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Nancy Hogshead-Makar's picture

Health and fitness advice from an Olympic champion in swimming? With three pre-teenage children, full-time employment, and a frequently-traveling husband, I too find it hard to make sports and fitness a priority. In preparation for the Olympics, I swam 800 laps a day, and consistently ran and lifted weights. Even after retirement I’ve generally maintained a healthy lifestyle. But let me make a confession: I didn’t work out for three years after our twins were born.  I didn’t gain weight, so I thought I had little to worry about. But even without weight gain, the detrimental effects of being sedentary were destined to show up. And they did, like a slow train coming. For me, lack of exercise caused anxiety, making sleep very difficult. I couldn’t turn off my brain from unproductive ruminations. Worse, I felt ragged, much more tired than during peak training; I got colds and my asthma flared easily.

And when mamma isn’t happy, nobody is happy… boy is that true in our household.

My three year experience with inactivity taught me that physical fitness does more than create good health; it contributes to my ability to lead, my productivity and my creativity. Even though I wasn’t tested to find out what three years of a sedentary lifestyle did for my bone health, my risk of breast cancer, or heart-disease, it is fair to say that the results wouldn’t have been good.

Studies show my sedentary lifestyle is very common. According to a new campaign called “Designed to Move,” 5.3 million deaths will be attributed to physical inactivity this year alone. To put that into perspective, smoking is responsible for 5 million deaths per year. The trend is worsening; by 2020, most Americans will exert only slightly more energy per week than if they slept 24 hours a day. Lack of physical activity is now one of the most pressing health issues facing us today.

I’ve listed some of the astounding benefits of sports for our kids at MomsRising here, making the case that getting children involved in sports is one of the most important decisions a parent will make. But what about us as adults? The Women’s Sports Foundation and the University of Michigan have established the Women’s Sports, Health and Activity Research and Policy Center (SHARP). SHARP goals include supporting evidence-based public debates and policies that help eliminate obstacles girls and women face in sports participation. A considerable body of research now points to physical activity as a fundamental solution to our national health issues – and possibly yours. The science is clear; fitness is medicine. Actually, it is better than medicine; it’s a therapist, a profession-enhancer, a money-saver, with exhilaration as a frequently-reported side effect.

I’m guessing you’ve heard about the empirical-proven benefits of sports and fitness before: physical fitness will help control your weight and reduce your risk of heart disease, type-2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome. It will strengthen your bones and muscles, improve your mental health and mood and so on. Even though these benefits are obvious, they don’t seem to translate into more of us exercising. But here are a few of the benefits of sports and physical activity that you may not have heard:

  • Young women who participate in sports are more likely to be engaged in their communities, including volunteering, being registered to vote, feeling comfortable making a public statement, following the news and boycotting. Billie Jean King was right: Title IX and sports participation for girls and women really is about social change; it’s revolutionary. As women get comfortable with their bodies through exercise, they get comfortable with their own voice.
  • Sports participation actually causes increases in education, income levels, and productivity in the workforce. While some communities have access to lots of sports options, many communities can only be described as sports deserts, particularly in urban areas. Given the research, I’m wondering what our country’s graduation rates, insurance costs, and our gross domestic product would look like if sports opportunities were doubled.
  • Physical fitness lowers the risk of crime, unplanned pregnancy, addiction and rates of depression.
  • Four hours of exercise a week can cut a woman’s risk of breast cancer in half. HALF.  My grandmother died of breast cancer and, over fifty years later, her grandchildren who knew her still talk about this amazing woman, and I never got to meet her.
  • Women who exercise vigorously while trying to quit smoking are twice as likely to kick the habit than wannabe ex-smokers who don’t work out regularly. You did see the statistic about five million people dying from smoking-related causes per year, right?
  • Finally, there’s a clear relationship between a parent’s exercise habits and a child’s willingness to sustain an active lifestyle.

I hope the last point is especially motivating. I knew that becoming a mother meant that my life wouldn’t be so much about me anymore.  But I hadn’t adjusted to the idea that being a member of “Team Hogshead-Makar” meant that I’m not only a coach on the sidelines, I’m on the court too. As a team player, I have to make a conscious and active effort to exercise, and to pay close attention to my children’s development through physical activity. As a coach and teammate, I am their first role-model.

Today I consider a hard workout to be one of my guilty pleasures. All that sweating and lung-heaving in my youth gave me the gift of enjoying sports as an adult. For this, I can thank Title IX, the federal law requiring equal educational opportunities for males and females, including extracurricular activities like athletics for my college scholarship and Olympic gold medals. My involvement with sports as a child certainly gave me physical literacy, and I want to provide that gift of enjoying sports and physically challenging activities for my three kids. Every woman deserves the opportunity to be healthy, happy and herself, which can’t happen without physical fitness.

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