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Tighten up

This morning, as part of my quest to resurrect my melted away/gone south of the border derriere, I tried two segments of a workout DVD titled, bluntly, 10 Minute Solution: Butt Lift. Out of the five 10-minute segments,  this morning I did “Butt Lift” and “Upright Booty” (appropriate, since that’s my goal). Butt Lift

My right hamstring (which has been torn) is already sore this evening and my left is leaning that way – not the effect I was hoping for, but maybe my rear will follow. I’ll have to keep you posted on that. At this age, the odds aren’t great, but hope springs eternal, even if my hindquarters don’t.

Anyway, part of the workout was a dance move, one we used to call the “Hip City” or “The Four Corners” in junior high. Pam and I used to practice and practice all the new dance moves. It’s a good one and a good workout, but my default fave workout dance – and one Pam and I perfected quickly – is still “Tighten Up,” by Archie Bell and the Drells of Houston, Texas.

Love, love that song and still have a blast doing the dance. And, in a side note, I nearly collided with Archie Bell himself a few years ago at The Peabody in Little Rock when he was in town to film a commercial for an energy company about closing gaps around windows and doors, I believe. My friend Susan and I had journalism students conventioning when Mr. Bell decided to do an impromptu set in the bar.

Small world.

Oh, and the workout is quite good. Didn’t see any new moves (I’ve been doing these things for 30 years), but the segments are effectively put together. I may have to pass it on to someone not old enough to have the “Tighten Up” 45 – it might be made for younger knees, but we’ll see.

But what I really want to write about tonight is tightening up my mind through reading, which is one of my favorite things to do. And specifically, we’ll get to Sarah Vowell, one of my literary idols (for many reasons), but first let me mention two novels I flew through in a few days.

honeyThe first, As Sweet as Honey by Indira Ganesan, is as sweet as its name. Just a quiet little unassuming but hard to put down novel about an unusual Indian woman (or “islander,” as her family stresses, since they’re from the island Pi, off the tip of India) who marries into a British family.

If you’re interested in India and Indian culture, it’s a given you’ll like this book. If you don’t require shooting and fast action and appreciate a little story told well, you’ll enjoy it, too. Don’t want to say too much and give away the plot.

Then I flew through Somewhere in Time by the recently late Richard Matheson – and about damn time, since the movie version, Time with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour has been one of my favorite time travel movies since it came out in 1980. I wanted to see how closely the movie followed the book and didn’t really expect to stay up late reading it, but parts of it just wouldn’t let me stop.

If you’re not familiar with either, probably see the movie first. They’re both a bit dated but lovely, romantic and tragic. The book is a bit maudlin toward the end, but my take is that Matheson took that tone deliberately, mimicking the Victorian era in which the back in time portion is set.

Sarah Vowell, one of my favorite modern writers, makes history more interesting than fiction. If I’d had history teachers like her or textbooks even a third as interesting as her books, who knows – I might have loved history class instead of used it as a good time to doodle or daydream.

I’m halfway through Assassination Vacation, which she wrote in 2005. I’m reading them backward, having started with Unfamiliar Fishes, which I got in 2011 when it was first published. Fabulous book about Hawaii and what the missionaries, then the U.S. of A. did to a tropical paradise.

Fishes

I already knew the basics of the sordid story and it still made me furious – while making me laugh and gasp. Vowell reaches my inner nerd and delights her – and almost makes me wish I were still teaching.

But what I’d rather do is be the next Sarah Vowell when I grow up. She’s 15 years younger than me but she’s my role model. Brilliant, kindly caustic, funny as hell, quirky and prone to very random-fact tangents.

I adore her. But I ramble.

After Fishes, I pretty immediately got a slightly used copy of The Wordy Shipmates, published in 2008. John was pretty incredulous when I told him it was about the Puritan settlers and was even more doubtful when I raved about how fab it is. But it is. Again, funny – hysterically so at times – informative and edifying.

Wordy

These are not your elementary school textbook pilgrims, pilgrim.

And now I’m halfway through a fascinating (and, yes, funny) book about the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley.  I made myself wait until I knocked off some other books I had piled up all over the house, but my craving was too great to wait any longer.

The night I started it, I read part of Vowell’s description of a New England B&B aloud to John, and he laughed almost as much as I did. But I haven’t gotten him to read any of her books. I think Julia’s about to bite, though, then she’ll be hooked, too.

Because, if you dig her, Sarah Vowell gets you hook, line and sinker.

She has such a way with words. Jon Stewart can’t keep a straight face when she’s a guest on The Daily Show – and he’s obviously a huge fan, too. But I’m not going to gush anymore – you can google her (or find her talking on YouTube or Comedy Central). I need to stop and go read.

Vacation

One thing leads to another

Speaking of how one thing leads to another in technology and in life, which is where we left off last time, this week has continued to bear that theme.

