Fainting, Failing, and a “Creative Approach” to Fitness (Guest Post)

This week I fainted during my first-ever personal training session. I’m okay now, and everyone at the Toronto West-End YMCA who helped me were real champs about it! (Special thanks to my boyfriend who came and retrieved me afterwards as well.)


I was doing squats with the barbell, which weighs around 50 pounds. That might not seem like a lot, but it was more than I have worked with before. I wasn’t sure how it happened, but based on what the trainer said, as I was bracing myself for the exercise, I may have been holding my breath. (Rookie mistake!)

Anyway, by the time I put the bar back on the rack, I stopped to catch my breath and suddenly everything went blurry and dark. The next thing I knew, there were 3 YMCA employees around me, including the trainer, and I had an oxygen mask in front of my face. I was also slightly damp because I had apparently spilled my water bottle as I blacked out.

I wanted to write about this because I felt like it should/could have been a really embarrassing or discouraging moment. I could have thought all manner of things about myself: I’m weak, I’m out of shape, I’m not cut out for this, I should give up, I suck! I’m sure for some people who try new things incidents like this could turn you off from such activities altogether.

While some people might see this episode as a failure, I found it to be a valuable learning experience. And hell, I’ve had my fair share of fitness “fails,” including altitude sickness on a hike, nearly vomiting at hot yoga, sprained ankles, getting a nosebleed during horseback riding and tearing my riding pants fully open on my stirrups to reveal my floral underpants (unrelated incidents). Anyway, these things used to absolutely mortify me. I would definitely beat myself up about them and consider them proof that I was never meant to be a very active person.


But this time I feel surprisingly fine about it. In fact, I’m even a little excited to get back to the gym. Who would have thought! (Couch-potato Tracy can’t believe what she’s hearing!) So what’s changed?

For one thing, I know I had taken all the proper precautions beforehand: I was well hydrated, I had eaten balanced meals, and I wasn’t ill. I also followed up with the trainer after the fact and he noted that my form was good, I was strong enough to complete the exercise and up until the fainting, I seemed to be doing very well. I’m even going to a clinic in the next couple of days just to be sure the fainting wasn’t related to anything more serious.

The other thing that’s changed is probably my approach to new things and I credit this to the value creativity has in my life.

I’ve always been more artistically inclined than athletically inclined. I grew up with my mother and sister—both of whom are visual artists—in a household where we were allowed (encouraged!) to draw on the walls, repurpose things, make messes, break things and turn them into new things, and more! Creative and artistic endeavours were always non-negotiable.

Even as a busy grad student, I’ve always made sure that I’m pursuing or developing a creative skill. Some of these include basket weaving, photography, paper arts, crochet, wheel throwing/pottery, and more recently I was learning to sew in order to alter and draft my own clothes.

With my recent fitness commitments, I decided to put my creative hobby money toward personal training sessions, specifically to learn how to weight lift. Now, as an artsy type who was brought up in an all-female household, weight training might seem like an out-of-character choice. And to be honest, I’d never really been inclined to work with a trainer before—something about working one-on-one with someone in that context always weirded me out.

For better or worse, in the past I would have imagined training or an athletic approach as scary and intense (in a bad way). That’s probably why I avoided personal training for as long as I did. Training, to me, conjured images of a huge muscly person shouting in my face telling me to give them “5 more!” while snot, sweat, and tears dribbled down my face. (And sure, some people are into that! And that’s cool too.)


But for me, categorizing fitness as my new creative pursuit made me approach it differently. This time, instead of working with clay or fabric, I’d be working with my own body. And in a way, this idea made me more curious than fearful.

For example, when working with materials, painting or wheel throwing or what have you, you make a huge mess. With pottery, there’s clay e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e. And I’d never make it through a session without having something I was super proud of completely collapse. In fact, this was a technique I learned the first few times I threw on a wheel: we weren’t allowed to keep anything we made. The purpose was just to play around, figure things out, be curious, and enjoy ourselves.

I have always loved this mentality when it comes to creative endeavors: most of the time, it’s messy and can often be more about the process than the result. It’s also unpredictable; with pottery, I can’t count the number of times I planned to make mugs and ended up with bowls. Or vases, or tumblers, or bowls. (Bowls are probably the thing all pottery “wants” to be if you leave it to its own devices.)


I think I unconsciously applied this approach to my renewed interest in fitness and the reality of failures: it can be messy and it’s a process. It’s unpredictable at times, and when you’re starting out you’re not necessarily going to churn out beautiful mugs every time. Or lift weights like a pro.

