I’m going to be providing an introduction to Tai Chi at the Tolono Public Library next week. If you’ve any interest in Tai Chi or the class I teach at the Savoy Rec Center, come check it out: February 4th, 2020 9:00 AM.
For my fall-semester OLLI class I took “Ballet for Adult Beginners,” taught by Lei Shanbhag.
I took the class as enrichment of my movement practice. I felt like adding something very different to my existing range of taiji, running, natural movement, a tiny bit of parkour, and so on, and I thought that ballet would be very different, and yet still fall within the broad spectrum of “movement practice.”
I also took it as cultural enrichment. I wanted to learn a bit of the vocabulary of ballet—both the literal vocabulary (Allongé, Battement, Ronds de jambes), and the movement vocabulary (learning to see a dance as a conversation between the dancers and one another, and with the audience).
As far as enhancing my movement practice, I’d have to say it wasn’t a complete success—I did the moves in class, but I didn’t really learn them.
That’s entirely a matter of my own abilities: I’m just very slow to learn movement stuff. I have crappy mirror neurons, and I can only learn movement stuff verbally—I have to watch the movement, describe it to myself in words, and memorize the verbal description. Only then can I attempt to do the movement, by playing back my memorized description and attempting to execute it.
As perhaps you can imagine, this is not the quick and easy way to learn to dance. The upshot is that I need to go more slowly than most people (so I have time to create the verbal description), do it more times than most people (so I have time to memorize my verbal description), and then do it yet more times (so I can learn to execute the moves that I’ve described).
I could probably have learned, let’s say, half or a third of what was taught, if we’d done just that much, and spent two or three times as long on each thing.
As it was, I enjoyed the moving very well, but didn’t leave each class with one or two specific things I might practice between then and the next class.
I don’t mean this in any way as a criticism of the class, which was enjoyable and informative. I had the sense that other people in the class (all with some sort of dance background) were picking up much more of the movements than I was. And Lei was constantly asking if the amount done was the right amount. I could have said, “Wait! Before we go on, let’s do this one thing 5 more times.” I chose not to, so that’s all on me.
Despite not learning the movements, I nevertheless did the movements (as best I could), so the classes were a nice workout—well structured, with a warmup, stretching, practice of the moves we were learning, and more stretching.
I was more successful at learning the cultural stuff. I didn’t learn every ballet term, but I learned enough to provide some useful context. Now I can look things up and understand them. I also began to learn to see ballet, which is something that I didn’t really appreciate before.
One tidbit that we learned the first day stuck with me: The posture of ballet dance—feet turned out, hips forward, weight forward—dates back to Louis XIV. Basically, turning your feet out lets you activate your glutes, while shifting your weight forward lets you activate your quads. If you’ve got good musculature in your legs, this posture lets you show that off. (Especially if, as Louis often was, you’re wearing tights.)
Basically, ballet dancers stand that way because Louis XIV thought standing that way made his butt look good.
I try to emphasize “movement” over “exercise” these days, but sometimes exercise is just what I need. So I was pleased to find this blog post on @rynfrd’s parkour site: six foot exercises that look pretty useful: https://parkouredu.org/six-foot-drills/?learn=11
Kettlebell swing. (For the prompt “movement” in @macgenie‘s convalescent photoblog challenge.)
I’ve been interested in parkour for years now. I have included various bits in my own training, and also gone to train with the campus parkour group (the same people who led this workshop) a few times. For various reasons (social timidity, physical timidity, lack of fitness) I haven’t managed to establish a regular practice of training with the campus group. But it doesn’t mean that I’m not interested, so I was glad to learn about this workshop, which seemed like a safe, easy way to get back into it—and was.
We were led in a warmup, followed by some quadrupedal movement: Bear crawls, aka foot-hand crawls, both frontwards and backwards, followed by a move I know by the name “traveling ape,” although there are probably other names for it.
After the QM we went for a very short run to a wonderful object that could perhaps be described as a free-standing wall of old railroad ties locked in a wire cage. It had a flat metal top which together with the cage made it great for practicing cat hangs: The cage provides enough of a toe hold that even people with limited grip strength can hold on long enough to get a good workout.