I’m still a long way from mastering iOS7, but I did upgrade my iPad. Haven’t touched the computer upgrade, but that will come next. John’s working on the leap from flip-phone to iOS7, which is probably easier in some ways than upgrading an operating system.

But that’s not what this is really about. I’m here (briefly, because so many duties call) to talk about the physical ways one thing leads to another and another and another.

OK, wait, this first – Tuesday was the day of Arkansas Hospice’s memorial service for those who died there in the past year. Liz, Silas, Sylvia, Julia and I accompanied Mother. Interestingly and conveniently, the service was held at Mother’s church, Park Hill Presbyterian, where my kids and sister and I grew up.

Mother said yesterday that the service was a milestone for her. She mentioned that when we were at her appointment with her back surgeon, Dr. Edward Saer, a good doctor and kind man, who is thrilled with how well she’s done and released her from his care. He said our trip to the Great Northwest was her physical test, a milestone, if you will, and she passed with flying colors.

He seems pretty amazed with how well she’s done with the surgery and was extremely happy to see how far she’s come emotionally.

And now that she has little Polly, her pup, Mother is getting more exercise and lots of companionship. So, all good there.

Unfortunately, all’s not so great in my distractibility – had to stop to do some extreme scanning for my husband (I’m a part-time legal assistant), and lost my momentum here. Hmm, where was I going?

I’ll just jump back in with this: Last Friday, I did something pretty dumb (I’m sure you’re shocked), and lifted Sylvia, the larger of our 2-year-old granddaughters, over my head and wiggled her around. What the heck? Did I think she was smaller? Did I think I had Silas? Didn’t think at all, I’m afraid, just moved – a common theme with injuries in my life.

Liz and John did not approve – with my rebuilt rotator cuffs, that’s a move to be avoided. The shoulders are fine, but as I lowered Syl to the floor, my mid-back, a place I’ve never had a problem, gave a little shout. It’s been whispering “ouch” off and on since then.

Sylvia's a tall, thin 2-year-old. She's also a mess, lik her mom at that age. That would be nail polish on her hands.

Sylvia’s a tall, thin 2-year-old. She’s also a mess, like her mom at that age. That would be nail polish on her hands.

Today I started thinking about why that would happen, and I realized it probably coincides with the softening of my belly that I’ve been observing and saying, “Oh, well, guess it comes with age” about for a year or so. But of course a soft belly means a weak core and a weak back.

When I coached high school girls soccer, we worked the heck out of our cores, and when the girls complained at times, “You kick from your core” was my no-nonsense reply. So I know better.

Sigh. Just when I thought I’d gotten comfortable with a lighter schedule of maintenance-based exercise, I realize I’m going to have to do some rehabbing. I’ve got too many grandbabies who need lifting and frankly, some body parts have given in to gravity a bit more than I like.

This weekend I have an overnight date with Annabelle and Baby Lukie when their parents got to Fayetteville for a Razorbacks game.

This weekend I have an overnight date with Annabelle and Baby Lukie when their parents go to Fayetteville for a Razorbacks game.

 

Maybe I’ll find a waist. But mainly, I hope to regain function.

P.S. Just because it makes me smile, let me share what came in the mail this morning.

From Pam, who co-stars in most of my Blackhawk posts. We lived The Wonder Years – and some not-so-wonderful years – together. We live in different cities now, but in one heart.

From Pam, who co-stars in most of my Blackhawk posts. We lived The Wonder Years – and some not-so-wonderful years – together. We live apart in different cities now, but together in one heart.

 

You are the sunshine of my life

Today is Pam’s birthday, and “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” is her ring-song on my phone. That’s because from the time we met, just over 47 years ago when she moved in across the street on Blackhawk Road, we sang duets with or to each other. Not well, but heartfelt.

Stevie’s soothing tune was the last one we crooned to each other, taking alternating lines, during our senior year of high school, so in Laura logic, of course it announces her phone calls today.

Once we were little girls, giggling and silly. In junior high we worked up a killer (and we thought hysterically disrespectful) version of Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” which we performed in the street for the other kids. Pam and I hated country music then and really, really twanged it up, but when some neighbor kids, whose family was seriously into country told us quite earnestly that we should audition for a spot on Tommy Trent’s Fun Barn, we didn’t have the heart to tell them our performance was satire.

Today Pam’s a successful nurse practitioner with her own practice and a great yoga instructor, teaching at the lovely Just Breathe Yoga  in Heber Springs. I’m so proud of her. She knows that, but I want to say it again.

We still turn into giggling girls when we get together, and John tries to be quick with the camera to catch us in the act – but we’re quicker at dodging. We actually let him take this one last fall, but for some reason, it’s super-soft focus (otherwise known as blurry), and I swear we didn’t have him use cheesecloth on the lens.

Old girls

Old girls

We promised we’d live in the same neighborhood as adults and that our kids would play together, which we did and they did. We made a promise when we were kids that we’d remain friends, which we’ve done. We’re family by choice.

Happy birthday, Pam! Love you.

