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February 3, 2019

My Healthy Midlife Crisis: How Learning Something New Saved My Sanity.

When I heard the stomping, clapping, yelling, whistle-blowing, rattle-shaking crowd of hundreds, I felt as if I were going to regurgitate my heart as it attempted to thump its way up my throat with the determined futility of a toad trying to jump out of a well. My bowels were like ice and my salivary glands seemed to be on vacation. I knew if I drank water, it would immediately go through me. Visions of creating history with amber liquid running down my leg in front of the audience made me want to laugh and cry at the same time. The ensemble I was wearing was as practical as a wedding dress: layers of complicated clothing that had to be systematically taken off, unbuttoned, or pulled down in reverse order, so there was no quick trip to the powder room.

Finally, the announcer called our team: Circle City Theatre on Ice. As I stepped onto the ice with my teammates, whose ages ranged from 20 – 78, I reminded myself that I’d signed up for this. The six months of practice, bruised knees, and learning routines only to unlearn them as the choreography changed, was my choice. I wanted this. I took a deep breath and tried to relax. This wasn’t the Olympics, after all. It was a fun competition between adult skaters.

Except that it was Theatre on Ice Nationals, not some small local event, and we only got one minute to warm up before getting into our starting position. That’s enough time to circle the rink twice. For a 45-year-old who had never skated as a child, it was barely enough time for my body to register that it was moving across ice with 4mm blades on the bottoms of my boots that were sharp enough to slice a carrot. Heart pounding, I remembered to breathe deeply and slowly, appreciating the salesman, pediatric nurse, registered dietician, speech pathologist, retired parole officer, and other intelligent adults with busy lives who were now on the ice with me, waiting with bated breath for the music to start.

I wanted to skate from a young age. I remember watching the Olympics, barely breathing as I saw girls in sequined, brightly-colored costumes executing jumps and spins with the grace of a ballerina and the power of Derby horse. They were beautiful and strong, like She-Ra and Wonder Woman. Katarina Witt and Kristi Yamaguchi were superheroes to me, and I longed to be one of them.

When I asked my mother about it, she reminded me that we were in the middle of nowhere in southern Indiana, miles from a rink.  More importantly, I had heard more than once the story of how my great-grandma was initiated into ice skating by her older brother. He had thought it would be funny to give her a friendly shove as she stepped onto the frozen pond for the first time. She fell and hit her head, permanently damaging her optic nerve. At age 16, she started to go blind. By the time I knew her, she could only see shadows. So I didn’t skate as a child or teenager. Not even once. Apparently convinced that I couldn’t get a traumatic head injury doing flips through the air, my mom enrolled me in gymnastics instead.

I started skating at age 39, which is somewhat unusual. A large percentage of adult skaters I’ve met skated as kids, maybe even competitively, quit as they grew older and had children, and then were drawn back to it. I am proof that adults are capable of learning complicated things at an older age. My grandma, who learned to paint at age 70, was part of the inspiration to try my hand (or foot, rather) at ice skating. I call it my mid-life crisis.

I was working in a high-level position that gave me insomnia from trying to do more in a day that was humanly possible, and one of my employees suggested ice skating at the local outdoor rink for our winter holiday party. I took to the ice like a baby bird takes to the air: a little tentative and awkward at first, but it soon felt natural. I quickly figured out how to skate backwards a little by moving my hips and using the inside edges of my blades. Stopping took a bit longer to learn, but hey, that’s what the walls are for. I soon signed up for group lessons and then started taking private lessons. After five months, I did my first jump: it felt like flying. Six years later, I ended up on our local Theatre on Ice adult team.  

Thanks to skating, I’m in better shape at 45 than I was at 25. Skating is excellent exercise that feels more like play than work, allowing me to maintain my fitness with ease throughout my “middle years.” Skating has also had a positive impact on me psychologically, helping me to stay balanced and maintain my sanity among the never-ending hamster-wheel of life and bills, fluctuating hormones, and the overall unpredictable state of the world. Here are some of the mind-balancing benefits:

  1. Learning new things helps the brain develop neural networks that didn’t previously exist, increasing its neuroplasticity, keeping the brain “fit” and in shape. Since the brain loves novelty and there’s always something new to learn in figure skating, skaters get an energizing shot of dopamine. Add the serotonin boost that comes from exercising, and we have a balancing feel-good cocktail. This is particularly helpful for getting through the cold, dark months of winter.  
  2. Intense focus is required to keep our asses off the ice. Having something specific on which to focus slows down the chaotic activity of “monkey mind,” enabling even the worst meditators to reap the calming benefits of one-pointed focus.
  3.  Since skating requires the activation of the core muscles, this activity stimulates the vagus nerve, the long nerve that connects the belly to the brain, creating a parasympathetic response that keeps us relaxed throughout the day.  This “rest and digest” phase also supports a healthy immune system.
  4. As an adult, it’s sometimes hard to make new friends. When I moved to Indianapolis four years ago, I immediately got plugged in to the adult skating community, where I found support and friendship.  I met one of my closest friends at the rink!


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