Ann Smith US Airways

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Ann Smith: This 79 year old dance instructor is in better shape than most people half her age. Here’s why.

By Joe David

In today’s stress-filled world, a little exercise can go a long way. Fitness experts are now telling us that, with a little discipline, nearly all of us can have healthy, flexible bodies. And this is true regardless of age.

But if we want to get started, where do we begin? One of the most important, and often most neglected, elements of any physical regimen is the one that’s easiest — stretching. And there are few professionals who know more about extending flexibility than a dancer.

So I turned to classical-dance exercise teacher Ann Smith. Although she’s nearly 80 years old, Smith has the body strength and conditioning of someone decades younger. In fact, she has no difficulty keeping up and even outrunning her nine grandchildren, who range in age from 10 to 28.

Smith starts her day by stretching. “Every morning for ten minutes, I adapt the basic stretch exercises of the ballet and modern dancer and stretch to my favorite music. Unlike athletes who spot stretch, I do what many dancers do — slow, connected, continuous stretching, which involves my entire body. It’s that simple.”

According to Smith, dancers live longer and healthier lives; she attributes this to the combination of music and movement. Others are beginning to agree — even doctors are discovering her approach to good health. As a result, she is quietly building a name for herself by using her videos and guest lectures to demonstrate how the basic stretch-exercise program of ballet and modern dance can be adapted to the needs of non-dancers.

Smith, who has been teaching for over 50 years, has also done considerable research in physical therapy and rehabilitation. Her first book, Stretch, published in 1969, created a new public interest in the exercise, and it paved the way for newspaper syndication, articles in Seventeen and Ladies’ Home Journal, radio and television appearances, and more books. In 1997, she made her first videotape, Stretch Exercise with Ann Smith (also marketed as Stretching for Seniors), which caught on and led to four more tapes. Today she travels the country, teaching folks over age 50. She discusses health related issues and how we can regain control of our bodies by stretching.

Learning the value of stretch exercising came to her slowly. “My mother, who was an interpretative dancer of the Isadora Duncan style, used to stress to me that a dancer’s strength all comes from the inner core.” Smith placed her fingertips on her flat stomach. “It’s here, in the viscera, where your control mechanism is. When properly developed, it can become an important source of physical strength.”

Some years later, Smith had an opportunity to test her mother’s idea while she was visiting a state rehab hospital. In the process she also made an important discovery. At the time, she was observing several motorcyclists who were paralyzed from the waist down. They were practicing how to rise from a mat or lift themselves from a chair. She noticed that while practicing, the patients were depending solely on the strength of their biceps and triceps. Remembering her mother’s words, she suggested that they use the intercostal muscles between their ribs: It would give them more strength.

Smith got down on the mat to demonstrate. Stretching her arms to full extension, she combined the strength of both her biceps and triceps with the strength of the many connecting muscles extending from her inner core to her arms to lift herself more efficiently. “If you rely on just your triceps and biceps for strength,” she told them, “you will only develop those muscles, and you’ll neglect the others.” When the patients started to follow her advice, Smith says, “they found they were able to raise their bodies easier.”

Later, while teaching a series of classes, she learned another important lesson. “I was offered a class for a 50-plus group who had the usual potential health problems. To my surprise, I discovered that I was also attracting people in their twenties. To work with the two significantly different age groups at the same time, I conducted all exercises in slow motion. That way, I could handle everyone at once. I learned that slow, tensor-muscle stretching is better than intense, flexor-muscle usage, because it gives you more control of your movement and reduces the chance of bodily injury.”

While preparing some disabled students for exercising, she accidentally made a third discovery: the
healing effects of the right music (i.e., music that connects emotionally with the individual). One woman who had suffered severe pain because of a disability wouldn’t allow a therapist to work with her. At the time, the woman had limited body control. All that quickly changed when Smith played some classical music for her. Almost immediately the woman began to respond. First her head started to sway slightly to the music, then her foot, and then her hand. Once relaxed, the pressure on her injury was reduced, easing her pain. “That’s when I decided to always use music that emotionally connects with my students.”

To demonstrate how easy and natural the exercises can be, Smith turned on a Mozart piano sonata and started moving to the flowing music. Each movement connected effortlessly with the next to become one graceful, even flow. She began with the head and neck area and worked down the body, engaging the arms, torso, legs, and feet. “By stretching like this,” she said, “you are enjoying the benefit of aerobics — because of your deep breathing, of isometrics, and because of your continuous stretching.”

When I showed amazement at how far Smith could stretch, she told me that the fastest woman on the planet, the late Olympic gold medalist, Florence Griffith Joyner, gave her a tip she never forgot: “Stretch to your full extension, then relax in that position for a few moments, then stretch from there. By doing that, you are able to push yourself just a little further each time without causing injury — but you must never, never push yourself beyond what you can comfortably do.”

Although athletes develop big outer muscle groups for competitive sports by rigorous weight lifting, many don’t have the muscle elasticity of dancers. “How much greater their agility would be,” she added, “if they would also develop their flexible strength like dancers.”

Smith believes that popular exercise programs don’t work for most Americans because most exercises don’t relate to their lifestyle. To increase strength and master good body control, you don’t need trendy health clubs and equipment. You should do the types of exercises that best relate to your lifestyle.

Smith adds: “To enjoy a longer, healthier life, walk more and ride less, use stairs instead of elevators, and stretch vertically to avoid slumping.” Her five steps to better physical and mental well-being — as learned from classical dance — are:

1 RELAX BEFORE STARTING.
This is imperative. Relaxing enables you to align your body naturally. Exercising with a tense body can easily lead to injury.

2 BRING YOUR BODY INTO PROPER ALIGNMENT.
First, stand erect. Pretend a line is running through your center from the tip of your head to the floor, separating your body into equal halves. Next, lift your body weight by pulling your rib cage up. This places your strength in the center of your torso and takes the strain away from your knees, hips, and lower back.

3 STRETCH WITH SLOW, CONTINUOUS MOVEMENT.
Each stretch should connect gracefully with the previous movement, from one muscle group to the next. Spot stretching is beneficial but isn’t as good for you as a slow, connecting, whole-body stretch. Steady, continuous stretching helps develop more physical strength.

4 TAP INTO YOUR INNER CORE.

Your strength must come from the inside of the torso. To move with strength from any position at any given time, a dancer must develop a strong inner core, achieved through the slow, continuous stretching of the muscles.

5 EXERCISE DAILY.

This is as important as eating and sleeping. For starters, it could be as simple as stretching
(in conjunction with deep inhaling/exhaling) in bed upon awakening.

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