Dr. Jane Pettinga with Dr. Barb
Barb: Today our guest is Dr. Jane Pettinga. Jane is a general surgeon at Holland Hospital, specializing in breast cancer treatment, prevention and risk assessment. She is a graduate of Wayne State University and has been practicing medicine for 37 years. Jane and I actually spent some time serving patients together in Holland Hospital’s High Risk Breast Clinic.
Today we’re going to talk a little bit more about women’s health and, specifically, breast cancer and some of the opportunities for risk reduction and prevention and also some screening. So, thanks for joining me today, Jane.
Jane: Pleasure to be here.
Barb: First I’d just like to hear more about how you ended up being a specialized general surgeon in breast, because that’s a bit unusual, and you might have been one of the early breast surgeons.
Jane: One of the first breast surgeons probably in the country—a handful of us. I was sort of heading towards family medicine, but when I did my surgery rotations, I just had so much fun, and it's so nice to see immediate results. So often in medicine, results come slowly over the years.
Then when I finished my training in surgery, I had one child and one on the way and was married to a very busy surgeon. I really wanted our kids to know their parents, so I looked for something I could do where I could control my time. An opportunity arose for me to join an older surgeon, who was a wonderful man, who was doing just breast surgery. Probably one of the first in the country. And I thought, well, I didn’t do ObGyn because I didn’t want to just take care of women, but I’ll give it a try. And it turned out that it was very challenging and very rewarding, and patients are just wonderful. It’s changed so much over the 30 years that it never became boring, even though it was very specialized.
Jane: It was right for me.
Barb: It’s interesting you say that. Because as you speak, it reminds me that general surgery was my favorite rotation, and I really aspired to be a general surgeon. But, at the time I was about to be married and a couple of the residencies in the country actually talked about their divorce rate being up to 100 percent. I was very intimidated by what the time commitment might mean and what the ability to, you know, have a successful marriage and start a family. So it’s interesting that you created this kind of sub-specialty within the general surgery field and that I, in turn, chose ObGyn, so it allowed me to do some surgery along the way too. But, I think we were probably somewhat on the same wavelength back at that time.
So I’m wondering if we can start out talking a little bit about breast screening and if you could review some of the general recommendations, because there’s some conflict in the media about who should be screened and when, at what age, and at what intervals. From your perspective, (and you’re up to date with what is happening in different fields, not only general surgery), how do you recommend the general, average-risk woman be screened for breast cancer?
Jane: Well, it’s interesting… the U.S. Preventative Task Force came out with recommendations a few years ago that decreased the recommendation for screening and mammography. And I don’t agree with their reasonings, though they have brought up very good points. First of all, on the top end of the age scale, there’s no studies that have included women over 70, so therefore, there’s no evidence that screening helps those women, because the studies simply haven’t been done.
However, the rate of breast cancer goes up as you get older. So more of those women are going to have breast cancer. If a woman gets breast cancer at 95, she’s probably going to survive that and die of something else anyway. But it’s still nice to not have a bigger surgery or need chemotherapy, so finding it early is still helpful to somebody.
The American Cancer Society recommendations are that you keep screening as long as you think you have ten years of life left. And that makes a lot of sense. My mother is 92; she’s very healthy. Her mother and one of my sisters have had breast cancer, so I keep telling her, I think you’re going to make it to 100, maybe next year is your last mammogram.
Jane: On the other end of the scale, there’s more controversy about when you should start. It had always been starting at age 40 and then going every year. A lot of the studies that showed efficacy of screening mammograms actually did every-other-year screening. So then when you look at the evidence, it’s hard to parse out how much more benefit you get from every year. Nonetheless, as a practicing surgeon, I see so many women who one year before had a normal mammogram and, boom, now it’s a centimeter. Well, how big would that cancer be before it was felt? Maybe 2 or 3 centimeters. and then you’re getting into a higher stage. So, I think the interval should still be yearly.
Barb: Starting at age 40 as a general rule?
Jane: Correct, all the evidence shows that mammography saves lives at all ages. Even in the 40-year-olds. But, 40-year-olds have fewer cancers, because it tends to occur when [we’re] older. And so because you’re not going to find as many, it’s not going to be as helpful, because most women aren’t going to have cancer. Mammograms in young women are also harder to evaluate because they have denser breasts, lumpier breasts on mammograms. The U.S. Task Force was worried about the inconvenience and fear that having an abnormal mammogram causes when it turns out to be nothing. Some people talk about unnecessary biopsies. They’re not unnecessary; there’s something there that we have to find out about and the question is what is your level of comfort with having a possible biopsy that turns out to be benign. That is, about 15 percent of biopsies turn out to be cancer. We could easily make that 50 percent by biopsying only the most suspicious things, but then we miss some cancers at an early stage when it’s mostly... when it’s more curable.