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Speaking of old girls, but on a workout note, I did a new one today,  Zayna Gold’s Boston Body Barre Sculpt Express. Really, really good and tough but gentle enough for girls in our age bracket. It’s a keeper, and I may have to get her other DVD. It’s like the Lotte Berke Method workouts, but with an age-appropriate friend taking you through the routines, instead of a perky young thing bouncing along or a drill-instructor young thing telling you to do things that will cause you injury.

boston_body_barre_sculpt_1_

Two thumbs up – or, considering the nature of the workout, two butt cheeks up.

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And on one last note, my old man (that would be handsome Pop, my husband, John) will have two pieces of furniture in a StudioMain exhibit for a month, starting Friday at 5 p.m. If you’re local, come see us at the reception from 5 until 8 p.m.; it’s part of Second Friday Art Night, a lovely part of life in Little Rock. (That’s our friend Morgan’s chair, if you click on the StudioMain link.)

Last year his glass-topped coffee table was a big hit. This year it’s his beautiful liquor cabinet and super-fab chair. I’m very pleased for him. He’s a real artist.

I just wish the cabinet weren’t so well-stocked – it’s going to be a long month with all the bottles and glasses sitting on the dining table.

John's handiwork deserves to be exhibited. You can't by this one, but he'll be taking orders soon.

John’s handiwork deserves to be exhibited. You can’t buy this one, but he’ll be taking orders soon.

Break on through

Sometimes it’s easy to get stuck when you’re feeling overloaded. For me, much overload is self-inflicted, like the piles of books and magazines I need (and want) to read, the sewing to be done, the garden to plant, the blog posts to write. You get the picture.

And because, Ayurvedically speaking, I’m a vata/pitta, heavy on the vata, when I get stuck I tend to spin in circles, metaphorically and sometimes physically, when I really need to do what it takes to break on through to the other side and get back to the business – or pleasure – at hand.

For me, that entails either listening to loud, good music or exercise. Sometimes both, as in just turning up the tunes and kitchen-dancing.

I’ve felt particularly stuck lately, with the shoulders and the sore shin and the growing piles of stuff in my house, not to mention the construction going on upstairs and all the work I need to get done.

John called me a “whirling dervish” the other night, which stopped me in my tracks for a discussion along the lines of, “Yes, Sufism is a type of Islam,” (me) and, “No, I think it’s something else,” (John). That entailed a Google search to prove that it is indeed the mystical branch of Islam, and oh, by the way remember that poem by Rumi that I sent you when we first met? (That would be me to John.)

Ohmygosh, I love that poem.

The minute I heard my first love story I started looking for you, not knowing how blind that was. Lovers don’t finally meet somehwere. They’re in each other all along.                                                   – Jalal ad-Din Rumi

Now, where was I?

Oh, yes, the point of this post is that exercise can be the best possible way to break on through. Just let everything else wait and get some endorphins flowing. Even if you think you don’t like exercise, I’ll bet you will eventually.

I’ve continued to do my three-times-a-week baby weights and walking as much as possible, though pollen has driven me to the treadmill (hence the shin thing, I think). But I’ve been slacking on the other days, except for hula hoop breaks, which are good exercise and great for my sanity.

This morning, though, enough was enough. I got my rear in the living room to do a workout DVD, and instead of going with one of my standard faves, popped in a new one, Ivy Ingram Larson’s Full Fitness Fusion.

full-workout-video-small-cover

Whoa. Fun, fun, and fun. A bit Lotte Berke, a bit Pilates, a bit weights, some calisthenics and a tad yoga. Effective and quick. I highly dig it.

(In a previous incarnation, I was a health and fitness columnist. Review copies still come on occasion, which is how I came by this one – and I’m glad I finally got it off the stack.)

Granted, I’m 20+ years older than Larson and her girlfriends in the video, and, granted, I had to adapt for rotator cuff and other issues. I didn’t use weights, since yesterday was a weight day, either. I’ll probably give this one to my daughter, since she’s more Larson’s age range, but this is a great workout for anyone.

Just remember to adapt. I can’t do reverse plank at all, for example, so I did boat pose instead. Probably shouldn’t have done the modified pushups, my right shoulder is saying. But sometimes I can’t help myself.

Larson, who’s married to a surgeon, has MS, which she seems to be controlling nicely with diet and exercise. She and her husband have a very cool and helpful website, cleancuisineandmore.com, which I encourage you to visit for general health tips and more.

And if you’re looking for a fun, quick workout, try this one. I’m smiling. And not whirling for now.

Looking at Baby Silas, grandchild No. 5, is another way to calm me down when I'm whirling. And all those grandkids are good reasons to keep exercising.

Looking at Baby Silas, grandchild No. 5, is another way to calm me down when I’m whirling. And all those grandkids are good reasons to keep exercising.

She’s come undone

Back in 2006, my rotator cuffs, which I’d been nursing along damaged for years, became critical, resulting in two surgeries – the left, which was by far the most painfully urgent, in March and the right in December.

