fitness · health

How far do I have to cycle to burn off a banana cream pie?

CW: mention of weight stigma and eating disorders.

Food labels are a good thing. Otherwise I might have to purchase my own bar code scanner for the kitchen.

graphic drawing of can of food.
can of food. who knows what’s in it?

In the past few years, we’ve seen an increase in calorie-labeling on foods in restaurants and other places that sell food. In the US, this has been the result of public health and consumer advocacy, aided by the passage of the Affordable Care Act. The motivation for mandating calorie labeling is to provide consumers with information to encourage them to make “healthier” food consumption choices (meaning choices in accord with standards set by government agencies like the USDA).

Full disclosure: in my day job as a public health ethicist, I wrote a short piece about calorie labeling. tl:dr version– food policies aimed at increasing health and health equity at the same time are complicated. There are some positive and negative effects of calorie labeling, and other policies and programs are needed to promote health-according-to-everyone.

But that was so 2015. Fast-forwarding to the end of 2019, we now see news reports of a study suggesting that calorie labeling is out, and activity labeling is in. What might activity labeling be? The idea (such as it is) is to put information on food packaging telling you how many minutes you’ll need to walk or run in order to burn the number of calories in said food. Here are some proposed illustrations from the original paper on this topic:

There are so many objections that this idea (such as it is) raises. I have a bunch of them, but first, let’s see what Dr. Yoni Freedhof (who knows and writes a lot about body weight regulation and health policy, among other things) said on Twitter (thanks Sam for pointing this out to me):

Exercise calorie labeling reinforces unhealthy notions that the only point of exercise is burning calories, that doing so affords people shit food, that exercise is the primary driver of weight, and that people with obesity are lazy gluttons.

Yep. I’d say he hit the nail on the head with that tweet. Just to pile on, here are a few more objections:

  • Calorie food labeling has been shown to have negative effects on some populations– it can increase weight stigma, trigger those with eating disorders, and further isolate and marginalize groups already burdened with health disparities. Activity food labeling may produce negative effects as well; we’d need to study this a lot more before implementing anything.
  • It’s not even clear to what extent activity labeling works– the 15 studies used in the original article were small, of variable quality and power, and their results were not stunning.
  • Using walking and running on the labels is inaccurate and seriously ableist. There are other ways to label energy output (e.g. use of METs— thanks, commenter on FB who reminded me of this) that are more accurate and not activity-specific.

Labels can be a good thing when they are accurate, understandable, relevant, not shaming, not exclusionary, and useful. But honestly, if it’s activity labels or nothing, I’ll just do this:

Opening a can to see what's inside.
Opening a can to see what’s inside.

Hey readers, any thoughts or reactions on activity labels on our food? I’d love to hear from you.


What's your wintry mix?

Trees and snow, lots of both and not much else. Photo by Michael on Unsplash

I don’t know what it’s like where you live but here in Guelph it’s definitely winter. I know it officially doesn’t start until the 21st but you really can’t call this autumn weather. The Internet says, “Winter 2019 in Northern Hemisphere will begin on Saturday, December 21 and ends on Thursday, March 19, 2020.” But the snow and the cold are here.

We’ve had a fair bit of “wintry mix” in the forecast. That’s variable precipitation consisting of rain, freezing rain, sleet, or snow. Ugh. We’re in it for the long haul now.

I’m settling into a winter fitness schedule. The base elements, each week are: Zwift, weight training, bike commute, hot yoga.

The ocassional stir-ins are fat biking, aqua-fit, TRX class.

What are the elements of your winter fitness routine? What’s your wintry fitness mix?


Shades in Between

Within the realms of a mind that has not been diagnosed with a clinical disorder, what does a healthy mind look like day-to-day?

At 47, I feel as though I manage most of my demons fairly well. I consider myself to be mentally well. Which does not mean I am happy all of the time.

Thanks to Facebook Memories, and my penchant for oversharing online (but not in real life – the sign of an extroverted introvert?), I can see that my “bad days”, the days where I feel inexplicably irritable, are not a new thing. It may seem they are related to hormones or a frustrating day at the office or too many encounters with self-absorbed humans on the way to work. But the evidence is clear. I am prone to some “bad days” here and there.

I have had my fair share of therapy over the years. I have taught myself how to: turn negative thoughts into positive ones; to exercise regularly for the undeniable mental benefits; to just accept my emotions, not try to change them, but not feed them; to be more careful with others when I recognize I am in that mood; to know that what I think others are thinking of me isn’t necessarily true (and not always important).