And while I know that the stakes are definitely higher with fitness, (i.e., you’re not going to injure yourself if your clay collapses), I’m speaking more to my desire to keep going and not to succumb to discouragement or embarrassment. I would never give up on my usual creative pursuits just because I made a few ugly things. Likewise, why should I give up on fitness from a few failed attempts?

I can only learn from my mistakes and keep going.


What sort of “fitness fails” have you experienced and what did you learn from them?


Bad Days…and what to do about them (Guest post)


Some days I feel like a pile of garbage. My whole body aches, I’m tired, I’m grumpy. And the worst thing is that nothing really caused me to feel that way.


Things seem objectively fine: I woke up and listened to CBC over coffee with my partner. (Great!) We chatted and cuddled with our cat. (Awesome!) After he leaves for campus, I am able to begin my weekday routine: tidy kitchen, emails, research, write, work out, rest, and read. (Wonderful!)

But some days I wake up feeling like even the smallest task is too much. I look at the sink filled with dishes and even the thought of getting the warm water running seems like it might be near impossible.

On days like this, how could working out even be an option? I feel like my energy and motivation are so low, rocks and barnacles are probably more ambitious than me on days like this. (And all they do is sit around! Or in the case of barnacles, cling to ships and other ocean-y things.)

What to do about days like this?

For one thing, there is the option of giving into that feeling. And maybe even getting inside of it and figuring out what’s causing it. Writing is often a good tool for this. I sit down and mindlessly scribble out what’s going on with me and why I might be feeling like this: a busy past couple of weeks, cold weather, days getting dark before 5pm, bodily ailments, a disagreement with a loved one, whatever the case may be. It could be anything. Sometimes it helps to get down to the bottom of a bad mood: I can relax a bit when I know that there is something at the root of my low energy and motivation.

But other times it isn’t so easy to figure out what’s causing a bad day. And in fact, I may not be able to figure it out at all. While this is frustrating, it’s often enough to simply accept that some days are just bad. And that’s a part of being human.

And the truth is, on bad days, it doesn’t always matter why they’re bad so much as recognizing them as bad. If I recognize I’m having a bad day, it is almost always easier to preempt the badness by speaking kindly to myself, surrounding myself with the things that would make a bad day better, and overall taking it easy (i.e., not pushing myself so hard and watching out for negative self-talk).

One of the practical issues that arise from bad days is how it can affect my decisions concerning fitness and working out. I find it can be way too easy to let a bad mood trick you out of being active. When in fact, being active may be just the thing to make you feel better! A strange paradox indeed.

You might have seen these Inner Kermit memes that speak to what I’m getting at.



And here…



And here…


The idea being that many internal struggles tend to involve knowing there’s something you should do, and talking yourself out of it by giving into your “bad side.”

My newest strategy for dealing with this has been to take the element of “debating” or “deciding” out of the equation.

For example, if I decide in advance that I will exercise on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, then I commit to these days ahead of time. I do this because I know that if I leave it to myself to decide whether or not I will work out on a particular day, it probably won’t happen.

Leaving exercise open to debate with myself can be risky, especially when starting out because my habits aren’t fully formed yet. And it can become very easy to talk myself out of something or tell myself that I’ll “do it tomorrow.”

However, if exercise days are something that are already set or scheduled in advance, I tend to devote less mental energy to the subject, and even less mental energy debating with myself over whether or not I will follow through. I just do it. Bad days are normal, but having certain commitments in place ahead of time makes it so that a bad mood doesn’t dominate my entire day, or even entire week. And it certainly doesn’t dictate all my decisions on a given day.

The point I’m trying to make is, just because there are days I feel like a garbage pile, doesn’t mean I have to act like one.

kermit tea.jpg

Fitbits and garmins and strava, oh my! (Guest post)

img_0252I went out on “black friday” to take advantage of sales to upgrade my phone.  I got a free phone but also ended up buying an expensive pair of wireless headphones that will not remotely stay in my ears while running, and a $75 programmable robotic ball I thought would entice my cat to run around more.  She’s terrified of it.  I’m trying to use it to teach her to code now.

I tell you all this because I currently own more fitness related tech than ever before — and I’m dissatisfied with most of it.

There’s a long history to this.  My relationship with technology can only be described as “it’s complicated.”  I have a reputation for dropping things, losing things, and exploring the limits of how wet my technology can get without sudden death. Over the past two decades, my water/coffee spilling habit has killed three computers, at least three iphones, a client’s fancy speaker phone, a first generation $600 ipod, and pretty little red nano. The nano death was a spectacular episode of clumsiness where I somehow caught my earbuds in my hairbrush and swung the ipod into the toilet when I was taking off my running clothes.

