Running All The Way To The O.R.

Players in a glass-backed squash court
Image via Wikipedia

For some of us, movement is life. Running, biking, playing competitive sports, winning medals or trophies or beating our personal bests. When my dearly beloved red convertible was stolen, pillaged for parts and ditched on a nearby road, I went to the police lot to retrieve what was left of value — all my sports gear in the trunk: a winch handle for sail racing, softball gear and my squash raquets.

In a country plagued by obesity, it’s hard to remember that for every 350-pound person unable to maneuver easily, or those for whom exercise and sports are anathema, there’s someone eagerly lacing up their sneakers or sliding into their canoe or kayak.

Writes Gina Kolata in The New York Times:

Our behavior, said the expert, Dr. Jon L. Schriner, an osteopath at the Michigan Center for Athletic Medicine, is “compulsive”: we let our egos get in the way, persisting beyond all reason.

But another expert recommended by the college, David B. Coppel, a clinical and sports psychologist at the University of Washington, has another perspective. There are several reasons some people find it hard to switch sports, he told me. Often, their friends do that sport, too; it is how these people identify themselves, part of their social life. And then there is another, more elusive factor.

“There is something about the experience — be it figure skating or running or cycling — that really produces a pleasurable experience,” Dr. Coppel said. “That connection is probably not only at a psychological level but probably also something physiological that potentially makes it harder for these people to transition to other sports.”

Jennifer Davis, a physical chemist who is my cycling, running and weight-lifting partner, adds another reason. Often we stubborn athletes — and Jen, an ultra runner who competes in races longer than marathons, includes herself in that group — have found that we do well, get trophies, win at least our age group in races. That makes it hard to stop.

I think about this a lot. I normally bike, walk, do a jazz dance class, swim, skate, ski, play softball (second base) and almost anything that doesn’t involve heights. I had to give up squash after blowing out both my knees and now, with severe osteoarthritis in one hip, am losing almost all my other sports. In so doing, I’m losing myself.

What people who hate to exercise don’t get are all the many pleasures it provides, from my pals on my softball team to my fistful of fencing medals. Being athletic and strong, flexible and quick, skilled and competent is a core piece of my identity and has been for my entire life.

I don’t have kids or pets or hobbies or any deep political or religious affiliations, some of the things to which many people tie their identity and self-worth. I do live for the pleasure of knowing my body remains strong and flexible.

Today’s doctor, the fifth specialist I’ve seen since March, told me, reassuringly, that after my (eventual) hip replacement, I can play tennis. I appreciated his sentiment — that I’ll regain some of my sports — but we choose our activities for all sorts of reasons.

I hate tennis!

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Amanda Knox Awaits A Verdict, The Seattle Student Accused Of Briton's Murder In Italy

PERUGIA, ITALY - JUNE 13: Amanda Knox and her ...
Amanda Knox. Image by Getty Images via Daylife

The sensational murder trial of Seattle student Amanda Knox, 21, which began January 16, 2009, has ended, with closing arguments that lasted seven hours in an Italian courtroom. The case has attracted worldwide attention for the college-age lovers, as her Italian boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito has also been charged with the murder. The two met at a concert only two weeks before the murder.

On November 1, Meredith Kercher, a 21-year-old British woman sharing a Perugia apartment with Knox and two others, was brutally stabbed. Kercher’s father, a journalist, is writing a book about it.

The case, said Newsweek, has already destroyed the lives of everyone it has touched.

It is hard to feel sorry for prisoners who are serving hard time for heinous crimes. But Knox is not a convict, and yet her life has fallen apart. Between the trial (which resumes Monday), the constant media blitz (she is a tabloid sensation across the Western Hemisphere), and the expenses, the experience has essentially wrecked her adulthood. Thing is, she’s not alone. The collateral damage from Kercher’s tragic murder now spans from Seattle to London and Bari to Perugia. Her co-defendant and former boyfriend, Rafaelle Sollecito, is also being held in prison during the trial; his lawyers say he is suffering from health issues, including depression and acute gastroenteritis from stress. Meanwhile, her parents are broke, the victim’s parents are distraught, and even the lawyers who got involved with this case have come to regret it. The Knox trial is poison: nearly everyone it has touched so far has suffered irreparable psychological and financial harm.

Parlez-Vous? Habla Usted? How a Second Language Makes You Smarter

What is this language?
Image by KateMonkey via Flickr

It’s easier if you grow up in a country where English is not the mother tongue. Or a country with several official languages. In Canada, it’s English and French, so everything you buy across the country is labeled in two languages. Kids there simply grow up with French (or English) right in their face on cereal boxes and aspirin bottles.  If one or both of your parents speaks a second or third language, you may have grown up switching languages as easily as changing your shoes.  There are so many subtle and interesting concepts for which English has no word or even a direct translation and very few foreign-language authors end up translated into English.

Toggling between worlds and the words they express jump-starts the brain in many ways. Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the Institute for Learning and Brain Studies at the University of Washington,  was interviewed today on one of my favorite shows, the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC, and had some fascinating things to say about why it’s worth learning another language. These included “cognitive flexibility” and “attentional switching” — the ease with which your brain can click from one mode to another and back again, values that seem to be in growing demand in our knowledge-based economy that increasingly demands great skill at multi-tasking. That’s not just remembering pain means bread, but having the brainpower to zap back and forth conceptually.

“Kids and adults get into the habit of deciding what language to be using,” she told Brian. They learn that “everything has two different names.” (Well, maybve even 4 or 8 names if you acquire that many additional languages. You’re an ignorant boob in Europe if you only speak two or three.) That’s a mighty powerful choice as it means being able to listen to, and as a result culturally comprehend, a much wider world than English alone can offer.

As a result of mastering a second language, Kuhl says, “kids are faster and more accurate at inventing a solution” to problems. And two of the fastest-growing fields in this sagging economy — health care and education — really need workers who can speak more than English. The U.S. may be a melting pot, but many immigrants just don’t know all the English words they need, certainly in medical emergencies. Continue reading “Parlez-Vous? Habla Usted? How a Second Language Makes You Smarter”