Not only have I taught myself how to manage my mind. My experience has made me the “therapist” to those close to me. I provide good advice about how to manage uncomfortable emotions.

The list of major topics that have caused me angst over the years are not unique: heartache, loneliness, academic failures, career discontentment. The way I have dealt with some of my angst has not always been healthy (see a number of uncompleted degrees).

There was a time not that long ago when I thought if I had a couple good days in a row, it was inevitable that a bad day was coming. More often now, I notice that the bad day is really more of a bad morning or a bad afternoon and I am able to infuse the bad day with a lot of good.

And I am able to recognize all the good in my life very deeply. I recognize the small things. The sights and sounds that give me comfort on my way to work (a city I love, the different seasonal delights, a perfectly made americano misto). I am incredibly grateful for the big things that create joy in my life. My husband, my family, friends, dogs, a safe place to live in the world. I also try to put my shit into perspective in comparison to real problems people have on a day to day basis. But I’ve also learned guilt for ones feelings doesn’t make one feel better either.

I am a big believer that people tend to look at things as black or white and that is a mistake. For example, in the media, it seems to me that people are good, until they do something bad, and then they are bad. People are not all good and not all bad. Even the evil people have a sliver of good in them.

Similarly, I think a healthy mind is not black or white. It has many shades in between and many healthy states of being. Some of us absorb a lot of the energy and emotions around us all the time. This can make us incredibly happy, sad, angry, anxious. And well adjusted at the same time.

I am writing this to celebrate all those shades in between.

Note: if you are struggling with feeling happy and you are not sure what to do, please speak to your doctor or mental health professional.

Nicole Plotkin on one of her especially grateful days.
Book Reviews · fitness · motivation

The 100 Day Reclaim: Day 2-10, Three Fit Feminist Bloggers Weigh In

Nia Shanks, 100 Day Reclaim

Three of us are reading Nia Shanks’ The 100 Day Reclaim: Daily Readings to Make Health and Fitness as Empowering as it Should Be.

Read about Day 1 here.

Here’s our reflections on Days 2-10.


My main goal with this book is to find ways to make it easier for my ADHD brain to manage the logistics of daily exercise. In Days 2-10 there are several questions that are helping me to get into the heart of that problem. 

I particularly liked Day 7’s focus on how your daily actions help you build the life you want. That is a reminder that I often need. ADHD makes it challenging for me to see how the pieces of a project add up to the whole. This is especially true for me with exercise since the tangible results can be a long time coming. It’s hard for me to remember to include something in my day when I can’t always see the overall purpose it is building to. 

It’s one thing to *know* that it will lead to feeling stronger over time but remembering that in the moments when I am planning my day is a huge challenge for me. 

Some of the information in Day 8 can help me with that issue though. Day 8 is about recognizing ‘wins’ of all sizes and if I can keep in mind the lessons of Day 2 – which were about focusing on the process rather than the results – I should be able to come up with a way to make my daily exercise a ‘win’ that I can focus on.

I’m finding it interesting to discover, though,  that some of the questions aren’t relevant to me at all. For example,  I don’t need to work on disconnecting my self-worth from my appearance and my goals are not connected to improving just a single area of my body. Shanks has advice on both of those fronts and while her questions are thought-provoking, I don’t need to put a lot of energy into those areas. 

I know that Catherine has some issues with how Shanks keeps using the concept of choice in this part of the book. I can completely see why framing things as ‘choosing who you will be today’ and ‘choosing your lens’ would get on someone’s nerves – there can be a slippery slope between the language of ‘choosing’ and the language of the law of attraction and victim blaming.

My mind didn’t go in that direction because in my coaching practice I get my clients to think about choices but in a different way that you might interpret it here. I use language around choice to help people work on areas where they feel dragged along and reminding them that they do have opportunities to choose can empower some people. However, it does need to be employed judiciously because, depending on someone’s background, it can feel dismissive or like you are blaming them for their situation, which is never helpful.

I have some issues with the ways she discusses goals and eating and weight loss and I feel like there are some value judgments in there but since I am not her audience for those topics, I suspect that she is generally doing what she can to bridge the gap for people who are used to thinking of exercise and fitness in terms of weight loss and visual results.


