Tuesday, April 29, 2003

Learning to respect hand jive

I was trying to keep a straight face when I sat down with Greg Irwin, who calls himself a finger fitness expert. Pulling on alarmingly colored spandex gloves - one aqua, one pink - he performed a digital ballet, his hands flashing as his fingers contorted in impossible ways.

He likes to say he takes an "athletic approach by isolating and exercising natural hand and finger movements." He demonstrated, bending his index finger straight down at the knuckle. I can do this. Then he does the same thing with each of his fingers, without moving the adjacent digits. He lost me.

Greg, a music teacher and entrepreneur, began exercising his hands when he was studying piano at Miami University. He doesn't understand why we don't take better care of the 27 small bones and 37 muscles in our hands. We've never needed them more, he insists. "Look at all the kids on computers. We sit them down with a keyboard and a mouse for eight hours a day with no conditioning. They are blowing their hands out."

Finger fitness abroad

Greg's wife, Lorraine, co-authored his book, Finger Fitness, and helps market the company's products on their Web site (www.handhealth.com) . They live in Hamilton, but say they're on a global mission to raise the awareness of hand health.

Greg has appeared on TV in Germany, Holland, Japan, Spain and, most frequently, in China. The Chinese, he says, have great respect for the therapeutic benefits of hand exercise and Chinese health balls, two iridescent spheres, are part of his Healthy Hand Gym. But the Chinese "never thought of two-handed stuff," he says.

This does not surprise me, I told him, with a surge of nationalism. Nobody there ever thought of a fork either.

Greg has appeared in America with Johnny Carson, Penn & Teller and Jay Leno, but he's readily available to schools and senior centers. "I'll go anywhere," he says. "It's that important. The first generation of computer kids are graduating from college, the ones who started with Pac Man and Nintendo. I've had college students tell me they can't open a jar." Regular conditioning of hand muscles, he says, can prevent pain, aches and injuries.

"I don't doubt it," says Dr. John McDonough, a partner at Cincinnati Hand Surgery Consultants and an associate professor of surgery at the University of Cincinnati. "It's a great idea, especially for people with a family history of arthritis. It might forestall future problems. I just wonder whether people will actually do it."

Greg Irwin reels off a list of times and places to exercise your hands. When you're watching TV, waiting in lines, in a traffic jam, during a boring play. You can do it instead of cracking your knuckles or biting your nails.

I pictured my newly fit fingers flying over a keyboard, answering my e-mails in half the time. I pictured my friend, Cathy, after surgery for carpal tunnel. I pictured my grandmother's hands, twisted with arthritis. I pictured Greg's hands, in aqua and pink leotards, dancing a happy little jig.

And I was not laughing.

E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com or phone 768-8393.

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