Jude, all whopping 8+ pounds of him, was born between the two surgeries, on June 28. Liz was constantly flitting about trying to protect me from myself as I held that precious boy.

You can see my fresh left-shoulder scar and my right torn rotator cuff, but the happiness on that 50-year-old face clearly outweighs the pain. Jude will be 7 this June!

You can see my fresh left-shoulder scar and my right torn rotator cuff, but the happiness on that 50-year-old face clearly outweighs the pain. Jude will be 7 this June!

Lately they’re not doing so well, much to my frustration. They hurt, the right one to the point that I’ve had to pull out my sling, and almost to the point that they feel in need of further repair – though my intrepid and talented surgeon, Larry Nguyen, told me there really wasn’t enough healthy cuff left for more surgery. I was quite a mess, he said, with one shoulder having multiple tears and the other a large hole.

Dr. Nguyen was pretty amazed that I have full range of motion, something he told me not to count on – including a somewhat pitiful reverse namasté. But I never lost range of motion, so I was atypical in that.

I’m not happy about this one bit. I’ve got babies to hold, projects to finish and about the filthiest house you can imagine. (We live in a construction project, remember?) Repetitive motion is the worst thing (dusting, mopping, painting, etc.), and what set them off this week was cleaning three door shelves in our refrigerator. Go figure.

OK, and large grand babies. But holding them is non-negotiable. Housework –meh.

So there's the right scar 6 1/2 years after surgery and  one day before starting to hurt again. Silas is bright-eyed for a 1-week old.

So there’s the right scar 6 1/2 years after surgery and one day before starting to hurt again. Silas is bright-eyed for a 1-week old.

What started the problem was extreme weight lifting in my 30s and early 40s followed by over-exuberant yoga in my later 40s. Since I had such little shoulders – my bones are pretty petite – they were my favorite body part to work in the gym, and, boy, did they respond. In very layman’s terms, the muscles got too large for the space allotted, so they became impinged.

That alone hurts like hell. Over time, bone spurs from arthritis started to rub on the impinged/pinched areas and caused some tearing. I’d do PT until they felt better and get a cortisone shot here and there, but I’d be damned if I was going to have surgery. Nope, not me.

They were so bad in 2003 that I had emergency steroid shots to get me through the Yoga Journal Conference I was lucky enough to get to cover for the DemGaz when I was a health and fitness columnist. Then I rested them for a bit and went right back to workout status quo.

But what finished them off – and made surgery unavoidable – happened after a returned to teaching. In my journalism classroom at Central High School in late January 2006, one of my students (a girl about my size) had a grand mal seizure, and after holding her desk still, then catching her to lower her to the ground – she’s was unconscious and dead weight – all I could think about was her condition. I’d been living with shoulder pain for years and didn’t give the twinges a thought.

Until a few nights later, when I got in bed, that is. The pain in my shoulders was so intense that it nauseated me and made my body shake. I had to get up and sleep as best I could sitting up on the window seat. Pain meds and sleeping pills got me through a few weeks so I could postpone surgery to coincide with spring break in March.

Newspaper or yearbook sponsors don’t miss work. I returned with my arm in a sling and took a group of kids to a conference in San Francisco in April – in my sling. The kids loved it when the metal rings made the airport detector go off and I had to get wanded. I remember them laughing, and I think they took pictures.

The second surgery was just before Christmas break, and I returned from that with a sling, too.

Not too long after healing, maybe a year, I started back to the gym with John and, well, I shouldn’t have. Dr. Nguyen told me after I went shamefacedly to see him that I was banned from gyms for life because I can’t be trusted not to overdo. So all these years, I’ve made do with my baby weights and high reps. (Don’t scold – I’m actually supposed to do that for therapy.)

Except right now, I can’t. I’m recuperating from cleaning my fridge.

At least I’m still fairly ambidextrous – and typing doesn’t hurt as much today, so maybe I’m on the mend.

What’s extremely frustrating about my shoulders going out now (in addition to being useless and in pain) is that I’d just started to get my mojo back after losing it since Bill died and Mother turned from the cutest young mom on the block to a little old lady. She’s starting to bounce back a bit but things will never be the same.

Broken hearts take a toll.

I didn’t realize how undone I’d come until I started pulling back together a bit. I hide things well, but I’m still fighting anger over how Bill was allowed to suffer. Part of my shoulder issue may be from carrying that psychic weight, so I’m working on being more aware, as well as being more careful physically.

But, again, I have grand babies to hold – and German shepherds to walk and weights to lift and rooms to paint and very little patience for healing.

I’ll try to be good. But no promises.

Luke and Silas enjoy cousin time. Who wouldn't suffer to hold those precious boys?

Luke and Silas enjoy cousin time. Who wouldn’t suffer to hold those precious boys?

Back in the saddle again

Though we’re still sporting our Tuscan tans (a shade unlike any other that you get just from walking around) more than a week after leaving those delightful, delicious hills, John and I are pretty much back in the saddle again.

