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A Better You | Body Check

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Tips to keep your body going for the long run

By Suzanne Martin, PT, DPT

For dancers, pain is a way of life. And as teachers, after years of accepting the physical discomfort caused by rigorous training, rehearsal, and performance, we may end up with a skewed perspective on how much discomfort is acceptable. It’s time to rethink what’s acceptable for your body from a health-and-wellness point of view.

Every occupation has its physical pitfalls—office workers sit too much, waitresses stand too many hours, nurses lean over bed rails or lift woozy patients. But while those workers might, say, recognize and care for an aching back, a dance teacher might work through it, then forget about it.

Here’s a way to tally up some of the wear-and-tear on your body: add up how many hours you spent training as well as working. When will you be able to retire? Add your working hours until that date as well. (For example, I estimate I’ll have to work 15 more years before retirement. At 40 hours per week for 50 weeks per year, that’s 30,000 more hours!) Your lifetime total gives you an idea of the physical toll dance has taken—and will take—on your body. Now think—what does retirement mean to a dancer or dance teacher? Taking a seat? Doubtful. We aren’t exactly a population that likes to be inactive.

How can you get through a demanding career and still have enough physical stamina and working body parts to enjoy retirement? It all comes down to one simple word—maintenance. Here are some tips on how to maximize your physicality for the long haul.

Make yourself top priority
First off, don’t put your body’s health on the back burner. From family needs to business woes, there are many good reasons why teachers don’t get started on self-care and maintenance. But good reasons and excuses are two different things. “I just don’t have the time” is a major excuse. You’ll have plenty of time if you are forced out of work by health issues, “elective” surgeries such as joint replacement, or exhaustion. But that’s not a good strategy.

Other reasons for procrastination range from fear of success to fear of failure. (Yes, both play a part.) Others around you may not want you to succeed by looking better or feeling better than they do. Complainers and naysayers want you to stay stuck in your unhealthy patterns of behavior so that they don’t feel guilty about their own bad habits. Refuse to be controlled by peer and popular pressure, and stand firm for your own health and well-being.

Don’t look at your health as an “all-or-nothing” enterprise. Since most dancers are always striving toward perfection, you might be hesitant to start a well-being program if you don’t believe you can do it all, and at 100 percent, yet. In body maintenance, keeping an open mind pays off. How do we tame any overwhelming “Godzilla” ideas into a doable plan? By becoming a “Godzilla-whisperer,” gently and consistently nudging the beast with a bit of nurturing and stability. With a little thinking and flexibility, you can come up with a manageable healthcare plan.

Your good-health team
Don’t wait for a crisis to strike before you find a healthcare team, which should include a general physician, a gynecologist, plus any needed medical specialists. Above and beyond checkups, you also need complementary care such as fitness workouts and some sort of body work such as manual therapy from a qualified therapist or masseuse, or my favorite, acupuncture.

Teachers may not realize how much these healthcare modalities can help keep them pain free and functioning at top physical form. But seeing is believing. For example, the ballet company I work with has agreed to a multidisciplinary approach to meeting the well-being and healthcare needs of its dancers, and it sees that its investment is justified when dancers experience fewer injuries.

It’s the same thing with dance teachers or professionals in any physical occupation. One annual spa treatment is better than zero. But a consistent conditioning program, along with intermittent visits to a masseuse, movement specialist, or acupuncturist, can reap benefits and save money in the long run. To find a practitioner who matches your values, lifestyle, and health and fitness goals, ask around for referrals.

These complementary components may seem self-indulgent and expensive, but they can be surprisingly accessible in most communities. There is a free dancer wellness clinic at a dance center in the San Francisco area. Low-cost care is often available from interns at massage schools, acupuncture schools, or chiropractic colleges. I even got my first pair of orthotics at a reduced price from the local podiatry school.

Make time for yourself
No time? Be honest—you make sure to schedule your hair care visits or map out your activity planner for the school year. Give as much attention to your health care. Look ahead and pencil in your workouts and complementary care appointments. If you think others might perceive you as self-indulgent (or judge that your tuition could be lower if you cut out the extras), take a tip from my high-profile clients, such as physicians and lawyers. They tell others that they have a “medical” appointment rather than a massage or facial. Protect yourself. Self-care takes moral fortitude.

Be realistic: look for ways to give your body a rest every three or four months. I schedule conferences and other trainings specifically for this reason. Spa vacations on their own may not be doable, but you can add a spa service or two at these enforced getaways. And don’t forget the fringe benefits—one reason I get my nails done is because the nail clinicians give killer forearm and calf massages. And don’t forget to take advantage of last-minute cancellations or schedule changes that can provide much-needed mini-breaks.

Target neglected areas
Don’t be fooled that the movement you do while teaching class is adequate exercise. Dancers suffer most from overuse of muscles due to repetitive movements. To combat this, design a home exercise maintenance plan for busy days and for when you travel. Include movements from stretching, yoga, and general fitness that target body parts that you don’t work while teaching, perhaps your upper body or core. Include activities such as light joint mobilizations, Thera-Band exercises, or rolling your foot on a tennis ball on a regular basis. Concentrate on high-wear-and-tear areas like knees by strengthening hips and ankles. Remember: it doesn’t have to be a thorough hour-long barre. A little goes a long way. No perfectionism!

Protect yourself
Paying attention to ergonomics should not be limited to your time sitting at a computer. Be sensible. Find good footwear and allow yourself to sit intermittently during long hours of teaching. Protect your ears as well. I worked with one pianist who played so loudly that my ears hurt after class. Wear earplugs when you need them. Hearing loss can come at any time and any age.

How do you know when to seek help? First, any pain should get attention. Try what doctors refer to as RICE—rest, ice, compression, and elevation—and see if the body part will respond. The rule of thumb is that if the pain doesn’t go away in 7 to 10 days, seek medical attention. Most minor dings will respond quickly to home care, but don’t teach for weeks in pain without getting an outside opinion.

Be smart. Protect yourself. Stand firm. Every investment in your health today will pay dividends tomorrow. Think of it this way—if you go to the gym or a medical appointment, your family and friends might miss you for an hour. But if you take that hour, chances are they will enjoy your company for years to come.

I have faith in you. 

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