I suspect I have some sort of undercurrent direct signal to apple as “client zero,” with a task force taking in all of my data to continually innovate for the chaotic user.  And tech HAS caught up to my abuses — a few years I dropped my iphone4 off the simg_9010_2ide of a boat into a lake in Myanmar, where it drowned for several minutes before the boatman kindly dived for it; about two hours later, it gently just came to life.  Six months later, I dropped the same phone while walking on a stunning beach in South Africa.  An hour later I found just the corner sticking out, submerged in sand and the sea as the tide rolled in over it.  I picked it up, shook it hard to get the sand and salt out of the ports and tossed it in the boot of the car.  Two hours later, I got a text from my sister.  Someone said at the time “I think that phone is… getting… stronger.”

Now my relationship has evolved in a different way. I destroy fewer things, but I seem to keep buying more things, and they do many more things, and they get more complex, and they never make me happy.  Especially around fitness.

41jqq8vh3xl-_sx300_I’ve always run with some kind of headphones.  For years, I had this little “sports walkman” that strapped on my arm and got me the CBC.  I did endless long runs listening to whatever happened to be on — even the hated Cross-Country Checkup.  I had a watch that kept track of the amount of time I was running. I’d write it down and estimate distance based on my rough pace.  That was it.  For years. It worked.

A few years ago, I “upgraded” to a simple garmin watch with GPS, that gave me distance aimg_0278nd pace.  I didn’t really ask the right questions when I (impulsively) bought it, and didn’t realize until I used it that I couldn’t upload the data.  I had to write it down  But that was fine. For a few years, I ran with this second generation basic tech:  music or podcasts via iphone with the earbuds that came with the phone; basic garmin watch.

This all functioned… okay.  I was never really satisfied.  The watch didn’t hold a charge very long — it couldn’t seem to do more than 7 hours of GPS, which meant it was useless on a long bike ride. It took forever to sync to satellites when I turned it on.  And I noticed that although I’d trained well and run hard for years with very little info, I’d get edgy at not having more information. This tech created an insatiable appetite for something I wasn’t even sure I wanted.

Last winter, I got caught up in the social media swirl of tracking my runs and rides through a strava app on my phone, feeling satisfied as cycling distance added up over the year, enjoying the kudos and “thumbs up!” from my friends, a facebook contact I haven’t seen since I was 20, and even — weirdly — my bank manager.  I don’t think anything actually changed because I was recording and sharing this info, but I sure felt virtuous every time someone patted me for getting out the door.

Around the same time, my unsatisfying garmin watch died.  I had a cheap analogue computer on my bike that measured distance based on wheel rotations, but when the watch died, somehow the conflation of strava, the fitbits and step-counters dangling from everyone I knew, and shininess of fancy bike computers everyone on my bike rally team seemed to have made me decide that not only did I need a new running watch, I also needed a bike computer.  And maybe a fitbit.

I am really bad at deciphering tech stuff before I purchase it.  I seem to need to use it before I know if it will img_0364work for me or not.  (I had an ex who thought a romantic and practical gift for me was a subscription to consumer reports.  I did not appreciate it). This time, I posted some questions on facebook about what kinds of tech people used and why they liked it, but the answers didn’t really help.

I ended up going to MEC, which I thought had the best selection and prices, and bought a (pricey) mid-range bike computer (Garmin Edge 520) and a garmin forerunner 15 watch. The guy helping me didn’t really understand the tech that well, and I got the watch home and discovered that because it didn’t have bluetooth, I have to actually physically clip it to my computer to upload any data.  But hey, if I wear this clunky watch all day instead of my pretty european “timepiece,” it gives me steps!  Which means… something, right?  (Nothing. It means nothing to me. I don’t change any behaviours because of this).

The Edge was a bit fussy to figure out, but once I got the hang of it, I mostly like it.  I did spend one whole 105 km ride with the display shouting OFF COURSE! at me.  People keep mocking me for leaving my $30 wheel-rotation counter on the bike as backup, but I was grateful for it that day.  But the Edge does what it’s supposed to do, and when I sync it with strava, I get a certain satisfaction in looking at my kilometers add up over the year, looking at speed, tracking my mastery of Brimley himg_0243ill.

The rest?  Sigh.

Like the older generation Garmin watch, this one still takes forever to sync to satellites — at least 5 minutes in front of my building.  Which is a significant chunk of time to bounce around waiting to start a 20 minute run.  It doesn’t have a lot of storage space, so I have to physically hook it up to my computer frequently. And Garmin seems to upgrade the software constantly, and an occasional upgrade seems to render the GPS sync impossible.  It’s… fine.  But not joyful.  (And I can’t be the only person who doesn’t understand these limits based on the specs on the website).