We’re glad to be home – we missed the dogs (like crazy), the grandkids (who continue to grow, dammit, whether we’re here or not), the rest of the fam and friends – but getting back on schedule has been a little tough.

And after living on highly affordable brie, gruyere and wines for two weeks, we’ve had a bit of American sticker shock in that department. Many things in Europe are pricier than at home, but they beat us all to heck on cheese and wine. And absinthe and sambuca – a bottle of each made the trip back in John’s suitcase.

Also, even if the U.S. had castles dating back to 857 A.D., we couldn’t possibly afford to stay in one as we did on a hill outside Greve in Chianti. Crazy.

This isn’t the travelogue that will inevitably come – sorry, but I’ll have to share at least some of it – just some reflections/observations/coincidences I’ve had on my mind.

Back in February or March, we picked up a nice bottle of Tuscan wine – it was on sale and lovely, so we bought it and for some reason saved it. After we got home, I decided to open it, since we were in chianti withdrawal. It’s Dogajolo Toscano from Carpineto Vineyards. 

In Greve in Chianti.

We didn’t even know we were going to Italy, much less Greve, until Marie-Noelle told us she’d booked us a stay at a cool ancient vineyard. She’d booked a junior suite in the Canonica, but we were upgraded to the Giotti suite, a wing of the castle. (More on that in another post.)

Just the kitchen in our wing of Castello Vicchiomaggio was bigger than some hotel rooms. We hardly left the grounds.

We’d bemoaned not being able to bring any of the local wine back with us. Imagine our surprise at finding a bottle in our wine rack!

Before we left I’d almost finished reading Julia Child’s My Life in France, so driving through the south of France to places she’d mentioned was divine for me. So is her book, though for a non-meat-eater, parts of it are extremely gruesome. (Pressed duck in particular. Double yuck.)

Julia was heavily into meat, as is traditional French food, so Marie-Noelle and I were thrilled to find Cassolettes Provencale,  tres Julia Child but vegetarian, at our fancy outdoor restaurant at Aix-en-Provence. I haven’t been able to locate a recipe yet but think I can recreate it from memory.

Or a close enough facsimile. Julia says cooking should be fun, so I think she’d approve.

Lolly/Laura and Marie-Noelle at elegant La Fontaine in Aix-en-Provence.

While catching up on magazine reading on our trip, I saw a review of Bob Spitz’s Dearie, a massive  biography of Julia Child, which I ordered online and dove straight into last night after finishing Julia’s version. 

It’s hard to put down. Since I like to read on the treadmill, I’ll be putting in some miles.

Which brings me to my last point/observation. I returned from our two-week trip weighing exactly what I weighed when we left (my trusty Wii Fit tells me so). But two weeks with no organized exercise makes the same weight look different at almost 57.

Time will tell on us – there’s no escape. But temporary changes are easy to reverse if you jump right back in the saddle. Friday and Monday were my little weights workouts and today I tried a new DVD from Amy Dixon, Give Me 10 Core Cuts

(Think of Dixon as a miniature Christina Hendricks – Joanie on Madmen – if you don’t know who she is.)

I highly recommend the DVD – I did three of the six 10-minute workouts and they’re all fun, safe and effective. Dixon provides a modifier, but with bum shoulders that have to be saved for toting grandbabies, I had to modify the modifier at times.

But that’s OK. It’s all part of the process.

Life is good, dearie.

(It’s a marvelous age for a) Moondance

This is a bit of a departure, but remember the long paper on dance as fitness for the elderly that I mentioned before? I’ve decided to share it, with this warning label: It’s quite long and somewhat academic – you might want to read it in chunks. But my professors have been indulgent in letting me write my papers in a mash-up of journalism and APA (scholarly journal) style, and I’ve been told by a couple of people that it’s worth posting, so here goes.

Maybe it will inspire you to dance through your silver and golden years. And Van Morrison is sure to make you want to move.

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When it comes to exercise and the elderly, the consensus seems fairly clear: Appropriate physical activity is good for the aging body, mind, and – as research and anecdotal evidence increasingly show – spirits. New studies continue to report varying degrees of benefit from varying forms of exercise; findings may vary but most agree that regular physical activity has benefits that range from enhanced strength, balance, coordination, and endurance to improved cognition and decreased dementia to better psychosocial health and sense of well-being (Lindwall, Rennemark, & Berggren, 2008).

Adding exercise to one’s regimen to add life to one’s years would seem to be a no-brainer, but many people, especially the elderly, have no interest in exercise or no idea where to start. Conflicting reports don’t help; in two days, this writer received two emails, one the New York Times Health Update (April 24, 2012), the other the Psych Central Newsletter (April 25, 2012). Both feature articles touting the benefits of exercise for the aging brain, but Gretchen Reynolds of the Times reports that aerobic exercise such as walking or running is the way to preserve or improve brain function, while Psych Central’s Janice Wood reports that lifting weights does the trick. “A new study shows that an exercise program that features resistance training improves the cognitive functioning of older women,” Wood begins the article that describes a Canadian study of 86 women with mild cognitive impairment.