The next thing we worked on was shoulder rolls. I was particularly glad for this part because I used to be able to do shoulder rolls, but at some point in the last 35 years lost the mix. Starting from a kneeling position, though, I was able to recover my roll. In just 15 minutes of practice I was back up to doing rolls from a squat. From there I’m sure I can work up to rolls from a standing position pretty quickly.
(Actually, the main delay is that for some reason the rolls made me queasy. I don’t remember that from 35 years ago, but yesterday I got queasy after a few minutes rolling, and my stomach didn’t completely settle down for several hours.)
After rolls we did some vaults. We started with the safety vault, which I’d already learned (and have continued to practice, because it’s really handy for things like getting across downed trees while out hiking). Then we proceeded to some initial progressions for the kong vault. I’d always thought of the kong as the most advanced vault, but that’s when it’s used to traverse a gap beyond the thing you’re vaulting. It can also be used like the safety vault as a way to get on top of some object, and that’s what we learned yesterday. With a low-enough wall (waist-high, rather than chest-high), I can already get on top with a kong vault.
Shout-out to restorative exercise specialist Ashley Price who spotted that the parkour workshop was going on and suggested that I attend.
Today I’ve already included a bit of parkour in the day’s activities, adding a bit of QM to my afternoon walk, both foot-hand crawling and a bit of ground kong. (The latter is excellent practice for reminding myself that I need to keep my knees together, something that does not come naturally.)
For some time now I’ve found myself in the middle of an unusually large number of books. Actually, that’s not quite true—I’ve forever gotten myself in the middle of multiple books; what’s different lately is that I’ve found it difficult to crank on through to the end of them.
I recently figured out why, which led to me telling Jackie, “I used to be able to just sit down for four or six hours and finish a book or two or three, but I don’t seem to be able to do that any more.”
Jackie of course immediately spotted the issue, which was why I put it that way. “With your new focus on movement,” she said, “you’re much less willing to just sit down for four or six hours to do anything.”
I actually have data showing this. My new Oura ring has a feature to alert me if I spend 50 minutes sitting (or standing) still, but that nagging function is going virtually unused—I’ve gotten exactly one ding for a “long period of inactivity” in the past month. I just don’t sit still for as long as fifty minutes any more.
Getting in plenty of movement is great, and I certainly feel better for doing it, but until recently has had an unfortunate side-effect: I’ve found it very easy to waste those less-than-fifty-minute blocks of time.
In fifty minutes I can check my email, scroll through my twitter feed and my facebook feed, read a couple of articles people have shared links to, and check my RSS feeds. And then after going for a walk or a workout (or just making a cup of coffee), I can waste another fifty minutes.
But fifty minutes is plenty of time to get something useful done, such as reading a chunk of a book. Just lately, finally, I’ve been using those blocks of time that way. (Like a grownup!)
By applying myself to reading books, I am making good progress. I just finished Eliot Peper’s Borderless, which was excellent, and I’m more than halfway through Mathew Walker’s Why We Sleep, which is absolutely fascinating. I hesitate to start Sean B. Carroll’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful until I finish the sleep book. But, having made some progress, I feel like . . . . Well, not like I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. More like I figured out how to go spelunking in the book-reading caverns without bonking my head, scraping my knees, and getting a crick in my back.
It’s not like the old days, when I could curl up in a chair (or sprawl out on the floor) and read for hours. But it’s probably better.
Several of the exercises Jackie’s physical therapist had her do involved stepping over padded blocks, both forward and back and sideways and back.
That was fine in the gym where the therapist worked, but at home we lacked the padded blocks, so Jackie had to improvise. It turns out that a three-pack of plufs is pretty close to the height of two of the padded blocks stacked on top of one another, and we had a few three-packs on hand.
One thing I had noticed when Jackie was doing the exercise in the gym was that she tended to swing her foot out to the side, rather than lift it up high enough to clear the obstacle. To help herself remember not to do that, Jackie went ahead and built a whole wall of plufs. (In fact, sometimes she’d go so far as to stack an extra box on top of the three-pack to the side, so that straight ahead offered a lower barrier than to the side.)
