Make way for roller derby resurgence

Competitive sports are among the most popular forms of entertainment in the world.

Sometimes a sport is more heavily weighted on the entertainment aspect rather than competition. In either situation, the physical demands on participants can be dramatic. This is certainly the case with roller derby.

Originating in the mid-western United States in the 1920s, roller derby is now undergoing a resurgence among fitness-minded women who demand excitement as part of their work outs. The athletic aspect of the sport demands excellent balance, strength and stamina. The entertainment side is pure fun for participants and audience.

A team consists of five “derby girls” on the track at any time. Points are scored when a player who is designated as a jammer is able to lap opposing players. This can only be done during a two minute period known as a jam.

Like all skating sports, core body strength is essential for success in roller derby. Each hour of participation burns approximately 400 calories. In addition to leg strength required for skating, upper body fitness is necessary to block opponents.

Cardiovascular stamina is a big factor in withstanding the 20-minute periods of skating, blocking and maneuvering. Strategy plays an important role in success. Players must be aware of offensive and defensive opportunities.

Debra Frank is a nurse from Mystic who recently decided to follow a childhood dream of joining a roller derby team. She began by trying out for the Connecticut Roller Girls this spring and is one of only seven new recruits.

“Roller derby attracts people from all walks of life, levels of education and ethnicities who wish to participate in a sport that allows you to step out of your current existence and into an alter ego,” said Frank.

Roller derby is certainly not a conventional sport, but it provides an excellent outlet for women to get in shape, relieve life’s frustrations and enjoy the
camaraderie of others.

As outdoor activities increase, so does tick risk

Spring has finally arrived in New England and opportunities for outdoor activities abound. Along with many of these, there is increased exposure to tick-borne illnesses.

Tick-borne illnesses include a variety of infections transmitted among animals (including humans) by ticks.

A tick will feed on an infected animal, the tick then becomes infected and passes the bacteria along by lodging itself in the skin of other animals and humans.

Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is the most common tick-borne illness in the United States. In the northeast, Lyme disease is the most well-known. Diseases such as Ehrlichiosis and Babesiosis, while still rare, are gradually becoming more recognized.

Hiking, mountain biking, fishing and golf are among the activities where participants are most vulnerable to tick bites and potential Lyme disease. Following some basic rules can prevent infection:

• Stay on trails and avoid walking through high grass. This warning is especially important for golfers who invariably find themselves searching for an errant golf ball.
• Minimize exposed skin. Although it is recommended that long trousers and sleeves be worn, this is often not practical. Insect repellent should be applied liberally on any exposed area. Carefully read the label and be sure that it contains DEET and will be effective against ticks.
• Self-examine every three hours while in the field and more thoroughly after the activity. Showering to remove any residue from repellents is crucial and a good opportunity to search for ticks. Children must also be vigilantly examined, especially on the scalp.
• Four-legged companions are also susceptible and repellents such as “Frontline” are recommended by many veterinarians. Brushing with a fine comb after a hike can often find hidden ticks.
• Immediate removal of a tick is imperative. A tweezer works best and the area should be cleansed with antiseptic after removal.

When out on the golf course, pause before going into the deep grass to retrieve your ball or a newly found treasure.

Anthony G. Alessi, MD, is Chief of Neurology at The William W. Backus Hospital and in private practice at NeuroDiagnostics, LLC, in Norwich. E-mail him at, or listen to his podcasts, comment on his blog or buy his book at

“Brain gyms” can build intellectual muscle

Physical exercise is well-known to help brain function. A regimen of regular exercise has been shown to slow the progression of neurologic diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. There is now information suggesting that improved cognitive ability may result in more competitive athletic performance.

Previously it was believed that the brain could not repair or reorganize the networks contained within it. More recently, terms like “neural plasticity” and “cortical reorganization” have been used to describe these mechanisms of recovery. They are witnessed after stroke or brain trauma and result from early intervention in the form of aggressive physical, occupational and speech rehabilitation.

People beginning to experience memory deficits and difficulty completing complex tasks they previously found easy are turning to so called “brain gyms.”

Facilities such as Vibrant Brains, Nifty after Fifty and Sparks of Genius set up mental workouts for patrons on a variety of computer programs. These workouts are designed by trainers and are based on cognitive weaknesses.

“Cognitive rehabilitation has always emphasized improvement of attention skills,” said Dr. Christopher Tolsdorf, a neuropsychologist who specializes in neuropsychometric testing in his Norwich office. “This is best accomplished by memorization. This alone will improve the ability to attend, concentrate and focus.”

Tolsdorf is a fan of teaching children rote memorization of academic material.

Tolsdorf also believes that focusing on one skill like crossword puzzles or Sudoku will only make someone better at those games. Variety is an important factor in rebuilding cognition.

Several brain gyms combine mental and physical exercise with classes on improved nutrition. Many participants have attributed improved athletic performance in sports like tennis and golf to their increased attentiveness.

While the benefits of brain gyms are based on conjecture and theory rather than accepted scientific proof, the concept that diet and physical exercise improve brain function is well-documented in scientific literature.

You may want to quickly memorize a sonnet as part of your warm-up on the driving range.

YMCA closure limits fitness options when they are needed most

Diet and exercise are critical to reducing chronic illness. Any program that incorporates these elements demands discipline. During challenging economic times establishing good health habits becomes more difficult since there are increased demands on time. Another unanticipated obstacle is that affordable, easily accessed opportunities for fitness are more difficult to find.

Many small cities and towns have been able to offer community facilities where people can participate in activities such as swimming, team sports and athletic classes at minimal cost. These facilities typically rely on a precarious combination of public funding, donations and membership fees to meet their obligations. In the past year many have experienced a decline in all three revenue sources while being faced with increasing expenses. These facilities are now closing their doors -- leaving many without access to a variety of activities.

In Norwich, it has been the YMCA that has provided an indoor pool where infants and toddlers learn to swim. The elderly participate in aquatic exercise programs to ease the excess strain on arthritic joints. A licensed daycare facility helps relieve some of the pressure on working families while providing a sports diversion to many young people. Unfortunately, the Norwich YMCA will be closing this week.

“No program at the YMCA is designed to make money,” said Attorney Michael Lahan, who serves as chairman of the volunteer board responsible for managing the Norwich branch of the YMCA. “All membership fees go directly to supporting programs that help others. The physical plant at the downtown location is an integral part of the city and the only way to survive will be through a coalition of organizations.”

It is no secret that health costs are rising rapidly in the United States. Much of those dollars go to treating chronic problems like obesity, hypertension and diabetes. It’s time we begin to invest these resources for prevention rather than treatment.