In the big picture, the type of exercise is not as important as the fact of consistent exercise, and one of the best ways to encourage exercise is to make it fun. This paper will look at research-proven benefits of consistent exercise to keep the aging functional and independent, as well as how elders can have fun while achieving those benefits through dance, specifically three types: ballroom dance, belly or Middle Eastern dance, and choreographed/performance dance.

First, however, is a look at two nonagenarians this writer has the privilege of knowing. Their names have been changed.

A contrast in aging: Two 90-year-olds

As members of the same birth cohort, Burt and Dorothy share many life experiences, though they live in different parts of the United States and have never met. They’re also members of a much smaller group, independent-minded 90-year-olds who live at home alone – definitely by choice. Other commonalities are that each comes from a humble background, has a high school education and a more than comfortable standard of living (Burt owned his own business, as did Dorothy’s husband), and is widowed after a decades-long marriage. Both have been trim to thin their entire lives. Dorothy has a pacemaker; Burt has a couple of heart surgeries in his past.

The similarities stop there, though. At 90, Dorothy is very frail, has mild to moderate cognitive impairment, prefers the company of her cats to humans, walks tentatively at home and fearfully outside her comfort zone, and, except for a bit of flower gardening, lives a sedentary lifestyle. Her beloved crossword puzzles sit unworked these days and she finds bridge club more annoying than fun, partly because “the other women want to talk too much.” Her days of living alone are numbered, as she is unable to carry out some instrumental activities of daily living and has difficulty with some of the ones she can still manage.

Burt, on the other hand, is a testament to active aging. He is sharp, alert, outgoing, and spry; he loves to laugh, and the highlight of most weeks is his regular Sunday evening dance date at the local VFW. Burt has always been a dancer and will “cut a rug,” as he calls it, anywhere there’s music, dance floor or no. When his wife died after a years-long illness, dancing became an even more important part of his life. Though his family is large and very attentive, the company of his peers – although he will tell you he has outlived most of them – and the physical activity at the VFW keep him vitalized. He leaves Sunday afternoon family get-togethers early to head to the dance floor; he dares not leave the ladies waiting. At his afternoon 90th birthday party, which had about 300 guests and featured a live band, Burt danced off and on for the four hours the party lasted. He may not live to dance, but he certainly loves to dance.

Attributing the differences between Dorothy and Burt in activity level, confidence, and mental acuity solely to exercise would be too great a stretch, but the research is there to support the belief that it makes a difference in how they are aging.

The proof is in the research

In a 2008 article published in Aging & Mental Health, Swedish researchers Lindwall, et al., showed confidence in the exercise-mental health correlation.

“Aging is, for most individuals, accompanied with a general decline in cognitive function. Another aspect that seems to accompany aging is a decline in physical activity. From a ‘health-in-old age’ perspective this is most unfortunate, as regular physical activity and exercise has been linked to enhanced physiological as well as psychological and psychosocial health for older adults” (p. 212).

The researchers studied a random sample of urban and rural Swedes 60 and older, 585 men (average age 74) and 817 women (average age 76) (Lindwall, et al., 2008). They determined that “physically active older adults perform better than inactive older adults in a wide range of cognitive function tests,” (p. 212). They found consistent light-intensity exercise sufficient for an association with general cognitive alertness and an association between moving from an active to an inactive lifestyle with lower Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE) scores, particularly for men. They also cite support “for the notion that physical activity may be protective of future cognitive decline and risk of dementia” (p. 217).

A sound mind is not enough to enable an elderly person to carry out the activities of daily living, however; a certain level of strength, coordination, agility, balance, and flexibility is necessary to function independently, a level that can be achieved and maintained by exercise.

“In addition to a general decline in physical fitness, the aging process is accompanied by a progressive decline in perception, motor behavior, cognition, and memory functions. Therefore, the preservation of everyday life skills and the maintenance of independent living become increasingly important with advancing age. It is well established that physical fitness is intimately associated with cognitive performance in the elderly. Consequently, high levels of physical fitness have been assumed to be a major factor contributing to the maintenance of independent living and everyday competence” (Kattenstroth, Kalisch, Kolankowska, & Dinse, 2011, p. 1).

Physical fitness, or lack thereof, can also affect and perhaps predict “adverse health events in elders” (Cesari, et al., 2009, p. 251). A team of researchers studied 3,024 older people with a mean age of 73.6, using the Short Physical Performance Battery (SPPB) over 6.9 years to evaluate their functional status (Cesari, et al., 2009). The three measures used were usual gait speed, repeated chair stands (standing from a seated position five times without using one’s arms) and standing balance (three variations, ending with standing on one leg). These measures, Cesari, et al., report, have shown good reliability and are “predictive of adverse health-related outcomes in older persons” (p. 252).

