jo skates

Skating in the key of life

Brain matters


The New York Times came out with another article in support of adult skating: well, actually in support of country dancing for older people. The University of Illinois did a study comparing the effects of walking, gentle stretching/balance training, and dancing on a group of people in their 60s and 70s who, while all healthy, were fairly sedentary. After six months, the group that was participated in regular bouts of country-dance choreography (three times a week for hour-long sessions) was the only group to show improvement in the brain’s white matter. White matter is the “wiring” of the brain: specialized cells and their offshoots that pass messages from neuron to neuron and from part of the brain to another. This slows down as the brain ages (as I can attest to, unfortunately!)

This group of country-line dancers actually showed improvements in the density of the white matter in their fornixes (the part of the brain associated with processing speed and memory). While the other groups improved their general fitness, they did not show this increase. While six months of tests didn’t reveal changes in cognitive ability for any of the groups, the conclusions looked promising for the benefits of dance.

But what about skating? Well, between all those challenging sequences of moves and the fact that I am trying to move in ways that feel entirely new to me, I would expect that my brain is getting rewired every time I step out onto the ice. Even if I never pass another skating test, my white brain matter will just get denser and denser. And that’s a good thing. Now where did I leave my keys?

So after yet another lesson that proved I wasn’t really on a left forward outside edge when I thought I was, I have come to the conclusion that I need to set my new foot down waaaay outside the circle that I think I am making. It feels like I have to exaggerate and cross my left thigh in front of the right. When I do this (both on and off the ice), I can definitely feel a stretch in the muscles of my hip joint: those same familiar muscles that have been tight for years now.

So now I have another way of assessing my body mechanics: if I don’t feel that stretch, I’m definitely not far enough over. Practicing this the last couple of days has made me aware of (a) how much better this is than how I used to skate, and (b) how much strength and mobility I still need to develop in that left hip. My left glutes are pretty sore!

Laurie gave me another exercise that I am using to put some mobility back in my ankles as well as check my alignment. I strike out on an edge, bring my feet together (am trying to practice good foot positions with toes actually touching), do a little extra rise and bend with my ankle and knee, and then do that “bob” again just before pushing into the next edge. We started doing this on progressives, and I have been trying it with other sequences as well.

This reminds me of an exercise I got a long time ago when I was taking lessons with Bert Wright in LA. He would have me do an edge and then bob up and down on it to get the correct alignment. Laurie has added the push, which means that I have to use the motion to deepen the edge into the push. This has made me really aware of my ankle motion, which I will write about in another post.

Boy, my brain’s white matter must be getting denser, because I’m remembering all too well how much work skating is. And how tired those muscles can feel at the end of the day. Time to get out the foam roller!


Author: Joskates

Don't see me on the ice? I may be in the classroom or at the theater, or hanging out with my family and friends.

4 thoughts on “Brain matters

  1. Wow, that’s super encouraging, Jo. It is pretty amazing how our brains can be challenged by choreography and the intricacies of ice dance/step sequences but we can never remember where we put our keys. 🙂


  2. Amazing and a bit scary, Eva! That’s why I keep my socks in the same drawers and why Ari wants me to put my three turns on a line!


  3. Not surprised that walking didn’t impact white matter density. Maybe walking is big news for a one year old but not much in the way of new processing or mental integration is required of peeps who have been staggering around on their pins for 60 or 70 years. But, a good control for the study.

    Now dancing, be it on or off the ice, not only requires memorization of the steps but also proper execution of the steps, in time with music, and usually with the added complication of a partner. Some days I’m cheerfully processing so much new information that I think my head will explode! Of course there are those instances when my brain freezes and I can’t remember the next step of the dance which is coming up right, about, NOW. This is regardless of me successfully completing the very same pattern, oh maybe 30 seconds earlier. Brain fade leaves me muttering words filled with anger, frustration and injury– words like Dagnabbit!


  4. I love Dagnabbit! That’s my new favorite expression–and I’m sure will be a welcome change from my usual profanity. I think you’re right, George–either our heads are full or we blank out. How quickly the brain can misfire!


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