The course of physical therapy has worked very well for Jackie. After just seven visits over less than a month, she has recovered “normal”range of motion in her hip. The improvement has also shown up in her gait.
Jackie wanted me to use this post to solicit comments from other people about improvised exercise equipment. What household stuff do you guys use?
(I should also mention that our facial tissue of choice is “Puffs plus lotion.” But that’s too long to say, so we call them “plufs,” a term which you are welcome to adopt for your own use.)
This year’s review of my movement practice will be a bit less detail-oriented than last year’s, when I included a long list of exercises, and a long list of non-exercise movement that I’d engaged in over the year. This year I exercised a bit less and moved a bit more, and came to a balance that I’m pretty happy with—that I don’t feel much urge to analyze.
I continued the winter exercise regimen that I described a year ago for the rest of the winter, but then let most of it go in favor of less-structured movement. As I say, I’m pretty happy with what I ended up doing, although the result was a decline in some of the strength increases I’d made.
Summer included a lot of solo walking (mostly in natural areas very close to home) and a lot of walking with Jackie (in a wide range of environments, including natural areas somewhat further afield).
One major piece of our walking was our big trip to Utah, where we got in plenty of hikes in Bryce Canyon, Zion Canyon, and Arches. (See image at top.) The length of any particular hike was nothing to write home about (although we did write home a bit), but the ruggedness—and especially the steepness—made the hikes very different from anything we manage at home.
Basically, summer was great—lots of time spent in the sun, lots of walking, lots of time spent with my sweetie, lots of time spent alone.
As summer transitioned to fall, I had the same problems I usually do, perhaps slightly worse this year than average because the transition seemed more abrupt, with early fall being unusually cold. Happily, late fall was no worse than early fall, and what was unusually cold for early fall is actually rather mild for early winter.
One thing I have done this fall is get back to running. In the past I’ve always meant to establish a running habit that I can carry forward into the cold months, and I have nearly always failed. This year, so far, I’m doing okay, getting in a couple of runs a week, with long runs of 5 miles or more. With just a little luck (not too icy, not too much bitter cold) I’ll be able to carry a lot more aerobic fitness into the spring than I usually manage. That would make it possible to do a spring running event, if I want.
I’ve had very good luck this year on the injury front, managing to stay healthy though the whole year.
I still teach taiji, both the beginners class and a class for continuing students, and it remains rewarding it all the ways it has been—physically (I get my own taiji in), mentally/emotionally (I get my meditation in), socially (I gather with a group of friends several times a week), and financially (admittedly in a small way).
Looking ahead, I’m rather inclined to stick with a movement focus, spending more time doing stuff (moving) and less time preparing to do stuff (exercising).
A couple of weeks ago the New York Times linked to a new study on age-related declines in human movement. It’s an odd study, but not because of the result (which shows that children start moving less at age 6), because that seems entirely predictable to me, despite the general understanding previously having been that the decline started in adolescence.
Rather, what makes the study seem odd to me is the weird blind spot the researchers seem to have about when and how organisms (including humans) choose to move.
In the study itself the researchers make clear that they had considered the obvious presumption—that kids start moving less when they start going to school: “The overt explanation for this earlier decline could be the increased sitting times due to school.”
The blind spot I’m talking about is presented in the next sentence, where they immediately qualified that:
However, time-specific analysis of [physical activity] has revealed that in addition to the increased [sedentary behavior] during school hours, there was also a distinct decline on weekends, out-of-school days, and during lunchtime.Schwarzfischer P, Gruszfeld D, Stolarczyk A, et al. Physical Activity and Sedentary Behavior From 6 to 11 Years.Pediatrics. 2019;143(1):e20180994
What’s weird and horrifying is that they make that statement seemingly without it occurring to them that forcing children to sit still for hours on 5/7ths of the days of the week might affect their behavior on the other 2/7ths of the days.
Right off the top of my head I can think of four obvious reasons that would be true:
- The required behavior in school normalizes the behavior of extended sitting.