And then there is the whole matter of headphones.  Back in the sony walkman days, I had the little set that fit over my head, never fell off and gave me tinny but reliable sound.  Which was fine for the radio.  This current generation of headphones has excellent sound, excellent noimg_0369ise-cancelling properties, and hefty price tags.  And I need good headphones because I’m on conference calls for my job half the day, so they are dual purpose.

But here’s the thing.  The in-ear ones don’t stay in your bloody ears.  And when I got my new phone, I got an iphone6, not a 7, for price and specifically because it still has a headphone jack.  But the sleek, waterproof case I bought for it means that I have to add this … clumsy, inevitably-lost extender thing to use wired headphones.  (I’ve already had to replace a lost garmin watch charger once).  Again, this wasn’t clear until I pulled it out of the box.

img_0281So now I’m in the land of expensive wireless headphones. And when I bought the phone and cat robot, I bought a fancy set of Bang and Olufson wireless headphones that will NOT stay in my ears unless I’m sitting at my desimg_0232k.  (You can’t try out in-ear headphones before buying them.  Like underpants).  They also have a pretty touchy battery life. So a week later I ordered a set of wireless powerbeats with over-the-ear clips. Miraculously, these work beautifully for work and running, and have a pretty solid charge time, but they are also hard to whip out of your ears quickly, so if you have to interact with other human beings, there’s a buffering time. Also, another $225.

So now my mobile tech looks like this.


IMG_0371.JPGThis doesn’t include my mini-ipad and the analog computer still on my bike. I have to constantly track whether my phone, watch, headphones and bike computer are properly charged. (They all have different chargers, of course). And then there’s the mystery of itunes and icloud continually, unexpectedly booting my running playlists off my phone.  It’s all Beyonce, all the time now.

Technology makes all sorts of things possible.  But it also adds this crazy level of anxiety, mental tracking, irritation, dissatisfaction and unnecessary expense.  That stuff up there?  Not simple.

When I made my FB post about which running watch to buy, one of the guys I knew said “Don’t buy any.  Just run. Run naked.”  I keep hearing his voice when I pace around waiting to start a run because my GPS hasn’t shaken hands yet or wanting to throw suddenly dead headphones on the ground.  And wondering what this really is doing to my brain.  I know what it’s doing to my bank account.





I get that the Canada Food Guide isn’t perfect, but calorie counting?!

Yesterday the philosophy of food class had a poster event where the students displayed their group projects in poster form and stood beside them to talk about what they’d come up with. The assignment was something like this: Rewrite the Canada Food Guide to incorporate the values of sustainability (as presented in the course) into it.

It’s a great assignment and when I arrived at the event there was a buzz of activity in the air. The Canada Food Guide is intended to provide an easy and accessible set of guidelines for healthy eating to Canadians. It’s a colourful document and so the students’ revised versions were visually appealing. Here’s page one of the Canada Food Guide:


The Guide divides foods into four groups: fruits and vegetables, grains, milk and milk alternatives, and meat and meat alternatives. Based on age and sex, it makes recommendations for how many “servings” per day of each group someone “should” get. For example, as a 52 year-old woman, I should eat 7 fruits and veggies, 7 grains, 3 servings of milk and milk alternatives, and 3 servings of meat and meat alternatives. I won’t go into the details of what is included in each category. Feel free to check out the guide if you’re interested.

I chatted with three different groups about what they were attempting to do. The first group said that they wanted to be only mildly revisionist, recognizing that no one was about to make radical dietary changes in the name of sustainability. They had the information about livestock production and how it’s not exactly sustainable on the current scale, but they didn’t really challenge the notion that at least around here people would continue to want meat as their main protein source. But the recommended small changes. That’s fine. I wasn’t about to get into a conversation about becoming vegan, even though it is much more sustainable and much less cruel too. For such young people, they had a sense of pragmatism that impressed me.

The most interesting group, from the point of view of the sorts of things I think about when blogging here, was the group that thought the serving recommendations should be replaced by calorie counting.

Maybe it’s just me, but I was astonished to hear a group of not-quite 20 year-olds promoting the old fashioned (and I thought, long since abandoned) idea of calorie counting. But defend and promote it they did. Their thinking went something like this: it’s hard to figure out a serving, so it’s not easy to get the right number of servings per day. Calories are more exact.

Of course, I had to ask: but it’s also hard to figure out calories, is it not? They responded by noting that all foods have calorie counts on the labels. But, said I, the calories on labels are calories per serving, so in the end you still need to know the serving size to know the calorie count.

