talk,” as her mother, Cindy Stokke, describes it. But Allison, a 2004 state pole vaulting champion, doesn’t have to like it, and doesn’t pretend to.

“Even if none of it is illegal, it just all feels really demeaning,” she told the Washington Post. “I worked so hard for pole vaulting and all this other stuff, and it’s almost like that doesn’t matter. Nobody sees that. Nobody really sees me.”

This is the crux of the answer to the “oh, we’re just appreciating female athletes’ bodies” argument. When female athletes are treated like Playboy bunnies, they lose their individuality and their identity. They become a product to be consumed by a lustful male public.

Allison Stokke wants to be known for her accomplishments – like any other athlete. Yes, she “worked hard for her body.” But the buff body was not her goal. And as long as her body is all these men see, they are “winning” by “demeaning” her, as she put it: reducing her to a sexual object to fulfill their fantasies.

It takes courage for female athletes to Just Say No to unwanted media attention. No, she can’t stop the Internet, but she doesn’t have to buy into it either, and so far, she isn’t. (Oh, please do NOT accept that sure-to-be impending invitation from Hustler, Allison, even though it would fund your college education!)

It takes strength to define oneself on one’s own terms. Fortunately, Allison Stokke is both courageous and strong – not just as a pole vaulter, but as a person.

Those who manage to see not just the body but the person will become true fans.

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation

Oprah Winfrey: Embody the Message

May 14, 2007

Howard University scored big this year by landing Oprah Winfrey as their commencement speaker on Saturday, May 12. Winfrey “brought down the house,” according to, with such stories as the one about the grandmother who urged her to befriend white people.

“She used to say, ‘I hope you get some good white folks that are kind to you.’ And I regret that she didn’t live past 1963 to see that I did grow up and get some really good white folks working for me,” Winfrey said, to laughter and a loud applause.

The Washington Post asked Karen Bradley, a University of Maryland professor of dance and an expert on nonverbal communication, to examine Winfrey’s body language to explain her appeal.

Bradley described Oprah as “entirely authentic.” Oprah’s emotions and actions are completely congruent, Bradley said. “That’s what we call presence or charisma.”

The phrase Bradley used that I found most interesting was “completely embodied.” Bradley defined this as “what someone is feeling internally is congruent with what they’re expressing.”

Apparently Oprah cried when receiving an honorary doctorate – yet did not seem embarrassed by her tears, instead turning to the audience to “use her emotions to feed her message.” She raised one hand when discussing blessings, “as if bestow a benediction on the crowd.”

Manipulative? Does sound suspicious. Is Oprah Winfrey aware of the power of her presence? Of course. Has she received public speaking training or coaching? Probably.

But I don’t think “completely embodied” can be faked. We’ve all seen speakers who gesture at the “right” times, who walk purposefully across the stage (or through the audience, a technique Phil Donahue popularlized) yet who don’t seem congruent, or charismatic, or “embodied.”

In fact, their bodies seem to be lying to us: saying and doing one thing, yet shining with a certain polish that makes us wince at the glare of their harsh light.

To be “completely embodied,” one must live IN one’s body, for starters. By “coming out” as someone who struggles with food, weight, and exercise, Oprah seems to have achieved something even beyond her impressive philanthropic, media, and publishing successes: She accepts her body without shame or self-pity. She lives in her body. And thus, when she gestures with her hand, or feels moved to tears, or speaks “from the heart,” her physical message and her verbal message are congruent — which feels satisfying to an audience, and inspires trust.

Yet another reason to be physically active, and to “embody” ourselves. It’s good for our health, sure — and it’s also good for our relationships, and our effectivness as leaders.