Barb: I hear that argument as well and that’s always seemed a little bit of a disconnect for me, because I think most patients who understand there’s something in the mammogram that needs follow-up, most women are pretty willing to undergo a biopsy to clarify for them whether that’s benign or cancer. So this idea of instilling unnecessary fear, I think that uncertainty or the not knowing, in my mind, is a greater risk.
Jane: To me, it seems very paternalistic. In fact, there was an op-ed, in what I think was the Washington Post when these came out that said, “Don’t worry your pretty little head about breast cancer.” You know, women, have a lot of pain and worry and suffering in their lives. To me—a few women, it really is tough on, but for most women... “Okay, here’s one more thing, I’ll go get it done.” Almost all the biopsies are done with a needle, it’s a little outpatient procedure that has very few consequences from it. It’s just relatively easy, and usually it can be done right away. So it’s usually done within a week, so that fear doesn’t last that long.
Jane: And the other thing is, sometimes the biopsies find things that are benign, but show that the breast tissue is at increased risk for developing cancer; so then women can take steps to decrease the risk. To me, yearly, starting at 40 and of course, it’s good to talk to somebody about it. You know, the recommendations are: Well, to discuss this with the patient and let her make her mind up. You always do that, but I mean, when I go to the doctor, I rely on his or her expertise, to say, well, no, what’s your recommendation. I don’t go home and think, oh well which medicine am I going to take?
Jane: It just doesn’t make sense to me.
Barb: Can you talk a little bit about tomosynthesis, which is a newer version...
Jane: Yup, it’s also called a 3D mammography. If you can imagine when your breast gets smashed in that machine, you’re pressing everything together and it all overlaps and you get one view going across, one view going down. So all this breast tissue overlaps and it’s hard to see through that. The tomosynthesis looks at little slices through the breast. It’s like a CAT scan, so that you can see just a small part of the breast tissue without everything else getting in the way. It unfortunately means you still have to get smashed. So to the person having the mammogram, it doesn’t feel any different. But, when you read the mammogram it does two things. It finds more cancers earlier—and this is especially helpful in women with more dense breasts—but it even finds more cancers even in women with fatty breasts. And it helps the radiologist figure out the benign things. So there’s fewer call-backs and fewer ultrasounds. They can just sort of figure out just by looking at it the first time around. It’s a win-win situation. It does cost more, it takes longer to read, the equipment is a little more costly. More and more insurances are paying for it, because the additional cost is worth the additional pick up of new cancers.
Barb: Can you talk a little bit about breast cancer risks and what we understand about what the actual risks are and about what maybe is perceived, but not as much a risk as women might understand it to be?
Jane: Sure. Average risk for an American woman who lives to be 90 is about 12 percent. So that’s significant. But, it goes up as you get older, so it’s much less than that if you live to be 75, say. The most important risk factor is having inherited an abnormal gene from your mother or father like Angelina Jolie did. It can come from the father’s side, so look at your family. Look at your family. Are there more two or more women with breast cancer, especially if it was a young age; especially if there’s ovarian cancer in the family, or males with breast cancer, early prostate cancer, pancreatic cancer. Those can all be related in to the most common inheritable gene abnormality which is BRCA1 or BRCA2.
You can imagine if you inherit an abnormal gene the BRCA1 and 2 genes code for a protein that’s involved in the cell that lets the cell to recognize when it’s turning into cancer, and it pushes a self-destruct button. If those genes aren’t working the protein isn’t made, and the cell doesn’t recognize itself being cancerous; it keeps growing. For some reason it affects breast, ovary, pancreas, prostate, and more than anything else.
Barb: So when you speak of two individuals, we’re including grandmothers, aunts, cousins, nieces, sisters, mother...
Jane: Correct. First-, second-, or third-degree relative. First degree is your mother, sister, daughter. Second is aunt, cousin, grandmother, and then the third degree is their kids and mothers. You look at both sides; you have to look at one at a time. If you have an aunt on each side, that doesn’t count.
Barb: And the other is potentially the age at diagnosis that also plays a role.