Nia spends a lot of time on days 2—10 talking about control. I’m reminded of Janet Jackson in the 80’s; likely that will be my tune of the day…

Here are some of the ideas she uses:

  • free yourself from constraints (of worrying about what others think)
  • take advantage of what you have control over—what you do today
  • you can choose to remove the colored glasses (of the way you’ve viewed food, exercise, etc.)
  • decide how you want to define who you are
  • every day is a new opportunity to choose who you will be

I get it that she’s suggesting that we would be better off if we had more agency and control over our actions and emotions and decisions. Maybe that’s even true (because my day job is philosophy, I think agency and control are complicated). What I don’t see is how she thinks we can get more control just by deciding. If that were true, life would look really different.

What I think we can do, and what I try to do in my life, is aim for more perspective and support around our goals. With perspective, we have a little space to look around and see some of those constraints Nia talks about. With support (from friends, family, therapists, coaches, and yes, Nia, too), we can achieve and celebrate some of those daily triumphs. I experience this every day and am grateful for my community. I can’t achieve fitness just by deciding. I can go to a yoga class or walk or ride with my friends, or supported by my community.


I suspect Nia’s audience is younger and more angst ridden than me. Some of the lessons in days 2-10 are ones that I think I learned years ago. Yes, I’m doing this for me. I’m not exercising to impress or please others. I’m not focused on looks. I know we all make mistakes and I don’t think in all or nothing ways. So instead, my approach to days 2-10 was to think about the bits that did speak to me.

I liked the focus on thinking about the things you can control. So for example, don’t fixate on outcomes–whether that’s running 5 km in 25 minutes or benching 150 lbs–instead put your attention on areas you can control, such as doing the training required. We might not have as much control over the daily habits as we think. See Catherine’s point above. But we do have a lot more control over the daily habits than we do over the end result. That was Day 3, focus on the process, not the prize. I also liked Day 7, focus on daily actions which is a similar idea.

I also liked Day 8, on acknowledging small wins such as being neutral about food and getting out for a walk to manage stress, or something really simple like getting to bed on time. Today my small win is going to personal training before a workplace festive event. My hair might be messy but I’ll be in a better mood, I’m sure.

Are you reading along with us? What did you think so far?

cycling · training

Time to go slow?

An orange stripey snail on a bright green mango fruit. Photo by Unsplash.

In a TEDX talk Stephen Seiler explains how “normal people” can train like the world’s best endurance athletes. What’s the lesson? “No pain no gain” is a slick slogan, but a fundamentally flawed approach to getting faster and fitter over time.” Instead, Seiler who has spent years studying the training habits of great endurance athletes explains that high volume training in the “easy zone” is the way to build, speed and endurance.

This article on the biggest mistakes that self-trained cyclists make makes a similar point.

One of the big mistakes is avoiding easy rides. “Most self-trained cyclists assume that only the hard rides matter. But, that’s a wrong assumption.  In fact, easy rides are just as essential as the intense rides. You need to do the easy rides as they help in developing your aerobic system and promote the recovery process.”

The trick is, of course, that you need to spend the time you’re not going easy, going really hard. How much time should you spend in each zone? The worry is that self-trained cyclists, that’s us cyclists without coaches, spend most of our time in the murky middle.

From What Everyone Gets Wrong About Endurance Training: “In 2010, a meta-analysis by Norwegian researchers examined the actual distribution of training intensity used by elite athletes across the full spectrum of endurance sports. The conclusion: The best in the world complete about 80 percent of their training volume at low intensity, 7 to 8 percent at moderate intensity, and about 12 to 13 percent at high intensity.”

Here’s the problem though–time. Professional athletes training for competition have hours each day set aside for training, most of it in the easy or green zone. You and I have jobs. We have families. We might read books or go to the theatre. We aren’t doing this full-time. Cramped for time, we look for short cuts. One short cut that’s often promised is high intensity interval training. But apparently, so cycling coaches tell me, this can’t replace a solid aerobic base. Building that base means a lot of time exercising in a zone so easy it hardly feels like work.

More from What Everyone Gets Wrong About Endurance Training : “Successful training for endurance sports is highly nuanced. Athletes do require some HIIT in their programs, but they need a tiny fraction of what is being proposed by many in the fitness industry. The endurance athlete will use HIIT as a supplement to—not a replacement for—the aerobic base work that makes up the foundation of their fitness.”

Six thoughts:

One, all of this has got me thinking about zooming around in the virtual world of Zwift. I spend a lot of time in Zwift, going hard, racing uphills and competing with past me for sprint PRs. I’m friends on Facebook with a few cycling coaches who complain about the tendency of Zwift to encourage speedy riding rather than base building. I probably should do some more easy paced group rides in Zwift. There are even some good training plans in Zwift. It might be time to stop just playing and make a 2020 plan.

