Thursday, June 29, 2006

Dancing: Great for Your Body, Mind, and Soul

I've always been a dancing fool. From the time my mother taught me to do the box step around the living room when I was 10 or 11 until now, I've loved moving my body to music. The physical and spiritual meld together in a wonderful way in me when I dance. And now, I know that scientific studies show that dancing is good for my brain, too.

Recently, I've taken up Nia. I look forward to my Nia classes and go every chance I get, usually for an hour three times a week or more. Nia is a combination of several other physical disciplines: healing arts like yoga and Pilates, martial arts, and dance with the goal of using expressive movement that brings mind, body, and soul into play. This approach stands in sharp contrast to pounding, repetitive movements like jogging or riding stationary bikes. I feel highly motivated to continue Nia for several reasons. I really enjoy the variety of music (there are many different programs with different types of music and routines) and the sense of artistic expression I feel when I stretch my arms high above my head or glide gracefully across the room, all to the beat of a song I enjoy hearing. I work almost every part of my body with stretches, kicks, bends, and steps so that it really feels like I'm getting a good, overall workout. I sweat, meaning it's aerobic and good for my heart. Of course I know that my brain uses more oxygen than my heart so I now know that aerobic activity is good for all of me. That probably explains why I feel so energized and positive after Nia. I've also enjoyed getting to know the other women and men who come to the classes. We really have formed our own little community. We're supportive of each other and gradually, we're beginning to find out more about each other's lives, just little tidbits that we share in the few minutes before class or while we're racing for bottles of water in between routines or as we walk back to our cars. The warmth and good feeling are palpable. There's a connection with other people and there's more of a connection within me--the mind, body, soul thing again. I like it. It feels good.

But why is dancing so good for your brain? As I balance on one leg with my knee up to my chest and then move my knee out to a kick in time with the music, I think about all the mental skills I'm using: hand-eye coordination, balance, timing, rhythm, working and short-term memory, focused attention, language as I listen to the directions. I'm sure I've left out a few. Then we move on to particular steps we've learned as part of a routine: long-term memory, attention and focus, hand-eye coordination, visual-spatial skills (so I stay in the right space and don't knock the person next to me down), balance, rhythm, language and coding skills. Our Nia teachers often add a new step, different arm movements or an extra kick to a routine we already know--I can almost feel the new neural pathways twitching across my brain. They also lead a variety of different routines that match the whole spectrum of music, from jazz to rock 'n roll to contemporary. As researchers have pointed out, dancing to new tunes is what's good for your brain. Dancing the same old steps to the same old tune doesn't create anything, except boredom. I know I have to really concentrate when there's a new routine and different tunes to be able to pull it off, look coordinated, and enjoy myself. Even a dancing fool can build brain reserves.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Boomers Love Cars--As a Statement!

I live in Northern California where folks think they're very aware of environmental issues. We like green and we particularly like not using up nature either for ourselves or for our kids, or so we say. Therefore, it should not come as surprise that the Toyota Prius hybrid, with the lowest emissions of any car out there and fabulous gas mileage, is proliferating here. Everywhere I look, there's a different colored one: metallic green, dark blue, white, black, taupe, fire-engine red, tan. And they're just all over the place: in every parking lot, every carpooling lane (of course, in California, you can drive in the carpooling lane without a carpool if you drive a Prius), and lined up one after another in street parking spaces. And they're continuing to sell like hotcakes, at a premium.

I was thinking today about this phenomenon. It reminds me of VW bugs in the 60s and 70s. Everyone seemed to have one. It was a cool thing to do and, somehow in spite of the fact that everyone had one, it was a very individualistic purchase to make. It said something about the owner that was with-it and positive. A VW van, of course, made an even bigger statement and brought into play lots of additional traits and possibilities--adventure, mystery, or at the very least, trips, of all kinds. I think the Prius bandwagon is similar. A Prius is not particularly cheap although the tax credit, free bridge tolls, and carpool lane driving are very attractive incentives on the federal and state levels. But it's much more that that. It's a statement, much as VW bugs and vans were earlier and for the same generation--Boomers.

Boomers are now affluent enough to pay a premium for leading the environmental charge, even though all the hybrid cars sold until now are still a drop, if that, in the environmental bucket. Still, driving a hybrid and better, driving a recognizable hybrid like the distinctively shaped Prius is a way to yell to the world: I'm voting green, guys, and you should, too. We Boomers are doing it again, as we always have: self-righteously, full of ourselves, sure we know the best and right way. Little has changed.

By the way, I just loved my yellow VW bug that I drove in the early 70s. But my metallic green Prius is probably my favorite car yet! I think it's really me.

More Evidence for Building Brain Reserves

My eye caught an Associated Press article today that supports previous research on Alzheimer's. In this study in part funded by the National Institute on Aging and led by Dr. David Bennett, an Alzheimer's researcher at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, over 2000 people have been followed clinically for years. Over that period of time, 134 people died. Part of the agreement to be in the study involved the agreement to have the brain autopsied after death. The results of the autopsies are reported in a peer-reviewed article and published in the June 2006 issue of Neurology, the American Academy of Neurology's journal. And they are very encouraging.

On the one hand, "senior moments," or occasional forgetfulness, may in fact be an early sign of Alzheimer's or dementia and not an inevitable consequence of aging. We so often think of forgetting the keys or someone's name as normal but in fact, it really may not be. On the other hand, and here's the good news: most of the participants who died were in their 80s and NONE of them had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's or mild cognitive impairments (which can lead to AD). They had all done well on memory evaluations. But 36% of them or 48 of the 134, had the classic plaques and tangles in the brain consistent with Alzheimer's. Why is this so positive?