Jane: If you can imagine that every single breast cell has this abnormality, it doesn’t take too much to put something over the top and have the cells actually turn into cancer. Therefore we tend to see the cancers at an early age—before menopause. So that’s a real clue, because breast cancer is so common, it’s not unusual to have one or two women in the family with breast cancer, especially if you have a large family. But, if they were 40 years old, 40 to 50, then you start looking at it differently.
The other important thing is if someone is Ashkenazi Jewish, there are some gene abnormalities that are more prevalent in that community; So if you have one person in your family that had breast cancer and you’re Jewish, you should ask your doctor about it. Because you can have a simple blood test or cheek swab test. The tests have become much less expensive in the last few years. In fact there’s one company now that will do it outside of insurances for $275, and test several different genes at one time.
The important part about genetic testing is that you really need to know what it means. You know, what does it mean for you, for your family. What kind of impact is it going to have? Will it have impact on insurance? There’s just really a lot of things to know. It’s not just what’s my blood sugar or my blood count. It’s a test that has a lot of implications. So having genetic counseling before having the testing is important. And you say, why should I do this? I’m just going to wait for the shoe to drop, why live in fear? The reason is there’s things to do about it. I will get to that in a minute, but before we get into that I should mention a few other risk factors.
Family history genetics is a very important one. Probably the next important one is having had a biopsy of the breast, that wasn’t cancer, but showed something called atypical cells. Either atypical ductal hyperplasia, atypical lobular hyperplasia or lobular carcinoma in situ. It actually has the word cancer in there. it’s sort of like if someone is very fair skinned, they are more likely to get sunburned. If a woman has these types of cells in her breasts, she’s more likely to have a cancer start.
So that gives significant increased risk. Other things are, being overweight after menopause, starting your family after 30, starting your period before 12. Sort of the longer time you have uninterrupted cycles of estrogen, non-estrogen. There’s not a lot of environmental things that we know about. I expect that we will find out about it sometime.
Breast density is something that is relatively newly talked about. And you can also think about it as the more active your breast tissue is, the more it will show up on a mammogram, and the more likely it is that it will make a mistake. Once you find out you have an increased risk, it empowers you. There are things you can do. Probably the best thing, is to exercise.
Barb: And this would be for those women who we don’t identify even as having increased risk. They may be the average-risk woman, who still have a 12-percent lifetime risk of developing breast cancer. The best way she can try to remain in the 88 percent of women who will not be diagnosed with breast cancer, the most proactive thing she can do, is to maintain an ideal body weight. Is that what you would—or one of the things you would recommend?
Jane: Oh yes. Statistically, body weight makes a difference for postmenopausal women, not premenopausal women. But, if you’re overweight when you are premenopausal, you’ll likely be overweight when you are postmenopausal, so it's always a good time to keep your body weight in check. Exercise in and of itself, even without weight loss, decreases the risk for breast cancer. It’s hard to put an exact number on it, because you have to rely on people telling you how much they exercise. But it can be as much as a 20-percent decrease in risk, which is fantastic! Because it does all these other wonderful things: decreases your risk for heart attack, stroke, diabetes, dementia; I mean, it’s just the best thing any of us can do for ourselves.
Barb: And how do you advise women in exercise? Thirty minutes five times a week, forty-five minutes five days a week? Where do you set the ideal standard for exercise?
Jane: The ideal: It’s aerobic exercise that makes a difference. Strength training is great too. But in this case, it’s the aerobic exercise that counts. You don’t have to be dying—just a little bit out of breath, a little sweaty. Walking is great. It’s ideally four hours a week. Everyone is different, their schedules are different and you have to figure it out. You don’t want to do four hours in one day. That would be too difficult and you wouldn’t get as much benefit. But, if you want to do twenty minutes a day and then more on the weekend; if you want to do forty minutes a day; if you want to do an hour four times a week—however it fits into your schedule. And don’t pick something you hate because you won’t keep it up. Get a dog, so you have to take them out for walks. Just figure out somehow to incorporate it. If you have a family, bring them along; it's good for everyone. Everybody go for a walk after dinner.
Barb: Yeah. As we’ve recently been hearing, inactivity, or being sedentary is the new smoking when it comes to general health. So I think, the good news is that we do have some science behind exercise in reducing breast cancer risk. I think when it comes to women’s health, breast cancer always gets people’s attention, and people are always willing to hear more about it. So, I’m hoping that as we hear more about it and understand the connection, it will encourage women in their wellness to incorporate that as a part of their routine. I think it's an area where we haven’t been bold enough in emphasizing its benefits.