Two, it might be time to unpack my heart rate monitor. Yes, I could use the talk test but I’m kind of attracted to numbers and data and tracking things. See Take it easy: Why train with a heart rate monitor, part 1 and Go hard! : Why train with a heart rate monitor, part 2.

Three, this is all about sports performance not health. For the health benefits, HIIT is just fine.

Four, while I don’t have the hours and hours a day competitive athletes have for base training, I do commute by bike and run errands by bike and all of that is in the easy zone. It counts too.

Five, while I raised the worry about zooming and Zwift that’s true for spin classes too. Spin classes whether on a Peloton bike or in a studio are rarely in the easy-going zone. Again, most of the people in the classes aren’t training for performance. Mostly they’re training for general health and fitness reasons.

Six, thinking about this forces me to think about the kind of cyclist I am. I’m not racing. I’m not training for a competitive cycling season. So can I ignore this advice? The problem is that although I’m not racing, I like to ride with fast people. I want to go out with the local bike club. For a woman rider in her mid fifties, I suspect that means taking my training seriously.

See you in the green zone!

How do you think about training and performance for running/cycling/cross country skiing and other endurance sports? Do you follow the 80% easy rule?


Update: December Anchoring

By Christine Hennebury

My days have gotten that hectic that I have stopped keeping individual day lists in my bullet journal. I’m just making lists of what seems important next, just like the Octopus’ sign says.

It’s December 9th and, so far, my idea to use a daily warm-up to anchor myself has not been going as planned. Despite that, I think things are going okay.

My plan was to do yoga and the warm-up video as early as possible each day. That way, I would have a little space to myself in my hectic schedule and I could use that as an ‘anchor’ in my day.

However, my December days have been a jumble for a variety of reasons and I don’t think I have followed the same schedule two days in a row.

Between sleeping poorly, driving people to appointments and exams, and some work challenges, it just hasn’t been possible to get up and make that space first thing in the day. And, if I can’t do it first thing, it seems to take most of the day to get to it.


I have gotten to both yoga and the warm-up video each of the nine days so far.

And I am really loving it.

I really enjoy the simplicity of the video. The production and the exercises themselves are very straightforward and that works for me.

Obviously, I could do a 5 minute warm-up without a video but I probably wouldn’t. And if I did try to do it myself, the minutes would probably crawl by. Following the video means I can enjoy the movement without having to track my time or my reps.

And, I probably wouldn’t do the same variety of exercises either. This warm-up works my whole body and I especially like how the top of my back feels after I finish a 5 minute session.

Even though I have often ended up doing a daily warm-up at 9pm, it still helps with my goal of creating a little space in my day that is just for me.

And, it’s a little bit of extra movement that feels good and grounds me in my body.

That sounds like some useful anchoring to me.

An anchor on a dock. Photo by Unsplash.
advertising · cycling · fitness · motivation

A few short words about that peloton ad

That peloton ad has had its day and there’s not a lot new to add. I’m glad Monica Ruiz, the lead in the ad, is getting a chance to start over. And I learned a new descriptor, “sad eyebrows.”

Oh, did you miss it? Here’s the story. And here’s the ad itself.

Someone gets a peloton bike for Christmas

Is it a bad ad? Is it creepy? Is it more like a trailer for Black Mirror than an ad for a spin bike? Should you give your spouse exercise equipment for the holidays? Was she just a little too worried about what her husband thinks? Was she too thankful for the gift? I’m going to leave all those questions alone. But I was shocked by the number of commentators who focused in on the Peloton wife’s weight.

“Peloton’s viral ad captures a ‘116 lb woman’s YEARLONG fitness journey to becoming a 112 lb woman’” screamed commentators. See Marketwatch on the controversy.

So many of the complaints focused on the fact that she was already fit, by which they mean thin. This isn’t fair to fat but fit people. This isn’t fair to thin people who often aren’t encouraged to exercise because they’re thin even though you can be thin but very out of shape . See How equating being fat with being out of shape hurts thin people too.

Frankly I was relieved that it wasn’t an ad about a fat wife getting an exercise bike and her year long weight loss journey. Phew.

We need to break the connection between thinness and fitness. There was lots wrong with the ad but the fact that the gift receiver was already thin had nothing to do with it.