You know her now as the first female leader of the free world, a forceful physical presence who stands up to backstabbing senators while calmly dictating international policy.
But actor Geena Davis, who is enjoying another flush of success at age 50 with her Golden Globe-winning portrayal of President Mackenzie Allen in ABC's television series Commander in Chief, hasn't always been so comfortable in her own skin. Sure, she'd garnered millions of fans for her roles in the films Beetlejuice, The Accidental Tourist --- which netted her a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award in 1989 ---and the unforgettable chick flick Thelma & Louise, all by age 35. But she could not have imagined how her life would change when she signed on to portray Dottie Hinson in A League of Their Own.
"I had to play the best baseball player anybody had ever seen, and it was a daunting task," says Davis, who, despite her 6-foot frame and lanky build, had never considered herself athletic or, coordinated, or felt the slightest bit compelled to work out. Before shooting started, she turned to professional coaches and trainers, all of whom were pleased --- and impressed --- with how quickly she took to it.
"I did everything late and backwards. [Turning] 35 started the flowering of my athletic abilities," says Davis, who had made a profound discovery: Health is more than just an absence of physical problems. It is "that feeling of using your body," she says. "Accomplishing something physical was exhilarating."
A Way of Life
Her new self-awareness propelled her toward taking on other physically demanding acting roles. To portray a pirate in Cutthroat Island, Davis learned horseback riding and fencing. "I was hanging off cliffs and swinging from every possible rope."
And to play a secret agent in The Long Kiss Goodnight, at 40 she studied both tae kwon do and ice skating. More impressive, her pistol-shooting trainer on that film told her she had a natural ability, even suggesting that, if she wanted, she could compete. Davis nixed that idea. "You can't exactly practice it in your backyard," she quips. But while watching the 1996 Olympics, she became enamored of archery. "It's a beautiful and dramatic-looking sport," says Davis, who recalls thinking that as a good shooter, she might make a good archer.
Two and a half years later, at age 43 and having studied with a coach, she became a semifinalist for the U.S. Olympic women's archery team. At an age when many people start worrying about declining health, she was feeling better and better about herself, her body, and her appearance.
Now 50 and in better shape than ever --- even after giving birth at 46 to a daughter and at 48 having twin boys --- Davis was delighted to integrate her athleticism into her new television role. After the pilot for Commander in Chief was completed, the show's creator mused that Davis' character should be very fit. Did she have any ideas?
"It just popped into my head," she says. "What if I row on the Potomac? You'd think: Oh, it's the solitude of the early morning, and I'm out there rowing, and then you pull back to see there are all these Secret Service boats following me. He said, 'Great! That sounds fantastic! Learn to row!'"
The challenge-loving actor spent a few months with a trainer. Two rowing machines are currently part of Davis' daily landscape-one is on-set decoration, the other sits in her trailer for practical use. "It's fantastic exercise; it really works your legs and your back," she says.
Davis says that the benefits of all these endeavors extend beyond the physical. "The biggest impact was on my self-esteem. I could use my body to accomplish things that would mean something, have a sense of ownership and boundary about it, and feel it was OK to take up space in the world."
"Somebody said that all sports are 90% mental," says Davis. "I had never stopped to think what my inner monologue was. My archery coach used to ask, 'What did you just think when you shot that arrow?' and I realized I had been saying any number of things that were negative. Because I became aware of this as it related to archery, I became aware of it as it related to other parts of my life."
Davis says that she now tries to replace those put-downs with thoughts of being good enough and doing a good job. "It's a small, practical thing you can do in a very moment-to-moment way," she says. "Mindfulness applies to everything."
"Any exercise can be a moving meditation," agrees Frank Lipman, MD, a board-certified internist and licensed acupuncturist in New York. "The best way to quiet the mind is to move the body." Lipman, who wrote Total Renewal: 7 Key Steps to Resilience, Vitality, and Long-Term Health, says that most people live in their heads all the time.
"When you start moving your body, you get out of your head. It helps physically and mentally. And, because we hold a lot of emotions in the physical musculature, releasing the muscles through movement can help you release emotional patterns, too." Once people experience the benefits of physical movement and feel so much better afterward, they're usually sold, he adds.
As a working mother, Davis understands time constraints. But making fitness a priority can only benefit your family in the long run --- and she's keen on persuading people to start. "You're going to get the benefit of any physical activity, really."
Even if time is scarce, grab 10 minutes with a DVD --- and watch out for negative thoughts. Confused about what activity to embrace? "You can take up country dancing, whatever's fun," she says. "Meet your co-worker at the foot of the stairs and race up to the office. Making it fun doesn't hurt."
Research shows that even the smallest efforts are worthwhile. "We know physical activity is paramount to good health and that people who exercise or are engaged in physical activity that elevates the heart rate have a much lower incidence of most chronic disorders," says Christine Horner, MD, a Taos, N.M.-based author, retired plastic surgeon, and certified personal trainer.
"Physical activity helps lower blood pressure, decreases blood lipids, reduces the risk for heart disease, and even combats and improves anxiety and depression," says Horner, who wrote Waking the Warrior Goddess: Dr. Christine Horner's Program to Protect Against & Fight Breast Cancer, a book about achieving breast health naturally. Physical activity and exercise also increase energy and stamina and sometimes cut the incidence of certain cancers. In a recent study published by the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, regular exercise lowered the risk of breast cancer. Something as simple as brisk walking can be a very effective form of exercise, Horner says.
Paying attention to keeping fit may be even more important as the years go by. "As people get older, they focus on quality of life, but being immobile is what destroys quality of life," says Kevin Stone, MD, an orthopedic surgeon who founded his medical practice, the Stone Clinic, in San Francisco.
Arthritis or other chronic joint pain affects nearly 70 million people in the United States alone, and Stone says people often are confronted with immobility for the first time when they develop the condition. Only then do they realize the importance of trying to regain their mobility. "Joint pain slows down people, so why wait?" he says. "Every decade is precious, and it's important to remain active."
Davis, who's married to Reza Jarrahy, MD, a surgeon who is completing his residency training in plastic surgery, is deeply committed to sharing her message with the younger generation, especially young girls.
"The benefits for encouraging girls to take up sports are well documented," she says. "They include better body image, greater self-esteem, higher grades, less teen pregnancy, and less substance abuse."
The benefits, says Davis, apply to any kind of physical activity where a girl uses her body and feels she inhabits it. Davis and her husband are now at the ball-throwing and catch stage with their own children. "We are trying to be active with them and make that a part of their lives."
But Davis is also active on the subject in a more public way. She's a trustee of the Women's Sports Foundation, through which she has her own website, GeenaTakesAim.com. It provides information about girls' rights to play sports through Title IX, a federal anti-discrimination education policy. And partnered with the nonprofit organization Dads & Daughters, Davis created a foundation called See Jane.
One of See Jane's goals is to bring to public awareness and help change the way young girls are portrayed in the media. When she started watching preschool television programs with her daughter, Davis says she was stunned to see so few female characters, and those that were shown were often sexualized "with body types that couldn't exist in real life.
"Girls are undervalued, highly stereotyped, largely absent, and peripheral to the action," Davis says. "What we're feeding kids as first images is a male-dominated world, whether it's puppets or fish." However, she says, conscientious parents can raise their daughters to know they can have control over their bodies-that their bodies have a purpose, and they can be active, strong, and present.
"The biggest change in my life came from playing sports," she says. "It brought me a tremendous amount of improved body image and self-esteem and led me to improving self-talk. It makes no difference whether you're on the Olympic soccer team, or you go out walking, or you're in a jump-rope club."
The doing, Davis insists, is all that matters.