Jane: And it can be done. It seems daunting and especially if you’re busy, raising kids, working. Where do I fit it in? You can find a time to fit it in. Maybe you don’t get up to four hours a week. Anything is helpful.
Along with that comes your eating patterns—you know; what you eat. And for breast cancer it's a diet—let me step back. For breast cancer, it's even harder to get strong evidence to show the relationship. Again, partly because you have to rely on people’s eating patterns. You can show stuff pretty easily in mice which doesn’t always translate over to humans. But, overall it appears that probably a diet that’s low in animal fats, high in fresh vegetables especially—fruits, is the best. You know, it's the best for everything.
It can be hard to do that—it's hard at first to figure out. What are my eating patterns going to be like? Don’t go on a diet, just figure out what you’re going to do. Change your lifestyle, change your eating habits so that you’re healthy. Shop around the outside of the grocery store, where all the fresh stuff is. Try to stay away from processed foods. It takes a while to get used to that. But once you do, you can have delicious meals that aren’t going to take hours and hours to make.
Barb: And the thing that I hear is when women are really able to do that, they just feel better. They have more energy, they sleep better ...
Jane: And it's better for their families!
Barb: And we’re talking about breast cancer specifically, but I don’t think we can overemphasize the other areas of their lives that will be impacted by that.
Jane: Now as far as prevention goes, these lifestyle changes—which we should all be doing: exercise, eating well, getting mammograms—some women at high risk we get screening MRIs so they’re getting checked every six months. In addition to all that, a step up from that, for women with increased risk, we do have some drugs for that, that can cut the risk about in half. Which is really significant.
Tamoxifen is the most well known, but we have several drugs. Tamoxifen is the only drug that is approved for premenopausal women; but there are several drugs that can be used in postmenopausal women for this too. All drugs have some side effects, and the side effects vary according to the individual. Again, we have to go over the risk-benefit ratio. It's not appropriate for all women to be on, but for those who are have an increased risk, it can cut their risk by 50 to 70 percent, so it makes sense.
Barb: And there are some tools to try to help women understand more exactly what their lifetime risk is, taking into consideration...
Barb: A number of the things you mentioned earlier. So for instance, if a woman is 12 percent and for someone they might have up to a 35-percent lifetime risk of breast cancer, you can reduce that risk, nearly back down to an average woman just by considering a medication. And generally these medications are used for a defined period of time?
Jane: Five years.
Barb: It’s not being on it for life. It's a five-year use of the medication, hopefully giving them, in turn, lifetime risk reduction.
Jane: Right. The easiest time to take it is premenopausally. Because there’s the least side effects and a longer period of benefit.
The last thing is that for women at a very high risk, some women will choose to do what Angelina Jolie did to have the breast tissue removed with immediate reconstruction. That reduces the risk by 90 percent; still not 100 percent, but very significant.
That worry about having that surgery is what keeps some women from having genetic testing. It is a choice. You don’t have to do that. We do have these other things to do. Especially the drugs to decrease the risk, do the lifestyle changes, watch you real closely so that if you do get breast cancer, we should be able to find it real early when it's the most curable. So that fear should not—I don’t think—keep women from knowledge. To me knowledge is power, and it could spur you on to do some of these lifestyle changes.
Barb: And every decision along the way as to what might be a consideration is made in conjunction with the patient and a provider. So there’s nothing that says once you know, that you have to follow through with breast surgery. It's all about what makes the most sense and at what particular time of your life that you might consider that next step.
Jane: And even for somebody who has a gene abnormality, you have to look at the family because there’s probably other genes that modulate it... that make a difference. Because some families who have an abnormal gene you should see breast cancer in about half the women in the family, and sometimes there’s only a couple. And you know there’s more women who should get cancer. So it's not 100 percent. It’s somewhere between a 45 and 85 percent chance. If you come from a family where it doesn’t come up as much or it shows up in the 60s or 70s that might make a difference of what your choices are. If on the other hand, half of the women have died of cancer by the age of 50, you probably will be more likely to do the maximum and have the surgery.
Barb: Be more aggressive in those cases.
As we finish up today, Jane, tell me where do you find richness at this stage in your life?
Jane: Oh, everywhere. [laughs] Certainly in my family, my children, grandchildren, siblings, elderly parents. My siblings are my best friends. And luckily we live pretty close to many of them. I find great satisfaction in my work, with my husband, and I like exploring the world. My last big trip was to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Barb: I think that when it comes to implementing exercise, you can be a shining star for the rest of us, to look at it in how you’ve really been intentional about incorporating that with your passion for travel.
