DEAR DR. DONOHUE: I can play just about any position in baseball including catcher and pitcher, but I’m not a good hitter. I read that a faster swing somehow makes it easier to hit the ball. Would training with weights give me a faster swing? How do I go about it? – D.K.

ANSWER:
Hitting a fast-pitched baseball is not an easy feat. There isn’t a whole lot of time from the point when the ball leaves a pitcher’s hand until it reaches the optimum spot to hit it. The eye eats up some of the time by registering where the ball is. More time passes transmitting that information to the brain and having the brain estimate if the ball should be swung at. Finally, the act of swinging the bat takes up more time. Having a faster swing gives you and your brain more time to spend on the other aspects of hitting the ball.

Weight training will help. It will give you more grip strength and faster wrist snap, both of which are involved in bat velocity. You want to exercise the muscles between the wrist and the elbow – the forearm muscles. You also need to exercise leg and abdominal muscles. The speed and force of a bat swing are generated by those muscles.

Practice swinging with heavier and lighter bats. A bat used in a game weighs 30 ounces. Practice with a bat that weighs around 34 ounces. There are weighted donuts that you can put on a bat to make it heavier. The strength gained in weight training doesn’t always transfer to increased strength in a particular action, like swinging a bat. You need to work the muscles in the same way they work when they’re busy swinging. That’s called sport specificity. A heavier bat gives you sport specificity. A lighter bat, when alternated with a heavier one, also increases the speed of a swing. You want to use one that weighs about 27 ounces.

Strength training is only one aspect of improving bat speed and your ability to hit a ball. Increasing a skill at anything takes practice and practice. You have to keep practicing until ball hitting becomes almost a reflex action.

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: I am 78 and would like to know which is a better exercise for me – a stationary bike or walking? Which burns more calories and gets your heart pumping more? – R.T.

ANSWER:
Walking at a rate of three miles an hour burns about 6 calories a minute. Biking at a speed of five and a half miles an hour expends close to the same number of calories a minute.

You can judge for yourself. Take your pulse while you’re walking and compare it with your pulse when you’re pedaling. If they’re about the same, you’re burning a similar number of calories and your heart is getting a similar workout.

You know, these things don’t have to be an “either-or” proposition. You can alternate both exercises. You involve different muscles when you do.

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: I’m a lacrosse player. My dad says I’d be a better player if I could keep my balance. I fall a lot, and not from being hit. I think I’m a bit klutzy. Is there some way I can keep myself in better balance? – K.V.

ANSWER:
Books have been written on balance exercises, so there’s no shortage of material for you.

If you want a simple balance exercise, try this. You don’t need any special equipment other than a couple of light weights. Stand on one leg. Make it your right leg, so I can describe the exercise more easily.

With a light weight held in your left hand and with the hand at about head level, bend down, bringing the weight to the outside of your right ankle. Got the picture? Repeat the exercise five times, then switch hands and legs, and repeat for another five times.

This isn’t a balance exercise for older people. This is meant for younger ones who can fall without breaking a bone.

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: On a routine blood test, my sed rate was 51. My doctor asked if I felt ill or had an infection. I had had a root canal done, and it was quite painful for a week. A month later, the sed rate was 48, and two weeks later it was the same.

Do you have any suggestions of what could be the cause? I am a healthy, active, 73-year-old woman. – G.B.

ANSWER:
The sed rate (sedimentation rate, actually erythrocyte sedimentation rate) is a simple, inexpensive test that’s not diagnostic of any particular illness, but it indicates that there is inflammation somewhere in the body. All it takes is a little blood and a specially calibrated tube.

Blood is put in the tube and the distance the red blood cells drop (sediment) from the top of the tube in one hour gives the sed rate. It’s not what you’d call a brain-intensive, high-tech test.

Normally, the sed rate for men is 15 mm/hour, and for women it’s 20. For men older than 50, it’s 20, and for women the same age it’s 30.

Infections, inflammations, anemia, rheumatoid arthritis, high cholesterol and some cancers increase the sed rate. Surgery can raise it for more than one month, and your root canal is a possible explanation for your elevation.

Age increases the sed rate. Some state that the normal value for a man is his age divided by two. For a woman, it’s her age plus 10 divided by two. A woman your age, therefore, could have a sed rate of 41.5 and still be considered normal. Your rate isn’t far off from that.

Technical problems can influence the sed rate. If the tube is not positioned exactly vertically, the test gives inaccurate results. A deviation of only three degrees from the vertical can increase the sed rate by as much as 30 points.

If a person feels well and has no other abnormal tests, an increased sed rate has little bearing on health. Your doctor is the only one who can assure you that your sed rate has no significance for you.

Dr. Donohue regrets that he is unable to answer individual letters, but he will incorporate them in his column whenever possible. Readers may write him or request an order form of available health newsletters at P.O. Box 536475, Orlando, FL 32853-6475. Readers may also order health newsletters from www.rbmamall.com.


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