It's positive news because once again, it reinforces the idea that "use or lose it" really does work for our brains as well as for our bodies. In fact, a new insight is emerging: if we don't exercise our brains, we may have brain cells that die or are more susceptible to disease. Dr. Carol Lippa, director of memory disorders at Drexel University College of Medicine, points this out in the article.

Regular mental challenge in the form of stimulating mind exercises plus feelings of social connectedness can build up a reserve, or a mental savings account, that we can use, as needed. The other positive addition to our knowledge in this study is that Dr. Bennett and his team also found that by engaging in brain exercises, which includes activities like interactive games, reading, and taking classes on new subjects, we are not only building reserves but may also be building compensation strategies to help us live normal and high-quality lives even though we may have some impairment. So support is building for the idea that certain games, for example, that target specific cognitive skills may help us stretch our brains but may also help us learn particular strategies for remembering or using visual-spatial skills as a compensatory tactic.

Remember, there were no clinical signs of a problem here, except mild episodic memory loss (remembering a story that had been recently read to them). These were high-functioning people who were able to carry on conversations, complete normal tasks like reading and playing games and socializing with friends, even though the researchers later found out that they had already experienced Alzheimer's.

In the article, Dallas Anderson, an Alzheimer's scientist at the National Institute on Aging, called the studies results "very plausible and helpful." I would add, extremely hopeful and positive, too. We have so many reasons to keep on keeping on, especially when it comes to using our brains.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Playing: Important Workout for Our Brains

Last night as I was surfing channels, I came upon a PBS special, "The Power of Play." The documentary gave examples of how important play is in the cognitive and social development of animals and made several critical points, based on extensive research by experts and scientists, who have studied each of the animal groups discussed. Animals who play the most are the most intelligent animals. The frolicking dolphins, playful dogs, scampering chimpanzees, and cuddly sea otters were shown as specific examples. One of the most interesting was the highly brainy crow. In this example, the crow needed to break open nuts to be able to eat them. He was close to a street with heavy traffic. He tried dropping them so that cars ran over them but found it too dicey to scoot among cars to get the goodies. He therefore figured out that dropping the nut just before the cars stopped at the traffic light would give him enough time to swoop down without interference and pick up his snack. Amazing! And crows love to play, too, as anyone knows who's had the ill fortunate to have them descend on a garden.

I am reminded of the many studies that show how important play is for children, whose brains develop mightily as they interact with other children while playing with each other. In these play times, they have the freedom to try new behaviors and figure out which ones work and which ones don't, without a judgmental adult instructing them every minute. Their brains develop, their social skills and friendships grow, and critical lifelong skills are forged, a foundation for life.

I am also reminded of the research on adults at the other end of the age spectrum. The Bronx Aging Study, a longitudinal study of almost 500 adults over more than 20 years, showed that those who engaged in stimulating leisure-time activities, like dancing and challenging, interactive games, had a 65-75% probability of remaining mentally sharp as compared to those who did not "play" on a regular basis. People naturally gravitate to what's fun and entertaining and challenging. Our brains need the exercise and we like the feeling of being totally absorbed in an activity where we won't be judged, we won't get a grade, and we aren't looking for a raise. We're just having fun. As we move through our very serious and ambitious lives, I hope we remember to give our children, and ourselves, the power of play.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006


"Stop, stop!" I heard my mother scream up at me, her hands cupped around her mouth, her head tilted toward the sunny stream of light through the pine trees. But I kept going.

I was 11 and determined to climb to the top of a waterfall in a secluded part of the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Georgia, where my family had a cabin and we often hiked, fished, and swam. The roar of the falling water almost cancelled out the warning sounds of my yelling family. Hanging on to moss and tree limbs, I climbed to one ridge and then to another and another until I spied the top where the stream water spilled clear over mossy rocks and began its sharp descent over the edge into the steep ravine and the beckoning pool below. It looked beautiful, idyllic. I took a quick survey of the situation. It looked doable. I jumped onto the first rock for a body slide all the way down. It was a glorious ride. I picked a perfect path but I didn't count on the mounting velocity and the giant rock that we had all used for resting and sunbathing right smack in the middle of the waiting pool. Yes, I hit it. And I hit it hard. I took on a few scrapes and bruises. But what a glorious ride!

Not too much has changed. I have more tools to work with now, lots of years of experience in life and in business. I have an MBA so of course I believe in calculated risks and careful analysis of probabilities. But I'm still willing to go for a wild ride if I think it is doable, challenging, fun, and adds value.

That's why I'm an entrepreneur. I love creating new businesses and helping ideas grow into valuable additions to lives. I feel passionate about learning new things, taking small and large risks, and continuing to grow as a person, even if I have to suffer a few knicks and scrapes along the way.

I also know that these same values are the ones that can help keep my mind sharp and my life interesting. I've immersed myself in scientific research on keeping the brain fit and the connections among mind, body, and emotions and overall fitness. Physical exercise, good nutrition, stress management, lots of sleep, and mental challenge and stimulation have all undergone rigorous scientific study and we know that there are actions we can take now to substantially raise the probabilities of living longer and living well. I'll be discussing these in this blog. I'll also comment on other related topics.