Jane: I like to be active. I’ve always liked to be active. I haven’t always been as faithful in the exercise. But at a certain age, I feel I have to exercise or I won’t be moving. It just becomes more and more important as I get older instead of less important. I’ve really carved out time in my life to make that happen. It's easier with my kids being grown. But it's a very important thing to me, and hopefully I’ll be able to keep it up forever.
Barb: Thanks Jane, and thanks so much for joining me today.
Jane: Thank you!
Deborah Robinson with Dr. Barb
Deborah Robinson is president and CEO of Fitness Choice Enterprises, as well as program director for The Foundation for Sports Conditioning. Her interest bloomed from athletic and dance engagement in high school and college, leading to a practice in helping teams and individuals to improve overall strength, dynamic flexibility, cardiovascular fitness, balance, and trunk stability, all of which enhance health and quality of life.
Barb: Joining me for conversation today is Deborah Robinson. Deborah has been an expert in fitness and sports training for many years. Early in her career, she was an aerobics instructor at Jane Fonda Workout Studios, and appeared in several of her workout videos. You may have seen her. She’s worked with a number of professional and academic sports teams. The company she now leads, Fitness Choice Enterprises, offers personal fitness training in southern California for people aged 13 to 93. Welcome! Thanks for joining me!
Deborah: Hi there Barbara. How are you doing?
Barb: I wanted to start out by talking about what obviously you know best. In my area I have a lot of conversations with women about fitness and wellness, and what I’ve read about your work describes a very comprehensive approach to fitness; that you’re focusing on strength, flexibility, balance, cardiovascular health. I obviously admire and value that comprehensive approach. I’m just wondering about how you bring this to your client, and how you incorporate such a broad approach to this.
Deborah: Well, I let the body of the client tell me exactly what it needs through evaluation and just talking to the client to see what they can tolerate. My oldest client is actually 97, and I’ve been with her since she was 81 years old. She is pushing up, she is doing agility ladder; if you know anything about that, that’s the square things that professional athletes use to make their feet a little faster. She’s doing that at 97 years old. I clap my hands every time I see her because [laughs] if I’m allowed to live that long, I’d want to be as mobile as she is. And also, Barb, the goal in my practice is to help a person with physical literacy; teaching them how to manage their body in space as they move around in everyday life.
Barb: Interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that term, physical literacy, but it’s a great way of communicating, again, what you are trying to do: that more broad sense of being.
Deborah: Yes. Exactly.
Barb: What are some of the things you do with an individual when you talk about initial assessments?
Deborah: Well, I’m looking at their balance. For instance, can they stand on one leg, can they maintain that for a count of ten? Which leg is weaker? I also have them close their eyes and do the same balance test. Then I go into a dynamic test where they are moving from side to side and holding that balance for again a count of ten. Mobility in the shoulder joint, trying to understand what that’s about. Can they sit down and stand comfortably and with control? And can they do it ten times without being out of breath?
So you do an assessment, especially with a 90-plus year old, that’s easy, but if you know after two repetitions they’re having trouble, obviously you don’t go to ten. The assessments would again depend on the person. Now I have a person 58 years old, I just started with her maybe 3 months ago. We went through a series of assessments. You know, what was her core strength, what was her flexibility, what was her extensor muscles in her back, what were they like? Then you make a decision whether or not should I train her or should she go to the physical therapist first? In her case, it was the physical therapist because she had movement patterns that weren’t quite right. So if we move with a movement pattern that isn’t quite right, it’s best to have a physical therapist look at them first so that you lower your risk of injury. So that’s kind of how I do it.
Barb: Yes, that’s fascinating because for so many women who I interact with, remaining active becomes somewhat of an obstacle because they are working with plantar fasciitis or a sore hip or a bad shoulder, and so in the midst of my day it’s hard for me to necessarily recommend what kind of a fitness routine they might be able to do and it’s certainly not my expertise, so I can’t make that recommendation.
So, having them see a physical therapist is oftentimes a good place to start if people are working around an injury or are most trainers pretty well trained to make those assessments?
Deborah: One has to do it case by case, more or less. If it’s something that they have already gone through a physical therapist with, then the best choice is for the coach, the trainer, to call the PT and say, “What’s the deal? What was the end result, and how can I help them based on what you know about them?” Because, remember, you are seeing this person for the first time. It’s not like you’ve known them. You got to get a history, and an assessment, and an understanding after you’ve watched how they move, too. And if it’s to go back to the physical therapist, then the coach should go with the person, so you both have an idea and you work as a team in a collaborative experience rather than, you know, me knowing everything, because I don’t know everything. But, I can know more as I get more information.