- Even a few weeks of enforced extended sitting will result in the kids becoming deconditioned aerobically, making physical activity more difficult and less appealing.
- Extended periods spent in any static posture—especially the static posture of sitting—will begin the process of reducing their range of motion (they’ll pretty quickly lose the ability to squat, for example), again making physical activity more difficult and less appealing.
- The addition of “physical education” to the kids’ daily schedule sets the pattern of replacing movement with exercise—a time-bound, regimented activity which attempts to pack the health benefits of a week’s worth of movement into just a few hours. (I’ve written about this before.)
Just one instance of this blind spot is bad enough, but it shows up again in a key reference. The researchers say that it is accepted that physical activity declines with age: “A natural and biologically determined decline of total [physical activity] throughout the life span seems likely.” They support that assertion with a couple of references, one of which looks specifically at movement in non-human animals.
Unfortunately that study (Ingram, D. K. Age-related decline in physical activity: generalization to nonhumans. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol. 32, No. 9, pp. 1623-1629, 2000, which is sadly behind a pay-wall.) has exactly the same blind spot: All the animals studied were captive animals. That study looked at how animal movement varies when an animal is moved from its “home cage” to some other cage. I can’t say I’m the least bit surprised the behavior of those captive animals closely resembles the behavior of children moved from home to school and back again.
I would be very interested in studies that included some free-range animals. (Which isn’t something I can do, but which seems at least possible now that accelerometers are cheap.)
Of course school isn’t the only factor that inhibits children from moving more. The restrictions on self-directed play so well documented by Lenore Skenazy of Let Grow no doubt feed in as well.
So it would be great if there were studies of movement in free-range kids as well.
The final weird and horrifying thing isn’t anything new, but is something I hadn’t really been aware of before: The assumption that an age-related reduction in movement is “natural and biologically determined,” has led directly to public policies that normalize it:
This decline is also represented in recommendations from the World Health Organization (WHO): preschool-aged children should accumulate a minimum of 180 minutes per day of total [physical activity], children and adolescents (4–17 years old) at least 60 minutes per day, and adults only a minimum of 30 minutes per day in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA).
To which I say, “Argh!”
I probably wouldn’t be so struck by this if I weren’t already tracking my own movement. (Cheap accelerometers again.)
For some time now I’ve been working to a goal of 105 minutes of movement per day, and over the last few weeks I’ve come pretty close, averaging just over 102 minutes of movement per day, according to Google Fit. (This number, based primarily on steps, somewhat underestimates my movement. In particular it gives me almost no credit for the time I spend teaching taiji, because although there’s plenty of movement, there’s not much stepping.)
The WHO recommendations make me strongly motivated to upgrade my goal for movement to 180 minutes per day.
Why should kids under 6 get all the fun?
(The image at the top is topical only in that it is is a photo from our afternoon walk yesterday.)
On my Flickr feed I shared several pictures of the rocky canyon paths that Jackie and I hiked in Utah with the tag “vitamin texture.” Katy Bowman uses the term to talk about how always walking on flat, level paths fails to provide some of the “movement nutrients” our feet, ankles, calves, knees, and other body parts need to be healthy and capable.
There’s not much in the way of rocky terrain here in Central Illinois (although there are some forest paths with enough exposed roots to produce a reasonable degree of ruggedness). There’s also not much in the way of ordinary hills unless you’re willing to drive for at least half an hour, but I do have one reasonably convenient hill: the highest point in the county is just a couple of miles away—a man-made hill in Colbert Park.
Jackie and I walked there a couple of days ago and climbed up and down the hill a couple of times. The image above is the view from the top of the hill, and here’s an image of Jackie walking up:
It’s not like the climbs in the canyons:
But it’s steep enough to provide a good calf stretch.
I’ve thought to use the Colbert Park hill for running hill repeats, but it’s just far enough that I’m generally not up for running there, running hill repeats, and then running home. (I think I did that one time, about two years ago.) I could drive to the park, but that just seems too lame. Still, my running is coming along okay this spring, so maybe I’ll be in shape to do hill repeats in the middle of a five-mile run pretty soon.