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Trying new activities benefits the body and the brain

Pam LeBlanc
pleblanc@statesman.com
Columnist Pam LeBlanc found myriad ways to get her hair wet, including bull-riding lessons, trampoline training, a roller derby tryout, pole vaulting, surfing, a workout at Red Rocks, belly dancing, water skiing and marathon running.

Call me an overgrown kid, but the idea of sitting on a towel while the little ones soar off the diving board perfecting cannonballs makes me a little sad.

I'd rather be leaping right alongside them.

Just because you no longer eat Lucky Charms or use Mr. Bubble doesn't mean you only get to watch. Not only will it remind you what it's like to be 12 again, it'll help keep you fit.

While sipping coffee recently with Meredith Walker, producer of the online show "Smart Girls at the Party," we mourned the poor folks who quit bouncing on trampolines or rolling somersaults when they turned 30.

Not us.

Walker calls it the "Get Your Hair Wet" mentality. She's not about to lounge on the sidelines while everyone else hula dances, rock climbs or scuba dives.

It's a philosophy that shines through her work on "Smart Girls," hosted by her friend, comedian Amy Poehler. The show highlights girls "who are changing the world by being themselves." One recent episode featured a young Austin triathlete. Others have featured pint-sized yogis and budding musicians. (Check it out at www.smartgirlsatthe party.com).

"Playing is the best way to keep the truest part of yourself alive," Walker says. "I go to Deep Eddy and see so many adults there who only go in waist deep. I say get your hair wet. Play! Frolic! You don't lose your turn — it's always your turn. Playing is ageless."

That same mindset has permeated my life. I want to join in. I don't care if I look like a fool — and I often do.

I know I'm extra lucky because it's part of my job to tackle new adventures. But even before I made a career out of fitness, I made it a point to challenge myself with new physical activities every year.

I learned to run a slalom course on water skis when I was 41. Since then, I've tried windsurfing, flying on a trapeze, paddling an outrigger canoe and surfing. I tried out for the Texas Rollergirls when I was 44, ran my first marathon when I was 45, started practicing yoga when I was 46 and swam 28 miles around Manhattan Island as part of a relay when I was 47.

This year, I entered my first trail running race, a 25-kilometer jaunt through Big Bend National Park. It didn't matter that I was so slow that half the field passed me. It only mattered that I had fun and got some exercise.

In the past year I also started horseback riding, something I hadn't done since I was a teenager. And I even tried pole vaulting.

Walker keeps her hair wet by stand-up paddling, riding a personal watercraft and hiking. For her birthday this year, she and her boyfriend went to Jumpoline, where they were the only adults bouncing on trampolines like popcorn on a hot skillet. "We jumped and fell and got our hair wet with sweat," Walker says.

It's not just us. I watched mesmerized recently as a 40-something man parked his car, unloaded a skateboard and prepared to rocket down a very steep hill. He definitely got his hair wet. (But I worried for his safety!)

I checked with TeamTexas swim coach Keith Bell, a sports consultant and retired sports psychologist, to get his thoughts on wet hair. He told me that doing the same thing all the time can cause synaptic rutting.

"It seems to be that it's good for the brain to go different ways, whether it's taking a different route or doing different things," Bell says.

We know exercise helps keep the brain healthy. Apparently, mixing up that exercise adds to that benefit.

"You commonly hear it's good for the brain to learn to speak a different language or pick up an instrument," Bell says. "I think it's the same for exercise."

Habits, though, are hard to crack, and much of what we do daily we do unthinkingly. If you're in the habit of sitting and watching TV after work, for example, it's hard to change. Some stimulus (walking past the TV, perhaps) invokes the habit, and without really thinking you plop yourself down and flip on the set.

"If we use some cue to go out and do something physical instead of sitting around, and get some reward, we start interfering with that habit and start building a new habit," Bell says. "It's a great way to replace drinking or smoking or some habit you're trying to get rid of with running or soccer or swimming."

Trying new sports has a social benefit as well. Joining a running group or swim team plugs you into a new social community. You won't mingle with the same folks at a 5K race as you do at the office. That's a good thing. "Especially as people get older, they need more of that," Bell says.

Challenging your body with different things keeps your muscles surprised and your mind engaged. "Variety in life is nice — living life and exploring different things instead of going through the same thing every day," Bell says.

One note of caution: Make sure you've got your body's best interest in mind when you pick an activity. "When you're 70 is not the time to pick up football or gymnastics," Bell says. "Yoga or swimming is a lot more attractive."

All this leads me to wonder — what'll I do when I hit 50 in two years? You can bet it'll involve getting my hair very, very wet.

Contact Pam LeBlanc at 445-3994; Twitter: @FitCityLeBlanc