Barb: Do you refer to yourself as a trainer or a coach?
Deborah: I actually like “fitness professional” because I’ve worked with teams. You can’t really call me a personal trainer. You can’t call me a trainer; really I’m more of a strength and conditioning specialist in that venue. I call myself a fitness professional. I do a lot of things with a lot of people if the situation presents itself.
Barb: What areas do you find especially valuable to women as they grow older? Do you have a couple of general recommendations for women to keep in the forefront of their awareness just to try to improve the aging process?
Deborah: Keep moving correctly. Keep moving with good mechanics… feet straight, pushing off of your feet. Feet are very, very important and somehow or another, we forget that they are attached to us! You know? [laughs]
I know they are in shoes, we don’t see them a lot, we go to get our pedicures, but doggone, those feet need to be massaged, you need the balls on them, they need to be alive, the blood needs to circulate, you need to separate your toes because you need to push off of them. If you start to walk like a duck, there’s a problem. [laughs]
Barb: [Laughs] Interesting!
Deborah: You need to keep the feet straight so you can turn on your buttocks. If your buttocks is flat, then that’s a problem. Your back doesn’t have much support. There is a reason why all these muscles in our bodies exist. It’s not just for the pretty pants, it’s not just for the shape we want to look at. It is absolutely there for a purpose to maintain mobility in our bodies.
Barb: As you are talking about some of this, and as a gynecologist and thinking about the dynamic of the connectedness, I’m wondering if you have awareness or speak into pelvic floor and the importance of pelvic floor health for women as well.
Deborah: Let me share! [laughs]
Barb: Please do! [laughs]
Deborah: Okay, I have to admit, I just had my first experience with a pelvic floor practitioner. Wow! What an education that was. My 97-year old has a problem with incontinence. Her urologist told her to go to a pelvic floor practitioner, and I went with her. What a wonderful experience we had together!
By learning and understanding what Kegels mean–I don’t think we really understand what they mean. I don’t think we are teaching it properly, in my profession, because we don’t spend enough time on that. But that pelvic floor is extremely important to know how to do the Kegels, and to do them well.
One of the exercises was to stop your urine. You know, you stop your urine, you urinate, stop your urine, urinate. That gives you ideas of how you can control your urine–and that’s just one of them. That was a good experience, and if anyone can find a pelvic floor practitioner, and if you teach it, Doctor, they should definitely understand what that means because it will definitely help them and keep them away from Depends.
Barb: Yes, and I would agree. Pelvic floor therapists are great people to have on our teams. And I think it extends sometimes to posture and back pain, and even things even beyond bladder and bowel function. As you mention, the feet and not always having awareness of their critical path in how we function. I think pelvic floor can be one of the sneaky areas too that we tend to ignore and maybe don’t put enough emphasis or importance on its function.
Deborah: And you brought up another critical: core. You know you hear the word core all the time. Core exercise. Core exercise. What is that all about?
The core exercises transfer into performance. It’s not just an exercise. It is to teach you how to maintain core strength. Dr. Stewart McGill said, “It’s a brace.” You brace yourself when you pick up your child. You brace yourself when you pick up a bucket of water, and knowing that that exercise transfers into their everyday life. We don’t emphasize that enough. Because it does. We are performers. We have to perform because we are all athletes, actually, on different levels – different levels of intensity. But we are still athletes because we have to get up and perform, just like your professional athlete has to perform. We just perform differently, right?
Deborah: We need to understand what those exercises are and how they transfer into making the bed, how they transfer into reaching for something. And those shoulder blades! Man, if I could glue them onto somebody’s back, I would glue them down! Because that’s part of posture. Those shoulder blades need to be down. Not necessarily squeezed together, but at least down and with the chest so you can breathe better. You know all of these things go into moving.
Barb: Yes, interesting.
I recently published a blog post about menopausal weight gain and how women often approach and go through menopause, and weight gain, not always, but often is a part of that. I think it’s not always well understood or anticipated, and many women do find themselves 10 to 20 pounds heavier at age 55 or 65 than they were when they were 45. I’m just wondering if your professional experience would have any insight into that or what you might recommend. Is part of your expertise also around weight and nutrition?
Deborah: You know what I do in terms of nutrition? I have a wonderful friend that has published about four books, and she’s a nutritionist. Her name is Susan Dopart, and she is my go-to for nutrition because she can sit down, and she can talk to the client. And then what I do, I just do simple “let’s talk about it.” Are you being clean? And then in terms of intensity, we work as hard as they can.
