While we take pride in sharing the message that a healthy lifestyle is important, it’s also critical to follow that advice and live a healthy lifestyle! Highmark Health employees don’t just talk the talk — we also walk the talk (#IWalktheTalk). In this series, individual employees will share their stories and tips on achieving and maintaining a healthy lifestyle — and also what makes them tick when it comes to health.

Running, hitting the gym, making heart-healthy diet choices, doing an annual screening — these get a lot of attention when we talk about “health.” And they should.

But it’s good to remember that these are not the only ways you can have a positive impact on your health, and that empowerment, connection and joy contribute to well-being, too. Each of us has to find the “health paths” that work best for us. I am very fortunate in that I found two of mine on the same day!

The Stormy Start to Two Life-Changing Activities

During a heavy snowstorm more than 15 years ago, I stumbled onto two health and wellness activities that became a major part of my life. You might even say it was because of the heavy snowstorm that I discovered these activities.

I was excited to attend an international dance conference scheduled at Harrisburg’s Whitaker Center. The event promised workshops in a wide range of dance styles and related activities, from ballet to salsa. Unfortunately, a snowstorm caused the event to be all but snowed out.

I say “all but snowed out” because, while most of the dance instructors from outside the city were unable to make it, there were enough teachers and activities available that the event still offered something for everyone who braved the storm. There weren’t many — but I was one of them.

I hadn’t taken a ballet class in years, so I was thrilled that the ballet teacher made it to one class I had signed up for — which ended up being a one-on-one session!

My other dance selections had been canceled, though, so I looked through my options and settled on African drumming and martial arts. I didn’t have much experience with either of these — but there was no experience necessary. The point of the conference was to give people an opportunity to try new things.

African Drumming: Healing Hands

I was familiar with African drumming because I had been taking African dance classes. I thought of drumming as great music for me (to dance to), but not something I imagined coming from me. I was the quiet, soft-spoken type — a poet, not a drummer.

By contrast, a friend of mine played for the dance class, and her drumming seemed so … boisterous. In hindsight, it was probably her boisterous personality shaping my impression of the drumming, so maybe I just needed a different setting to discover how drumming could also fit my personality.

At the conference, only a handful of people made it to the drumming class. We played the djembe — a goblet-shaped wooden drum with a goat-skin head, played with your hands, not with sticks. I don’t remember what we played as a class or even much about the sound of that session. What I remember is the way my hands felt afterward.

I had begun experiencing stiffness in my thumb joints around that time. I thought it might be arthritis, although I also felt too young for that. However, after we finished drumming, my hands felt great … warm and supple. I immediately noticed that the stiffness in my thumbs was completely gone.

Leigh playing a hand drum

Enjoying an opportunity to perform with other drummers at a local festival.

I fell in love — and I’ve been drumming ever since that workshop. I’ve learned traditional West African rhythms and songs, become part of our growing local drumming community, and performed with various groups of drummers in the area. The health benefits have gone far beyond keeping my hands healthy. Over the years, African drumming has served as excellent stress relief, and it has improved my well-being through its meditational, educational and social aspects.

It’s also a good upper body workout — yes, we break a sweat when we’re drumming for dancers! The drumming sessions build endurance, and I feel sure that the classes, study, and ongoing skill-building are all helping to keep my brain healthy, too!

Martial Arts: Empowerment

The other life-changing class I took at the conference was in martial arts. Here again, I was trying something I don’t think anyone (including me) ever expected me to end up studying or practicing. I had been exposed to some martial arts practice when I was young, since my dad, and later my brother, both studied — and I knew the conference class instructor through his family — but that’s about as far as my interest had gone.

Leigh demonstrating a martial arts submission hold in her studio

Demonstrating a fighting technique and submission hold in my studio.

Like the African drumming class, the Whitaker Center conference class on martial arts was small. Other than the instructor, the only person I remember clearly from the class was the guy I was partnered with — and that’s probably because, just from what I learned that day, I was able to bring him to his knees. (That’s a mental image that would stick with any woman, right?)

I don’t remember much about what we did or whether we worked up a sweat or not in the class, but that feeling of empowerment was the big thing I took away that day. In fact, tapping into my own inner strength that way felt so important that I told the instructor after the class, “My life and finances are not right for this now, but one day I will be coming to learn more from you.” I must have told him that a dozen times over the next few years, until I finally had the wherewithal to officially enroll and become a martial arts student.

The style of martial arts I pursued is called the Universal African Fighting Arts System (see sidebar). It is intensely physical. Training has involved years of hard work, sweat, building stamina — and a few injuries along the way. I know people didn’t expect me to stick with it — even the instructor, who told me so, years later. But I fell in love with everything about it — the strength-building, the discipline, the routine, the confidence and so much more.

It took five years to earn my black belt — and about five more to earn my second-degree black belt. Along the way, I started teaching and even opened my own studio (see sidebar) — but the learning never ends. Black belt is a journey, not a destination.

Many Paths to Health: Find Yours!

Leigh in a martial arts pose

Posing in my demonstration uniform for a “sensei” photo.

Both drumming and martial arts have continued to be major parts of my life that keep me healthy and active. Teaching martial arts (and self-defense) allows me to share the fitness benefits and empowerment with others. As the owner of a studio for martial arts, self-defense and West African drumming (and dance) classes, I’ve definitely set myself up to stay active for the long haul!

In a single day, I stumbled onto not one, but two healthy activities that changed my life in ways I never imagined! I feel grateful to have discovered these activities and to have the opportunity to continue practicing them myself, and also share them with others.

But the larger point I want to make is that fitness and wellness can take many shapes. If you’re a runner or love your gym workouts and fitness classes, that’s great. But if those activities don’t resonate for you, keep in mind that there are many other ways to stay active and support good physical and mental health!