Though they admit shortcomings in the study, the authors say that their study population is representative of well-functioning 70- to 79-year-olds and “the results may be useful for evaluating older persons in whom a disabling process is not yet clinically evident, providing a basis for the development of a ‘real’ preventive program” (Cesari, et al., 2009, p. 258).

The most effective preventive, rehabilitative, or maintenance program will not work if an elder isn’t motivated to exercise. This is where the putting fun in function can make a significant difference. Dr. Dafna Merom of the University of Sydney told Asian Scientist Magazine that helpful though it may be, formal exercise may not be the way to go when it comes to elder fitness (Chan, 2012). “Dance is a complex sensory motor rhythmic activity. It also has cognitive and social dimensions. This package as a whole can simultaneously address a wide range of physiological and cognitive risk factors that contribute to falls,” Merom said (Chan, 2012, p. 1).

Merom, who also pointed out that social dancing is fun and available, will lead a year-long international study of the effects of twice weekly ballroom dance classes on the falls and cognition in 450 older people (Chan, 2012).

Dancing in the moonlight years

Merom is not the first person to look at dance and the elderly. Though dance was not a major component of the 21-year Bronx Aging Study, a link between non-specific dancing and reduced dementia risk did appear (Verghese, et al., 2003). “Dancing was the only physical activity associated with a lower risk of dementia,” according to Verghese, et al.’s, article “Leisure Activities and the Risk of Dementia in the Elderly,” published by The New England Journal of Medicine (p. 2512). The authors seem later to lump dance into the broader “leisure” category, despite it being listed in Table 2 (p. 2513) as a physical activity.

“Reading, playing board games, playing musical instruments, and dancing were associated with a lower risk of dementia in our cohort. There was no association between physical activity and the risk of dementia. Exercise is said to have beneficial effects on the brain by promoting plasticity, increasing the levels of neurotrophic factors in the brain, and enhancing resistance to insults. Cognitive and physical activities overlap, and therefore it is not surprising that previous studies have disagreed on the role of physical activities. Although physical activities are clearly important in promoting overall health, their protective effect against dementia remains uncertain” (Verghese, et al., p. 2515).

For anyone who has ever danced, the protection is easy to understand. Not only does dance condition muscles, loosen joints, and increase flexibility, balance and aerobic capacity, it also requires concentration to learn not just new moves but new moves in a specific order. Ballroom dance requires even more mental acuity; dancers quickly have to recognize the rhythm of a song to pick the appropriate dance, men have to decide which moves to do and when, and women not only have to anticipate and follow the men’s moves, but, to paraphrase Ginger Rogers, they have to do it backward. The colloquialism “stretching your brain” comes to mind – which, of course, is a layman’s term (perhaps unknowingly) for promoting plasticity.

Learning new steps backward may be even better for your brain.

A Society for Neuroscience article cites a McGill University study of Argentine tango and the aging brain, in which 30 people aged 62 to 90, all of whom had fallen in the past year and developed a fear of falling, were divided into a walking group or a tango group (Harris, 2005). Each group met for two hours twice a week for 10 weeks.

The article puts Rogers’ famous quote into scientific terms.

“Tango dancing is beneficial to the elderly, says Patricia McKinley, PhD., because it incorporates elements found in standard neurological rehabilitation programs: forward, backward and side-to-side weight shift; one-legged stance; walking on a straight line both backwards and forwards; increasing step length in all directions; and turning within a narrow space” (Harris, 2005).

The music is another plus. “An added benefit of tango is that its movements are performed to music, which is known to facilitate performance of ambulatory activities,” says McKinley (Harris, 2005).

McKinley concluded that tango dancing is ideal for senior citizens and “satisfies three basic requirements for exercise adherence: It’s fun, it’s a group activity, and it has a tangible goal that can be perceived not only by the dancer, but by his or her family and friends” (Harris, 2005).

And-a one: Ballroom dance

For many seniors, ballroom dancing for physical fitness is a continuation of something they’ve always done or returning to something they enjoyed in their younger years, but newcomers need not be deterred or think learning to dance late in life is not worth the effort. To the contrary, at least one study shows that newcomers or amateur dancers benefit more from adding dance to their lives than long-term, expert, or competitive dancers do by continuing the activity at which they already excel.

Kattenstroth, et al., report that years of dancing regularly in old age has a wide range of benefits, including positive effects on posture, sensorimotor capabilities, and cognitive performance, especially when amateur dancers are compared to a non-dancing control group. When studying expert dancers (with “expert” based on dancing 4.5 hours per week for practice and 2.5 hours per week of competition), the researchers found the expert group tested better on reaction time, posture, and balance – which could be expected after years of practice – but no better than the non-dancing control group on cognition and hand-arm motor functions. In the expert group, some functions tested seemed to suffer at the expense of devoting so much time and attention to ballroom dance. The actual positive-aging benefits seemed to be higher for the amateur group members, who not only increased their activity level but were constantly learning new moves (2011).

