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"I am a dancing machine and clean fuel keeps me on my feet," notes Emmy-nominated choreographer and Dancing with the Stars Mirrorball champion, Tony Dovolani. With a demanding training and performance schedule, Tony understands firsthand the importance of optimal nutrition and exercise in maintaining peak fitness and health. "My lifestyle can apply to most anyone, not just professional athletes like football players, golfers, or competitive dancers," Tony adds, suggesting that a regimented diet and lifestyle approach is surprisingly approachable – regardless of whether you work on the field, in the office, or even on the dance floor.
KG: I would like to begin by discussing your typical warmup routine, and how you prepare for long hours of training and performing.
TD: Preparation for the long day ahead is key and that includes getting sufficient sleep. First thing in the morning, I perform a 10-minute stretch routine, which involves reactivating all the firing muscles in my body. Oftentimes people end up only stretching the big muscles like the biceps, calves, shoulder, and chest muscles. I cannot stress this enough – upon waking you need to stimulate blood flow to the firing muscles. One of the most common injuries sustained during workouts or during those grueling months of training involve firing muscles, which are not getting enough blood to them. Like I said, preparation is key, and we often use the firing muscles without first getting them prepared for the day.
KG: I suspect this routine can apply to both professional and hobby athletes alike?
TD: Absolutely. This mindset and approach can help anybody, in any profession. For example, if you're sitting for most of your day, you have to make sure your back stays activated. Schedule stretching into your workday. I would even suggest performing 20 pushups and 20 sit-ups twice per day if you're able. Twenty pushups and 20 sit-ups are actually not a lot of work, you know, especially if your job is largely sedentary. These basic exercises stimulate blood to every part of your body and help keep the muscles around your spine and legs activated.
KG: Ultimately, you don't have to be a professional athlete to think like one.
TD: It's a lifestyle choice, that's what it comes down to. And like an athlete, you have to just keep at it and continue moving forward, whether it's reaching your goal of 40 pushups per day or fueling your body with whole foods. Thinking and eating like an athlete might sound intimidating, but it's about improving your overall performance, no matter what you do. That said, don't over-push yourself doing those pushups (even athletes get injured), just take it step-by-step.
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KG: Speaking of over-pushing yourself, I understand you sustained a severe back sprain in 2012 while performing with Melissa Rycroft on Dancing with the Stars. In retrospect, did insufficient muscle activation perhaps play a role in the injury?
TD: The Dancing with the Stars schedule is very fast-paced, and we literally don't get any breaks at all. As a choreographer on a fast-paced show, you simply don't have time to think things through, so I ended up performing a lift without a proper warmup. Believe it or not, I tweaked my firing muscle because it wasn't warmed-up; I pulled it out of place.
KG: The fast-paced environment took a toll on you physically, but is there a psychological component to injury? I have read that stress affects microcirculation, which may in turn predispose athletes to injury.
TD: Stress is the cause of many different conditions, but when it comes to physicality, stress can create emotion-bound tension in your muscles. In other words, your muscles lose flexibility. It's almost like making a fist – your muscles are bound. Now imagine you're doing exercises, which require full stretch and flexibility of your muscles…. Injury is almost inevitable if your muscles are bound like a fist. In this case you have to start thinking about introducing a breathing system that allows your bound muscles to relax. Granted, you might still be stressed, and it's easy to say "just relax," but breathing exercises improve blood oxygen and ultimately help the muscles start relaxing.
KG: A mental warmup before the physical warmup, so-to-speak.
TD: That's right. Slow, deep breathing promotes relaxation of bound muscles and can ease the stress response that predisposes you to injury.
KG: As a dancer, can your shoes cause bound muscles? More generally speaking, is footwear an important consideration in muscle pain and injury?
TD: Constrictive and rigid footwear definitely does make you more vulnerable to injury. Just think about it – if the foot is constrained then the blood flow is constrained. So, what I always do is encourage all the dancers to flex their feet when they have a five-minute break, or even if it's a one-minute break. Take your shoes off. Between the grueling dance schedule and being on my feet all day, what really helps with preventing foot pain and reducing inflammation is contrast hydrotherapy. On Dancing with the Stars, for instance, at the first opportunity I would head directly to the bathroom and run hot water over my feet, after which I'd switch to cold water. Just go back and forth between hot and cold water. At the end of a long day, a contrast foot bath is helpful for just about anyone, not just athletes.
KG: That's a perfect segue to my next question regarding your treatment approach for musculoskeletal injuries. I recently spoke with your fellow Dancing with the Stars cast member Maksim Chmerkovskiy, and he mentioned responding well to alternative treatment modalities like platelet rich plasma (PRP) prolotherapy and stem cell injections. Have you experimented with similar therapies, as part of your treatment protocol?
TD: I have not, though I do believe in those therapies because I've seen results. Fortunately, I haven't needed to use them because my injuries are relatively minimal. Maks called me recently, and he goes, "You know Tony, it is pretty amazing – you're 45 and have not had a single major injury." And I said, "Max, the thing is, I dance every day. I dance literally every single day. I never stop. My body is never inactive. More importantly, I always stretch and make sure to massage my muscles." That said, PRP and stem cells are wonderful therapies, I think it's great to help your body heal itself.
KG: Have you experimented with acupuncture, cupping, or even homeopathy?
TD: Yes, I have used homeopathy, cupping, and acupuncture. I like to experiment just to see what works for me and what doesn't. I have to say those particular natural therapies work well, but I find that meditation and breathing exercises are primary. Even the most natural therapy cannot truly work until you first learn how to listen to your body, breathe, and harness your body's natural healing processes. When you're injured or stressed, tuning into your body through breathwork and awareness are the first-line therapy.
KG: And by extension, awareness of posture and body alignment play a role in injury treatment and prevention?
TD: Yes, why not? Self-awareness should include being mindful of your posture and balance. No matter whether you're sitting, standing, jogging, dancing, meditating, or picking something up, correct posture will result in fewer injuries and greater gains. Good balance – or what I call "zero balance barrier" – involves centering your weight right in the middle of your foot. So, to get a sense of correct weight distribution, rock back and forth and then naturally reposition back to the middle of your foot. Long term, "zero balance barrier" can help relieve stress on the lower back – a region where we tend to carry a lot of stress. Because we're not always mindful of posture and balance (we tend to push our hips forward or arch our back) it's important to stretch the lower back throughout the day. What I do is I stand with my back flat against the wall – it's a simple and effective stretch. So those are the things that I constantly keep in mind. And if I may add, that's what kept me the same height.
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