The encouragement is to keep moving because we get more inactive as we get older. We don’t get more active. When we were younger, we were more active. Whether that was with kids, or things to do, or work or whatever, we’re kind of retired and we’re not moving. So the encouragement to move, to walk, to push, to pull, to move side to side, move in your house – you know, watch TV and march in place. You know things that you’ve got to do to help with that weight gain, you know to just increase the movement patterns. Just increase; increase your movement.
That’s about what happens when I meet a 58-year old person that is 20 pounds overweight. Listening to her, her kids are older, she’s not moving enough. And then also, if there’s hormone therapy they need, then that’s another referral. Because, again, I don’t know everything, but I do know some things. [laughs]
Barb: Yes, so that 58-year old who is probably going to be in my office tomorrow. [laughs]
What sorts of things do you use to encourage people to just move more? I think our culture has incorporated being sedentary in such a huge way, and I’m just wondering if you have phrases or ways to communicate encouragement or simple things, you know something other than going to the gym for 45 minutes?
Deborah: You know what’s interesting? I just left that 58-year old, and she did an incredible job. We’ve been together for a short period of time. Okay, what has helped her? I can only talk about her. What has helped her is her body awareness. Understanding where her body is in place in space, and understanding where to put herself. Secondly, to understand that she can move, she can be more active. It’s a choice. We have choices. We have a choice not to be active, and we have a choice to be active. And then decide what intensity that is at the right time. You’ve got choices.
You have to encourage yourself. You have to sit down and say, “I can do this, and I have the will to do this.” “I’m able to do this.” “I may have to do it slower, and that is okay.” Be okay with where you are. Be okay with where you are because where you are is okay! Again, it’s okay! Just start. They just have to start. Step out of the bed and begin to walk. And walk up and down the hall more times than you did yesterday.
Barb: So, it’s never too late to start.
Deborah: Absolutely, never. The 81-year old, if she would have given it up, she never had exercised before when she was 81, and it was all about taking it slow. Having her get the confidence in herself, not in me. In herself, knowing she’s able to do something. And at 97, she’s still exercising! Like I said, pushing on the edge of the desk, doing agility ladder, if you know anything about a TRX–look it up–she is pulling her own body weight, she’s pulling tubing, she sits and stands for 12, with 5-pound weights in each hand. She can pick up her dog, Polly! [laughs]
Barb: Right! When you think about the importance of bending over and picking up a dog, and how that enriches a person’s life! The mechanics required to do that really are pretty remarkable! It doesn’t take long to imagine how it’s important to keep up some of that function.
Deborah: Yes, and progression is the key. You don’t go somewhere and they start you out at 100 – no! You go from zero to 1 . You know, start off slow because then you keep exercise adherence. You will exercise longer, you will want to exercise because you won’t get discouraged. The key is not to be discouraged.
If you walk into a gym and you don’t want to take that evaluation because you don’t want to hear it, talk to the person and see if they can figure out something else so you can start to exercise. I mean, you’ve got to be your own boss. This is your body. Don’t be a victim of anything because that’s the other thing. You know, you can’t be a victim of the gym, or any coach or anybody. You are in control here. It’s your body.
Barb: And for those women who might feel intimidated by a gym or a trainer, or the affordability of a gym or a trainer, is it possible? Do you have any resources that you can direct individuals to as far as online or apps? Do you have a couple of favorites that you utilize in your populations?
Deborah: You know, I really can’t say I use an app. Walking to me is the easiest thing to do. Just start walking, drinking more water and eating as clean as you can. Get away from some of those processed foods. And just start walking and then think about going to a gym in your area, stand there and watch a class, or talk with someone and see if you want to be there.
But just start walking. There’s nothing wrong with walking, even if it’s the mall. Walk in the mall. Go up the stairs. Walk around. Don’t stop and look in the stores [laughs], just keep walking.
Okay, today I’m going to walk five minutes, and then if I have to sit down, I will. And then I’ll get up and walk another five minutes. And just do that until you begin to get stronger. Everyone has a mall everywhere. I just totally know this! [laughs] Because they want to sell things. The malls are safe and they are easy.
Barb: Yes, yes, good!
I’ve heard that you have recently taken up competitive power lifting! Is that factual?
Deborah: Ah, yeah… let me tell you about that!
Barb: Yes, please do!