Again, the “fun factor,” or psychosocial effect, plays a huge part in making ballroom dance an excellent exercise activity for the aging, according to a Dallas Morning News article.

“Dr. Robert K. Rosen, an internist at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas, says ballroom dancing has several health benefits for senior citizens. In particular, he says the communal nature of dancing helps keep them from becoming isolated or lonely.

“I think anything that can be done to keep them active and interested and involved is an excellent idea, Dr. Rosen says.

‘Ballroom dancing really does challenge every part of your system, from your hearing, vision, mental alertness to coordination and our cardiovascular system.’

Seniors who have frail bones should be careful when ballroom dancing, Dr. Rosen says, as they are more likely to be injured if they fall” (Tenore, 2008).

And-a two: Belly dance

The ancient art of belly dance, though not as widely practiced, offers another fun and expressive physical activity for senior women (though men can certainly do it too). Some might think it for young women only, but the original Mirana, of the Mirana Middle Eastern Dance Company in Little Rock, was well into her 70s and still performing and teaching when she finally retired; women of all ages make up the classes at Arkansas Belly Dance today.

Belly dance (also known as Middle Eastern dance) works the entire body with its undulating movements and requires the same stretching of the brain as ballroom dance – perhaps more than ballroom dance, as the moves newcomers learn are so unfamiliar. Since no partner is required, belly dance can be ideal for divorced or widowed older women who might be shy about going solo to a ballroom dance class, and the all-ages nature of many belly dance classes and troupes makes it an accessible, intergenerational activity in communities where no senior classes are offered. Some senior centers and retirement homes do incorporate the Middle Eastern dance form into their activity schedule, and it has been popular.

An Israeli doctor, Clara Friedman, recently completed a Clalit Health Services study of the effects of belly dance on women’s health, following 129 women with an average age of 49 for a year. The results were impressive. Not only did some of the women decrease their visits to a family doctor, they also saw a general improvement in health (Even, 2011).

“At the end of the year-long workshop, where the women belly danced for two hours a week, their general health assessment rose by an average of 5.54 points to a total 9.09 points, on a scale of 1-10.

“Furthermore, the women’s’ average body mass index (BMI) went down from 25.34 units, and approximately 70% of them described a decrease in their weight. According to the researchers, belly dancing is ‘a safe and pleasant form of physical exercise that has a positive effect on both physical and mental health’” (Even, 2011).

 

And-a three: Choreographed/performance dance

The sound of tap or jazz shoes on a wooden floor is what calls some seniors into exercise. Maybe it is the fulfillment of a dream, like for this writer’s mother, who took tap dance lessons for the first time in middle age; the money for dance lessons was not there in her youth. Perhaps it is a return to something at which seniors excelled or that they enjoyed in their youth. Whatever the reason, the foot-tapping rhythms and repetitive steps make for heart-pumping workouts, and adult classes are easy to find in most cities of any size.

Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London, England, has taken things several steps further when it comes to seniors and performing arts dance. Their Company of Elders troupe for people 60 and over offers older adults, even those who have never danced before, a chance to train with international choreographers and perform all over England, as well as in Russia, Portugal, and Italy (Ross, 2007). Videos of the Company at www.sadlerswells.com show the joy and confidence the program brings to the 25 dancers selected to be in the troupe. One of the dancers, Sybil Fox, who was 78 and had two new hips and a replaced knee when she was interviewed in 2007, said the benefits go beyond the physical.

“I have always been determined to keep agile and ‘young thinking’ to whatever age I am fortunate to live to. I like to give anything a go at least once. I cannot imagine that any other group could so help me do this. The physical benefits go without saying. We are not treated as ‘old people’ and consequently do not feel old” (Ross, 2007, p. 38).

Ross (2007) reports that Company of Elders members gave the following reasons to participate in organized dance in the later years: an increase in creativity, a boost in self-confidence; an extension of skills, bringing a sense of purpose into late life, improving fitness, and having social interaction with people who enjoy the same things. The men and women of the company are not retired dancers – they come from non-dance backgrounds including a retired chemistry chemist and a former math teacher – but they are definitely dancers now.

The finale

Evidence, anecdotal and research-based, is clear: Consistent, age- and skill-level-appropriate exercise is good for the aging brain, body, and soul. The more enjoyable and less regimented the form of exercise, the more likely seniors are to adhere to it, and, according to Lindwall et al. (2008), light or moderate intensity exercise, which has better adherence than more strenuous levels, “seem to be related to the most beneficial effects, at least in terms of mental health” (p. 218).

One would have to agree with the conclusion of Lindwall, et al., (2008) that “from a broader and more applied perspective, the well-known exercise motto ‘never too late to start, always too early to quit’ seems relevant to highlight once again” (p. 217). Those who dance their way through their senior years, whatever form they choose, may find permanent pep in their steps and joy in their hearts. At the very least, they could have a bit of fun and improve their functioning in daily life.

Dim lights, close curtain.