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Saturday, March 12, 2016

What I Wish For Your Daughter: Girls and Physical Activity

It would be an understatement to say athletics was not important in my family, especially for girls. Beyond watching football games on TV, there was not much going on physically.

My father had been a runner in high school and junior high, bequeathing his medals first to me and then his grandson (and yes, we still have them). I liked running too as a child, but some kind of exercise-related asthma meant I could never go the distance as I would have wanted to do.

My mother moved not at all, unless it was to participate in everyday activities that wouldn’t get your heart pumping, let alone racing. So when it came to games like softball at camp, I was always the last one picked for the team.

Looking back now, I agree I was not what you’d want behind a baseball bat. I absolutely stunk at softball. But I loved games like soccer (which I discovered in junior high) because I had really strong legs. And what twelve-year-old in her right mind wouldn’t welcome the chance to kick something really hard?

What I wish I could have told my parents was that physical activity isn’t just important for both genders—it’s essential. Working in a care community for older adults I see all sorts of problems people are having physically. I can’t help but wonder if some of them could have been mitigated if we'd all known more about exercise.

It wasn’t until I became a mom that I started integrating exercise into my life in a real way. Before that, I was not doing much beyond walking—though I luckily lived in New York for a while and pretty much walked everywhere.

But when our family moved to Minnesota and my son was born, I started taking him on walks along the river and when he got a little older, put him a trailer and pulled him on my bike. I found the time I spent doing this cleared my head in ways nothing else could.

When his dad and I divorced, I found a part-time job at a non-profit called Melpomene Institute for Women’s Health, named for the first woman to run an Olympic marathon. It was founded by a woman named Judy Mahle Lutter, who started running when her kids were small, just to get out of the house when her husband came home from his run.

I don’t want to say working at Melpomene changed my life, but it changed my life. The eight-person office was run entirely by women and everyone was active to some degree—regardless of weight, interests or ability. Some were all-out athletes and others book-loving armchair dwellers, but everyone found some kind of physical activity they enjoyed and was doing it.

About a year or so after I started working at Melpomene, I remarried, moved again, and joined a gym. I had always thought of gyms as places where Rocky Balboa worked out and guys oiled their muscles incessantly. The gym I found was an all-woman fitness facility that offered personal training and was full of women just like me.

What I found there, for the first time in my life, was what it felt like to have a body. I know that sounds weird because everyone has a body, but when you are raised never to think about it (beyond how you might look in a bikini), being IN that body is a pretty amazing thing.

What I learned, ultimately, was I had muscles that were alive and that could bring me from point A to point Z if I needed them to; that my legs had an elasticity that could be exhilarating; that each one of my arms could actually lift a 12 pound weight and get used to doing that; and that I was alive from head to toe, not just head to neck.

It was like waking up after a long, long nap—if you happen to be Rip Van Winkle.

These days, a full-time job and too many commitments are keeping me from getting to the gym every other day. I do still walk on weekends and use the weights I have at home; but winters are long and I find myself desperately looking forward to spring because an exercycle in my living room just doesn’t cut it.

And from time to time, I think about those twelve-year-old gym days on a soccer field. I fantasize about joining or creating a neighborhood soccer team where we play other teams every couple weeks and practice weekly.

I don’t know if this will ever happen or how I could even make it happen. But I’m thinking about it. I’m also thinking about how it was to be twelve, on the cusp of a world of adolescent angst with no real physical outlet.

Being the mother of a son, I saw him work through a lot of frustrations through sports and I also saw how much joy it gave him. If I ever had a daughter, I would want her to have the same thing.

I’m pleased to see that girls are encouraged to participate in sports and physical activity as much as boys now. But if you have a daughter who hangs back, or is the last person to be picked for her team, what can you do?

If it were my daughter, I would talk to her. Ask what she likes to do and if she doesn’t know, ask if she wants to find out. Because physical activity doesn’t have to be softball or boxing or even soccer. It can be dancing, and I don’t just mean ballet or jazz. It can be something like middle-eastern dance too.

Physical activity can also involve swimming or weight lifting or walking or even juggling. What you’re looking for, mainly, is a way to be in your body instead of just “of” it. And (as you already know) that's not about how you look; it’s about how you feel, how you deal with stress, and about living a healthy life with less illness and downtime.

Because we all deserve that, don’t we? Including you. Including me.

For more on physical activity and girls:

Empowering Girls and Women Through Sport and Physical Activity: Women Win