Deborah: [laughs] Okay, I’m 66, so I’m not a kid. I dance professionally and I ran track, I high-jumped, you know – in dirt – it’s so easy. It was definitely not those beautiful little rubber things, you know padded things that they do now, and I did what is called a roll. I like high intensity, and I’m a little crazy. Okay, as long as I’m crazy by myself, I’m good.
[Deborah and Barb laugh]
Deborah: I am a competitive weight lifter. I do Olympic lifts. I snatch, clean, and jerk in competition, in my age group. My next meet is August sixth . I’m excited. I’m always “can’t wait to get to the gym.” This is not something you do at home, by the way, and I wouldn’t advise it if you’re not really into heavy weights.
Now in terms of bones… can I tell you about bones and heavy weight?
Barb: Yes please!
Deborah: My bone density increased tremendously when I started to snatch, clean, and jerk, when I started Olympic lifting. Yah!
Barb: Yeah, we do talk about that resistance work and, while it doesn’t have to be Olympic style, it can be something less than that. I think again, we forget about our upper bodies, don’t we, and the importance of doing something with some resistance.
Deborah: Yes. And in order for the bones to really respond, you can’t do high repetitions with 5 weights/5 pounds. You have to have a little weight on that so that 12 reps, 11-12 should be difficult.
Barb: How much training does it take in your average week to be able to continue to compete at the level you are competing?
Deborah: I’m in the gym three days a week for about an hour and a half. But, understand this is not like the gym. If I am getting 80 pounds over my head, I’ve got to say I’ve got to sit down for a minute! [laughs with Barb]
Barb: I’ve only said that this is audio only and not video because I’d love to see a demonstration and see you at it! [laughs with Deborah]
Deborah: If someone is there on August 6, maybe I can send you a video of the competition.
Barb: That would be great! Are there other women – you’ve disclosed your age – are there other women near your age doing this sport, or do they have to put you in a category with much younger women because there aren’t other mature women, so to speak, doing this?
Deborah: No! I’m a master’s athlete in weightlifting. There is a whole bunch of us!
Deborah: My teammate is 71! My goal is to beat Laurie. She can’t beat me! [laughs]
Barb: That’s great! Well, you are certainly an inspiration to hear about possibilities and that incentive to just push a little bit more. Like you said, just always progress. Just always a little bit more. I think that’s a good thing to keep in mind as well.
What are some of the rewards in the work you’ve been doing in fitness? Can you summarize it in a couple of points?
Deborah: Some of my rewards is to watch the teenage athletes that I’ve trained – I trained a girls’ basketball team for eight seasons here in California – and to watch those little girls – if I can say little, they are short. Now you know basketball is typically a tall-person sport. But they had so much conditioning that they out ran the taller girl and would out shoot them – in the fourth quarter. That was exciting! To me that was absolutely one of those “cry-able” moments.
All my children, oh my God! And to watch my 97-year old still have the will to move and to appreciate her body that she has. That’s another “cry-able” moment, you know. Where you go, “Wow! That’s so awesome!” And to watch another person fight through some of their own physical stuff and embrace themselves as they are. That’s another physical moment that I’ve had with people – not a physical but an emotional moment – I’ve had with people. I think those are some of my big points.
Barb: It is! It’s remarkable changes that are occurring with you, I’m sure. And I just go back to in health care what we understand is that a body in motion stays in motion, and that, like you mentioned early on, going from sitting to standing, how important that is in remaining in your own home and able to do some of your own things. Again, I think we forget that we are aging, and someday we are going to be aged. Hopefully live that long and the necessity to remain independent depends on the functionality. It’s great to hear your words of encouragement to kind of keep moving forward for women.
Do you have any other important points that you’d like to share with the audience today, Deborah?
Deborah: I think I’ve covered most everything, other than just saying that you have to know that you are capable. You can move forward. It doesn’t matter where you are. Just start doing something, even if that means clapping your hands more. It’s still moving. Even if that means you’re reaching up and down while you are sitting down. It’s still moving. And I was reading an article about, in the car being fidgety, in the car – it’s still moving. You don’t have to sit there and just be still, especially when you are in LA with the 405 – oh my God – [laughs] – you’re going start dancing otherwise you’re going to start screaming! [laughs]
So just move. And it doesn’t matter how small. You just have to start.
Barb: Well, thank you so much for joining me today. I appreciate your work and your insights and what you were willing to share with our listeners.
Deborah: Thank you Barb. It’s been a pleasure.
After her competition on August 6, Deborah did provide a video! Watch and marvel: