My workshop in SF: Games and Movement for Early Childhood Development, April 23 includes my book. #ece #sfparents


Ready to welcome in the May-o? Here’s a fun movement verse for early childhood circles: Heel and Toe, Jolly…

by Valerie Baadh Garrett

Spice up your activities with those needing special care, with sensory activities that are meaningful not only to our elderly, but to caregivers ourselves.  Be forewarned, however!  If enthusiasm and engagement are what you’re looking for, you might get it with these fun and “moving” activities that stir the soul and spirit as well as the body!

Using music, and using it well, is key to the success of some of these activities.  This means that the caregiver should listen carefully to the music he or she chooses to accompany the activities, even to the point of practicing to move in time with the music.  Some of our Agile Aging’s favorite tunes are named below.  You can purchase and download these tunes from iTunes or other online stores.

Here are 5 of our favorites.

• Wool Ball •  Suggested music: Jitterbug Waltz

For chair exercise, hold the ball in two hands.  With a slow tempo, raise the ball as high as possible, then reach forward and fold downwards to lower the ball towards the underneath of the chair. Repeat.

Our beautiful and healing wool balls

For more chair exercise, open the arms wide to the side, with the ball in one hand.  Rhythmically, raise both arms and change the ball to the other hand, then lower both arms in unision.  Repeat.

For frail elderly, just holding a ball and looking at it are healing.  The warmth of the wool will warm the hands, fondling the ball will loosen grasping, and gazing at the colorful swirls will bring delight.

Buy balls here

• Watercolor Painting To Music • Suggested music: Grand Canyon Suite by Ferde Grofe

Why watercolors? Watercolor paints allow the movement of the water and color together to flow on the page.  Colors might meet and blend, forming a new color.  Shapes are active, changing form and tone.  Non-verbal interactions between the person, the brush, and the color can build interest and engagement.  Yes, it might make a mess.  Yes, some paintings will turn brown or muddy.  But many will be beautiful, as is the process of working in this manner.

Paint one or two paintings per session only.  The first one should be just stripes across the page, as slowly as possible.  The second could be a color study, or a nature painting. Blue/yellow, yellow/red, red/blue are three painting pairings that have surprises when the colors blend.

A nature picture might be a rainbow, a leaf, a flower, a mountain.  Nothing too formed, but open to expressive interpretation with just a few colors.

This is one case where music playing in the background is helpful.  A story is told through the progressive movements of the music suite, and many people will have heard some of it before and will remember it.

Watercolor Painting that Flows

• Humming • Suggested music: your voice

Humming has been scientifically studied to be beneficial to health and healing.  The physical act alone exercises the breathing, clears the sinuses, and oxygenates the blood.

How to start and lead a hum-along?  Just begin.  Choose a tune you know well and that your class might know, too – or they will learn after awhile!  Now, it’s December and Silent Night is an easy tune to hum, or to “la la” to.  Remember to finish the whole song, don’t just fade off or get distracted.  This is vital to the success of the activity.  It has a beginning, middle and end.  In January, Winter Wonderland might be a tune to “la la” with.  Be consistent, and you will see the benefits for you and the ones you work with!

• Hand Dance • Suggested music: The Lovers Waltz

This lovely melody inspires movement and dancing!

For those on their feet, waltz or sway in time to the slow rocking rhythm.

For chair exercise, use a scarf (silk, of course) or ribbon on a stick or wrist elastic to make lovely swirls in the spaces around

For frail elders, either seated or prone, wave a hand or rock from side to side

Hand dancing builds new pathways in the brain

• Rag-A-Round • Suggested music: any familiar big band tune without vocals

First is a crafty project for you or your group: to gather and knot the corners of 8 – 12 scarves or squares of cloth that are really different from one another.  Burlap, velvet, open crochet, plaids, stripes, flowers of different colors and textures are best, but remember to finish the edges with a sewing machine if you’re not using finished scarves or else the fabric will fray into a fine mess.

Seat your group in a circle with each person holding a knot of the fabric circle, begin the music and pass the Rag-A-Round in one direction, allowing everyone to touch and look at the various pieces.  Then, stop the music and ask one of the group to describe what he or she has in his or her hands: what color is it? what fabric? what could a tailor make with this fabric?  what season would you wear a shirt in this fabric? Allow time for memories, stories, and remarks to unfold.  Then start the music up and give it another whirl, and continue until the music ends.  With enough stops and starts, one 4-minute track of music should offer a 15 – 20 minute session.

Thank you to Dorothy Passarella for the Rag-A-Round activity.

Read Sensory Activities for Elderly Men: Men’s Sheds

More at our website, and on Facebook and Twitter

As a young dancer training in ballet and modern dance, I didn’t think much about longevity.  My body was my musical instrument, and I figured if I got it polished and kept it tuned, it would last me a good long time.  Now, at 58, I’m still a performer, dancing with Mountain View’s Academy of Danse Libre, the nation’s leading vintage ballroom dance company and doing a dozen shows a year – some in high heels!

Valerie and Academy of Danse Libre dancing a Ragtime era Maxixe

As a movement coach and educator working with the mind-body connection, I study and teach movement to everyone from little children to the fragile elderly.  Along the way I’ve learned some very unique longevity secrets that have helped me and many others to feel great, avoid injuries, relieve pain, and stay active.  Here are some of my favorites – some may surprise you!

Stretch in Bed.  This most basic full-body yawn is the best exercise you can do before you get up in the morning (or even at night).  Babies and animals do it naturally, and so should we.  Just flex and stretch this way and that, slowly and lightly at first.  Reach in front of yourself, over your head.  Fold your knees over your chest and curl up, then stretch your heels away from your fingertips.  Wake up the muscles to support the bones, so those first steps out of bed are secure enough to avoid a stumble or fall.

Go to Hawaii.  Drain tension and improve posture that’s cramped from too much desk our couch time with a free Hawaiian holiday via dynamic imagery. Sit or stand comfortably with bare feet on the ground.  Close your eyes and imagine warm sand beneath your feet.  Wiggle your toes, heels and arches in the delicious warmth. Take a deep breath and notice that right behind you is a warm waterfall, splashing softly on your shoulders and down your back.  Nestle into that water flow and allow your shoulders to drop into the downward streaming flow of the water. Take another breath and observe your tension drain away as you exhale.  Stay there  on the beach as long as you like.  When you are ready to return from your holiday, just gently open your eyes.  You may need to brush some sand from your toes!

Relax your Jaw.  Many of us carry tension in our throat, neck, and jaw that can cause headaches, dental and health problems, and wrinkles.   Finding a neutral posture for your tongue is a surprisingly effective release for your jaw and throat.  Place the top of your tongue lightly up against the roof of your mouth, with the tip of your tongue touching the back of your upper teeth.  As you relax into this posture you will notice an immediate release of your jaw tension. Remind yourself to practice this while you are doing your regular exercise or anytime you might be straining.

Lift your Face.  Ancient wisdom meets modern exercise with facial yoga that eliminates the need for plastic surgery while building tone and expressive mobility to our faces. Here’s a simple fix.  For a sagging throat or jawline, place your tongue in its neutral position, lift the chin, and press upwards with the tongue on the roof of the mouth for several seconds, release, and repeat several times.

Respect your Feet.  Ever hear the expression, “My dogs are barking?”  Keep your pups quiet and happy with daily attention of movement, imagery, and grooming.  My friend, the dancer/choreographer Sybil Shearer (who died at the youthful age of 95!) had a daily practice of circling every bone in her body, slowly, this way and that.  While sitting or standing, extend your leg and very slowly and lightly circle your foot around your ankle a few times.  Change feet, repeat, and reverse.  Try circling just your big toe, or middle toe.  Point and flex your foot.  Take your foot in your hand and give it a little massage at both the arches, under the toes and under the length of the foot.  Make space between the bones with your fingers, then quietly stand. Sensing the connection to the ground through the soles of your feet will help you maintain your balance, posture, and mobility as the years go by.

Dance every day.  Music and movement harmonize the energy fields of the body.  So turn up the music and just move.  You don’t even need a partner. You’ll release those feel-good endorphins, your body will wake up in a new way, and you’ll have renewed energy as well as a boost to your fitness program.  If you can’t dance, who’s to know?  Run with music, walk with music, sing or hum along.  Even if you’re moving to your own drummer, it’s dancing.  So, let’s face the music and dance!

Valerie Baadh Garrett, Founder and President, Agile Aging LLC

Valerie is a movement coach, speaker, and Spacial Dynamics® practitioner working in the San Francisco Bay Area.

For more information on the ideas and programs mentioned, please visit:

Working out at home, or have a loved one who needs to?  Whether you have your own favorite exercise routines, follow a TV program, or pop in a DVD to follow, here’s some tips to keep you safe, sound, and focused while you keep healthy and fit.


Clutter is distracting and can be a hazard. Put away as many items as you can, things that will either get in your way as you move or interrupt your concentration.  (When I have a hard time getting started at tidying, I tease myself with, “Just put away 10 things.”  That gets me started, and sometimes, finished!)  Check for pet toys, shoes, dishes, and any newspapers that may be lying about, and get them picked up and put away.


Poor or dim lighting can create conditions for falling.  As we get older, we need more light. Make sure you have the right amount of light to see where you’re going, and to see the things in the room.

Floor Surface

Be sure to be on either a non-skid carpet or bare floor.  Throw rugs can slip and cause a fall.


Your feet need to be comfortable, warm, and safe. Although I usually suggest you work barefoot if possible, as we get older this may be uncomfortable for some people as the padding on the soles of our feet becomes thinner.  The next best thing would be “hospital socks” that allow freedom of movement for your foot but have non-skidding surfaces on the sole.  The second-best footwear would be a light sneaker with a thin sole (thin, compared to athletic shoes.)  If you feel you need to wear athletic shoes, go ahead, and don’t let that stop you from Agile Aging!  If you wear therapeutic insoles (orthotics) please remember to wear them too.


Always have a sturdy chair handy to hold onto for balance for standing exercises.  A folding chair is usually not heavy enough to provide the support some people need; a dining chair might be just right.


If your balance is insecure, do your program next to a wall on one side, or even standing in a corner of the room so that you have two walls nearby to touch or lean against if you need to.  Along with your chair, you will have three sources of stability beside you, along with the foundation of your feet beneath you.  (If you are doing our official Agile Aging agility activity program, it WILL challenge your balance. Be safer than sorry!)

Music and  Remote Control

Everything goes better with music!  Music sets tempo, rhythm, and mood. Set up your CD or iPod player and, if possible, have a remote control so that you can start and stop the music as you like.  If you don’t have a CD player, turn on your radio or cable music channel to your favorite style of music, and let it move you!


Keep your props (ball, scarf, string, band, cane, and/or weights) in a small basket near or under your chair so that everything is within reach while you’re practicing.


Have a glass of water close by, and drink it throughout your program.  Mature adults tend to get dehydrated easily, and that can contribute to dizziness and weakness.


Ah, pets.  We love them, and they love us, and they love to get underfoot just when we’re practicing because it looks like so much fun!  Did you know that pets are a big cause of falls in the home?  According to the CDC, pets (and their bowls, bed, and toys) cause 87,000 people per year to go to the ER for fall-related injuries. (Even I’m not immune – not long ago I fell over my dog, Jack Brown, early in the morning when the light was dim.)  If you have an active pup, let him enjoy some outside time, or move him to another room while you’re working.  If your kitty is a lap cat, she too can spend a bit of time away from you while you practice.

Distractions and Interruptions

If there’s ANYTHING to prevent you from doing your program, it will, so reduce all possibilities if you can.  Turn off the TV (unless you’re following a DVD, of course) and your phone, turn on your answering machine, and get going!

Motivation and Journaling

If you tend to procrastinate (who doesn’t?), try to be disciplined by keeping a journal and making a date with yourself.  Keeping a diary helps us keep on track whether we’re motivated or not.  Whether you use our Agile Aging Journal or a small notebook or wall calendar, schedule your practice like you would a doctor’s appointment or lunch with a good friend, and keep the date!  Better yet, work out with a buddy.

Use It or Lose It – Pacing, Intensity, and De-Training

There’s a sad fact about our fitness.  It only takes five days to “de-train” – that is, if we go five days without exercise, we begin to lose the fitness level we had.  If we are ill, under the weather, busy, or forgetful, it doesn’t take long to lose our hard-earned gains.  So, set your goals to a modest level, and try to do some movement several times EVERY day.  You’ll soon find that you build up stamina, strength, and stability.

And now, a word from our sponsor, Agile Aging.

Sitting is the New Smoking

There are a number of recent studies that show that sitting will shorten our lives.  As we age, we sit a lot.  Try to find ways to get yourself up and moving at intervals.  In the old days, we used to stand up to go change the channel, but we don’t even do that anymore.  If you are sitting a lot in front of the TV or computer, get some movement in during commercials or set a timer to alert you every 20 minutes or so.  Stand up, fold some laundry, move to a different chair (also good for your back and  hips!), get a glass of water, go to the bathroom.  Then, you deserve to sit awhile!

Valerie Baadh Garrett

© 2011 Agile Aging LLC

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Men are different. A young woman in one of my seminars retorted, “That’s sexist!” when I made that statement.  Well, no.  It’s true.  Men are different than women.  While it’s maybe foolish to make generalizations, that one is true.  We heard it from you, too, at our recent workshops on New Sensory Activities for Alzheimer’s and Dementia.  “Can you help us with meaningful activities, especially for the men?”  Yes.

Meaningful Work in Carpentry

Men need different activities than women, to engage and interest them, help them feel productive, and to interact with the world.  Men identify themselves with their work, their career – as much or more than women do – and when that stage of life is over and retirement is upon them, hanging around the house doesn’t suit them.  (Just ask their wives!)  Where do they go?  The garage, the pub, the shed.  Why, and what can we, caregivers of the elderly, learn there?

The garage is full of stuff, pieces of stuff, large and small. Worn furniture, tools, parts of projects, things to repair, half-used spirits, paints, garden supplies – objects that were useful and now, maybe not.  The garage (or shed) is full of items collected over the years, associated memories, and a sense of the continuity of time.  It’s a safe place to putter, to sit and think, to work on hobbies or create new dreams.  It’s a space of one’s own.  As time goes by, the elder man may live in a group home or residential community. Just how does he find space for himself among the living rooms, foyers, and dining room that he must share with many others, especially lots of women?

If he’s finished with his career, and has lost his safe space, what can help build a man’s sense of himself?  If movement makes the man, then meaningful movement, connected to life, can help him connect – to himself, others, and the community.  When we think historically of  “men’s work”, we think of farming, building, forging, animal husbandry – important, practical and valued work from our hands and bodies, for our basic needs as a culture. Can we get creative, and re-create these essential and valued movement activities for today’s men, especially as they age?

The “Men’s Shed” movement in Britain and Australia can teach us a lot, and give us inspiration to adapt new spaces in our retirement homes and care communities to meet the special needs of the men we love and care for as they age.  A men’s shed is a designated place for older men to gather, meet, and work together on community projects.  Carpentry, woodworking, metalworking, and crafting are shared activities in these community spaces.

How can you create one? If space allows, a full-size out-building of a small or large shed, garage, or barn is ideal.  In small spaces, a designated table or corner within an existing structure or activity area can suffice with work surfaces and materials that can allow sorting, sanding, simple project-building, and sharing a tall tale or two while “shouldering” or just sitting in companionship with others.

Shouldering is a verb I made up to describe the familiar experience of sitting, standing, walking, or working side by side with another person.  If you’ve had teenagers in your life, you may have found that some of the best conversations you’ve had together happened during car rides.  If you’ve needed to have a difficult or delicate conversation with someone, you may have invited him or her to take a walk with you. Why?  That sitting/standing/walking side by side allows free conversation without the intensity of facing one another and looking (and being looked at) directly. It’s less personal, and so we may feel a bit more free, less inhibited, in speaking out loud.

For many men, putting their shoulders together side-by-side into a practical work project allows companionship and socialization in a comfortable, non-threatening way.

How To Implement a Men’s Club or Men’s Shed Program

Schedule it. Put it on your Activity or Community Calendar, and find a space to designate for shouldering activities.

Plan it. Additional themes of sports, cars, politics, geography, machinery, inventions, games, history add spice and new flavors to the mix.

Man it. Find a male staff member or volunteer to facilitate the sessions if possible.

Make it meaningful. In Gloucestershire, England, a men’s shed project for men over 5o to refurbish tools to be sent to Africa was sponsored by a local charity wanting to engage retired men who are at risk of isolation.  Within our own communities, we can be inspired to create toys for children or animals, garden planters and risers, small stools.  For those with dementia, provide a safe environment that allows sorting of materials, interesting and unusual containers and lids, and safe tools and materials to handle, build, and wrap with.

Make it green. Consider natural materials to enrich and engage the senses.  Raw wood, cloth, sheep’s wool, sandpaper, soil, plants all contribute to sense of touch, smell, sight, self-movement, vitality – essential for healthy living and aging.

For more information on Men’s Sheds, visit this link.

Good luck, and let us know how it goes!

Valerie Baadh Garrett

Agile Aging

Dear conference attendees, you’re the first getting these tips, the Really Good Ones for the top issues ringing through our recent tour with CALA.

When confronted with the out-loud question posed by my colleague Dorothy Passarella, “What are your issues working with Alzheimer’s and dementia residents?” a stillness of thought permeated the room.  Soon the room was popcorn-ing with comments, and once folks began talking we could hear a recurring theme, “working with the families.”

We know from painful experience that aging and dementia happen not just to one individual, but to their entire family who love and tended them to the brink of what they can handle.  They are at the ends of their ropes when they come to us.  We’re caregivers not only for the elders. The families need our care too.

How to begin the delicate conversations that can help move and heal families through their feelings of denial and frustration and anxiety and just plain fear?  We spoke of the personal space of each of us, and the qualities of safety, calmness, and agitation that can be aroused as we share our community spaces together through movement and other sensory activities.  How can use this knowledge to help the families?

We asked for a show of hands for which communities hosted Family Support Groups.  Although less than half raised their hands, interest and good intentions to start such programs seemed universal.  How to implement such a program was a question left hanging in the air for a future conversation.

I have a few good ideas to get things moving for you.  You can get started right away with these straightforward tips.

• Stretch your Wellness program to include the families of residents in health, art, and movement events.  Include multi-generational events to help families feel at home.  Movement will free up the voice and the feelings and is a good start to any gathering.  I can even come and give you a kick-start with our Agile Aging Wellness Partner program, and if you look around you certainly have talented people in your midst to build a worthwhile education series.

• Add a regular monthly Family Club with a trained counselor facilitating a short seminar and/or video and discussion and a nice meal.

• Be the first on your block to screen this heart-felt film (10 minutes) that humanizes our loved ones with dementia, Ten Glorious Seconds, that just launched last week.  Be a community leader in bringing latest news and media to share and open the door to those invaluable conversations. (If you follow my tweets on Twitter I am good with relaying special “buzz” that’s out there in our field.)

In my next blogs, I’ll be talking a lot more about activities for men with Agile Aging, and how to Green Your Program.

Valerie Baadh Garrett, from Agile Aging, your Movement Mentor with dynamic wellness and movement programs for all mature adults.


Over the past few weeks I’ve met staff and caregivers from scores of senior living communities across California while sharing New Sensory Activities for Alzheimer’s and Dementia.  We heard some strong recurring themes from you, the Executive Directors, Administrators, Nursing and Activities staff members working with the elderly.

Issue #1. You are preparing for the “silver tsunami” of Alzheimer’s and other dementia residents that will be heading your way in the future.  If you don’t already have a special wing or residence for this growing population, you will.  Your corporate offices are fast-tracking the development of such residences.  Many communities are scrambling to meet the demand.  For some, this means considering converting existing assisted living wings into Memory Care. For many communities, there are vacancies in Assisted Living (some at 60% although I met some at 100% occupancy) while Memory Care centers are likely full with waiting lists.  Families are keeping their loved ones at home as long as they can, but often a crisis in caregiving leads to urgent need for placement in special-care residences, maybe yours.  Just how will you meet the demand?

Issue #2. How to work with the families who are often in denial and in need of their own healing care was a major issue, spoken at every one of our workshops.  A first step might be to Contact the Alzheimer’s Association’s page for Family Support groups, start one, and be the first in California to get on the list. (No kidding, there are no groups in California listed, so, why not be first?)

Issue #3. How to better engage the men in meaningful activities was another question we heard.  This is the theme of next week’s first blog which gives you some terrific new ideas and links to explore, with “green” inspiration from around the world.

Issue #4. How can we remember these movement activities and bring them back to our staff and residents?  That’s easy!  Our Wellness Partner Program gives you all that and more. Some of what we did is on our DVD series, and the CDs will refresh your memories too.

Issue #5. How is Agile Aging and California Assisted Living Association helping to look at the silver tsunami that’s building.  With assisted living demand project to double by 2020, how are we planning?

I’ll make some suggestions in my next blogs this week and next.

Next up: Top Tips for Working With Families

by Valerie Baadh Garrett from Agile Aging, your Movement Mentor, with dynamic wellness programs for mature adults and communities

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Brainstorming Pays Off for Active Aging Week

In July I hosted a couple of conference calls, inviting folks to join me in brainstorming ideas for low-cost, high-value events for your community during Active Aging Week, September 20 – 26, 2010. Some of the best ideas I’m sharing here.  In case you don’t know, the American Council on Active Aging (ACAA), a non-profit advocacy organization, hosts this week each year, and offers support in order to engage individuals and organizations in their mission, activity for seniors. ACAA offers pre-written PR, media releases, nation-wide visibility with their online events listing, and an Active Aging Week logo – all for free, all to help us help our communities get active. The 2010 theme is “Be Active Your Way.”

I have a professional interest in this, of course. As President of Agile Aging – Senior Wellness, I want everyone to get moving! This September week, with ACAA’s support and affiliation, is a terrific opportunity for everyone, on a number of levels. For my own network, which is senior centers, retirement communities, Assisted Living corporations, fitness instructors, physical and occupational therapists, caregivers, and everyone of a certain age, it is a chance to get focused to engage, educate, and move toward a more active, and more varied, lifestyle.

While our main objective is health and wellness, there’s a good PR angle here, too. Some organizations may feel like they’re already doing enough within their regular programs, but others can share my perspective that this is a great chance to stand out, shine, and even SHOUT OUT – and be seen as a leader for health and wellness in their own neck of the woods.

While you may be doing a lot of great things with your own community, my suggestion is to open your doors, and do something to engage the wider community – your neighbors, families, professionals, and caregivers.

It doesn’t need to take money. It just takes a wee bit of initiative, inspiration, and creativity. Which we had plenty of, expressed in our brainstorming sessions.

Some of our ideas are pretty rockin’, I think. Some, you may have already thought of yourself. Here’s just some of our ideas.

Fall Prevention Programs. This week is the first week of fall, and what a good time to focus on fall prevention programs. You could even have Fall Prevention Day on the first day of fall. I’m doing some workshops for RCFEs that week I’m calling, “Prevent Falls for Active Aging”, which will be a combination of educational seminar and unique, fun, and effective activities from my Agile Aging program. These are not only for the residents, but open to the public (with a strong PR campaign behind them, to get the word out) with snacks, too, of course. Everything goes better with snacks.

Stop And Smell the Roses Scavenger Hunt. We brainstormed about the idea of a scavenger hunt, with clues and a course to follow, that not only would be great fun, get people moving and exploring, but would also allow dignity for those who can’t range far and wide. Thanks, David, of Rose Villa in Portland, Oregon, for his contributions to the idea of slowing down and noticing nature around us. So, rather than a rush-rush kind of hunt, where the fastest who find the most win, perhaps another approach would be more appropriate. Engage the senses of smell, sight, touch, taste, balance, motion. Notice the bees in the lavender, the songbirds in the trees and on the fence, the motion of the water flowing in the fountain. Connecting ourselves with the bounties of nature for those with limited mobility can enhance all the senses of life, and give movement to our emotions as well as our bodies.

Walk Your Age – Host AARP’s 10 Week Walking Program. This is not new, or a secret, but another wonderful program you can affiliate with, and host. How about hosting the walk from your parking lot or front door? Within your community or staff you can probably find someone interested in being the Walk Leader. Gather, strap on your pedometers (a nice touch – you can even have them personalized with your own logo), and off you go. Offer refreshments (water, healthy snacks) upon their return.

Where Did I Put My Glasses? This program, not obviously a movement program, addresses the concern we all have when we start to forget little things – is this the start of Alzheimer’s? But I can see it as an activity program too, of learning to retrace our steps either physically or in our mind’s eye, practicing re-membering.

These are just a sampling of the ideas that came flowing from our brainstorming. Maybe you have some others to share. Please let us know!

For more great tips on movement for Agile Aging, visit my website at

You are standing on the warm sands of a beach in Hawaii, looking out over the gentle waves. Underneath your toes you feel the sand, and when you look down, you see that the sand is a beautiful pale green. As you step forward into the small foamy wavelet, your toes leave tiny prints in the wet sand. The water is warm, and the waves are very gentle. You enter the water to your ankles, to your knees, and feel the warmth penetrate your skin, your muscles, to your very bones. The water reaches your waist, and you hover there, enjoying the buoyancy. You take two more steps, and the water softly rises to your breastbone, to your heart. Your arms float gently, effortlessly, across the top of the water. You are poised, balanced, suspended lightly on your feet, sensing the slow ebb and flow of the watery forces around and even through you…

This experience is an example of an image I often use with clients and classes to create warmth, balance, and ease. It works, but just how?

Imagery is the art and science of creating imaginations or visualizations. It is often used as “mental practice” or “mental rehearsal” by athletes and performers, and by others learning or practicing a new skill.  Imagery along with physical practice has been shown to increase success in performing a movement or sequence of actions by up to 35%, whether you are a car mechanic putting together an engine, or an Olympic skater preparing for competition.

For those recovering from serious illness or trauma, imagery can be a powerful tool for health and healing. Studies of stroke patients using “motor imagery” have pointed to significant benefits, with  imagery being viewed as a “back door” to accessing the body through the mind. Stroke patients have been helped with walking, other activities of daily life (ADLs), and in using robotic limbs, all through the power of their imaging.

Consistently, patients who worked with imagery in addition to physical therapy or movement practice showed greatest improvements. Likewise, people with severe pain have been found to benefit from “graded motor imagery” – imagery practiced with movement in a sequential progression. Studies of patients with spinal cord injuries show possible benefits, while those of Parkinson’s Disease patients are controversial (some are helped, some not).  Other areas of applications of imagery for healing include asthma, heart disease, and cancer as well as substance abuse.

For seniors and caregivers of the elderly, the news is also good.  Imagery has been shown to be valuable in improving balance and stability, two important factors in maintaining mobility and preventing falls.

Using our imaginations is not just pretending. Our bodies often can’t tell the difference between an actual experience or an imagination of one. Studies show that our nerves respond to our imaging as though we are actually doing the activity, to a degree. That means that the movements are actually practiced by the body, without the body moving.  And, when we practice imagery along with actual movement, we get more practice and build new and stronger pathways.  For example, an imagery and strength study by the Cleveland Clinic showed that strength improved 35% for the group that used imagery together with strength training versus the group that did strength training only!

For our general health, we can using imagery to create calm, energy, or healing responses. We can also use vivid imaginative pictures to give direction and changes of quality to our movements. Eric Franklin, who has developed an extensive practice in imagery called the Franklin Method®, offers imaginations for dancers and others to activate new gestures in the way a movement is done. We can imagine our arms as wings, our knees as springs. Jaimen McMillan, founder of the Spacial Dynamics® approach to movement education and movement therapy, uses imagery in simple, profound exercises that help to heal the emotional and physical body, with very practical applications as well.  For example, while chopping carrots, rather than pushing down on the knife one can imagine a magnet on the other side of the cutting board, drawing the knife downwards.  Instead of strain, one feels ease.

In my Agile Aging – Senior Wellness program, imagery is a vital component. Every “exercise” is actually a movement sequence or activity AND imagery.  Rather than the mechanical “turn the head this way and that,” one follows the arc of a rainbow from this side to the other, for example.  This approach takes time and practice, both to teach and to learn to follow and build the inner pictures, but the benefits of imagery are huge.  It’s fun, it’s colorful, it’s connected to pleasant experiences in nature, and it’s effective.  One elderly participant described a situation when she almost fell while walking her little dog.  “But just as I started to lose my balance I remembered [a specific image from the class] and it worked!  I stumbled a few steps but I didn’t fall!”

By using the mind’s eye, the body and soul can move in new and stronger ways – to enhance a feeling of well-being, maintain strength and mobility, emphasize our connection to nature, and give suggestions for a new approach to moving through all the days of our lives – with confidence and ease.

Now, back to our green sand beach and stress-free Hawaiian holiday – in our imagination, of course!

Valerie Baadh Garrett

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Cowan, T, Fallon, S, McMillan, J. Healing the emotional body from The Fourfold Path to Healing, 2004, pp 41-86, 363-422, New Trends Publishing.

Dickstein R, Deutsch JE.  Motor imagery in physical therapist practice. Phys Ther. 2007;87:942–953.

Franklin, E.  Dance Imagery for technique and performance. 1996, HumanKinetics.