Advice for Dancers: Spinning Out

September 30, 2014

Is cycling safe for dancers? Plus, why allergy meds may affect your appetite

I developed the habit of taking seven spin classes a week during my summer break. It’s been great for my endurance, but my muscles are looking bulkier in ballet. Is spinning bad for dancers?

—Ashley, Miami, FL

The answer depends on your body’s composition. All of us are born with a mix of fast- and slow-twitch muscle fibers. If you are muscular, you most likely have more fast-twitch fibers responsible for short bursts of strength, speed and a dynamic jump. Unfortunately, these fibers are 30 to 40 percent bigger than their slow-twitch counterparts and are more likely to bulk up when you engage in high-impact aerobic exercises, such as jogging, or activities like spinning that overwork the quadriceps and buttocks. In contrast, dancers who have more lean slow-twitch fibers, which are responsible for endurance, can work for longer periods but often lack tone and require weight-lifting exercises to build muscle mass. It’s great that you are creating a better balance by focusing on the slow-twitch fibers that increase your aerobic capacity. But to avoid bulking up, consider switching from spinning to swimming, which has no impact, or the elliptical machine, which has minimal impact and spreads the workload across your arms and legs. An effective cross-training program during breaks from dance alternates aerobics three times a week with strength and stretching sessions and a day of rest. In your case, Pilates will help you acquire a leaner look by working the slow-twitch fibers. You can find out which aerobic exercises stress different body parts in my book The Dancer’s Way: The New York City Ballet Guide to Mind, Body, and Nutrition. Note: Spinning can strain the kneecaps, so dancers with troublesome knees beware.

Over the years, I’ve had a tough time with my foot with episodes of pain and weakness, particularly when I relevé or walk. At times it will get better and go away completely only to return. My new physical therapist says I have an unstable cuboid. What does that mean?

—Wayne, Chicago, IL

An unstable cuboid, or cuboid subluxation, occurs when the small cube-shaped bone on the outside of your mid-foot slips partly out of place, causing irritation to the surrounding tissues. While any number of events—from injuries to stepping awkwardly into a lunge—can cause it, hypermobile dancers are especially prone to joints slipping out of place due to loose ligaments. Sadly, a subluxed cuboid is often missed or misdiagnosed as peroneal tendonitis, leaving dancers like you to suffer needlessly for years. You’re fortunate to finally have a practitioner who recognizes the symptoms. Typically, treatment consists of manipulation to move the cuboid back into place and hold it there with adhesive tape, which you can sometimes learn to apply on your own. While the bone may move back where it belongs without manipulation, the longer it’s out, the harder it is to snap back in place. Now that you know the problem, you’ll be able to tell when the bone is out by feeling pain or when something is “off,” allowing you to address it right away. Your physical therapist can also teach you how to put it back yourself by, for example, rolling a small rubber ball under the cuboid. If you do not respond to treatment you may need to see an orthopedist for further studies.

Is it true that allergy shots make you fat? For performances, I want to switch from daily antihistamines to allergy shots, but I’m afraid to risk gaining any more weight. I already eat a lot in spite of seeing a nutritionist and going to the gym.

—Stuffy Nose, Fort Lee, NJ

Actually, you have it backwards. It’s the antihistamines, not the shots, which may contribute to weight gain if you take them on a regular basis. Why? Studies indicate antihistamines can increase your appetite and cravings for carbohydrates because they reduce or block histamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in food intake by causing feelings of satiety. Although these meds curtail your response to allergic triggers, such as pollen—relieving symptoms like a stuffy nose, itchy, watery eyes and even hives—the cost may be your waistline. Check with an allergist to see if you can decrease your intake of antihistamines and explore whether allergy shots are right for you.

Send your questions to:

Dr. Linda Hamilton

2000 Broadway, PH2C, New York, NY 10023

e-mail: [email protected]

Former New York City Ballet dancer Linda Hamilton, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice, the author of Advice for Dancers (Jossey-Bass) and co-author of The Dancer’s Way: The New York City Ballet Guide to Mind, Body, and Nutrition (St. Martin’s Griffin). Her website is