They then tried a different tack. People are different sizes and have different activity levels. That also translates into having different calorie requirements. This, I thought, was a more promising way to go. It’s true that professional athletes need more calories than office workers, and there’s a range in between. But I was still hung up on the calorie counting. I mean, how realistic is it to think that people are going to count calories every day? It’s hard enough to eyeball and count servings. They really didn’t think it would be a problem.

As someone who has gone through the calorie counting era and made it to the other side just barely intact, I feel a fair bit of confidence in thinking that calories will not be replacing servings on the Canada Food Guide any time soon. I also couldn’t quite see how this switch to calories linked up with sustainability. But by then I had already pressed harder than a professor probably should press a group of students who are not her students. So I let it go and instead admired, with all sincerity, the work they’d put into their re-designed guide.

This same group divided fruits and veggies into two separate groups because, in their words, “vegetables are better.” Because they’re better, people should eat more of them than fruits. I didn’t want to press them on the point that in fact, most people don’t even eat the recommended portions of fruits/veggies combined, so maybe starting smaller would be a good thing (baby steps!). I also didn’t want to get into a discussion of demonizing food. I thought that any minute one of them was going to tell me that juice is evil.

The final group I chatted with had an excellent presentation to go with their poster, and each of the students had their own part of the script. I only made it through half because of time constraints, but this group more than any other focused on meat and milk alternatives as a key factor in sustainability. In their revised food guide, these things took a more prominent place in the daily recommendations than in the current guide, where they are specified more as a choice.

Overall, the students did impressive work and they were well-prepared to talk about what motivated their respective approaches to the assignment.

I know that the philosophy of food class probably doesn’t think of diet rhetoric and food restriction as a major analytic lens. But my conversations with the students demonstrated to me that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to get them to think critically, not just about sustainability, but also about the assumptions they have that lie behind their thinking about food and what people “should” and “shouldn’t” eat. From a feminist perspective, I can’t help but think of all the assumptions people make about good foods, bad foods, healthy foods, unhealthy foods, right portions and wrong portions, and “counting” (whether calories or micronutrients and fat grams). If I was going to teach a course that took a critical stance on food production and consumption, I would definitely want to include some of that.

If you were teaching a course the philosophy of food, what sorts of topics do you think would be important to include?

Page two of the Canada Food Guide

Page two of the Canada Food Guide

If I could walk 500 miles…Sam and her FitBit

Love this cover of the Proclaimers song. Emma Golden writes, “If this cover doesn’t make you want to fall in love right this second with the person closest to your vicinity, then I fear for your overall capability to feel emotion. I heard it for the first time last night, around 1 a.m., while I was creeping on a complete stranger’s Instagram account and had a moment upon listening.”

But back to walking and counting steps. I’m late to the FitBit game, I know. I got one not for counting steps primarily. Mostly I was interested in sleep and about my resting heart rate. I am curious about steps though. I’ve worried in the past that I was like the sedentary athletes who worked hard but then lived like sloths when not training.

Turns out I needn’t have worried. Here’s my quick and easy recipe for 10,000 steps a day: Have a dog and walk the dog twice a day (hi Cheddar!), park in remote parking on campus, walk to your classes and to lunch, and then live a 3 story house and run up and down the stairs a lot. Bang you’re done!

Thanks Cheddar! Thanks Charley!

Do you count steps? What’s your quick and easy recipe for racking up the numbers?


Sam gets a FitBit and starts thinking about television

I’m not a big fan of television. That’s not because I don’t like it. Rather, I like it too much and end up watching more than I want. I’m a lousy moderate about shows I like. With Netflix I try to watch while riding my bike on the trainer but sometimes I sit and watch. See past musings on my failure as a moderate, Moderation Versus All or Nothing.

I’ve been thinking about it lately because I got a FitBit and it’s solved a problem for me, answered an old question I’ve had about TV. I’ve long known that studies show that television watching significantly lowers your metabolic rate. It’s like all the downside of sleep with none of the health restoring, restful benefits.

But I confess I’ve been skeptical. Surely I don’t sit perfectly still while watching. After all, I’m a fidgeter. I stretch. I pet the dog.

Nope. Turns out that I don’t move much at all while watching. I noticed because my FitBit was reporting evening naps! Turns out that they aren’t naps at all but episodes of 3%. Such a good show. You should watch it! But maybe while riding your bike.

And the thing is the FitBit is pretty good at distinguishing sleep from other things one might do in bed, like reading. It never counts reading as sleep. Television is different somehow. 

I’ve blogged about other fave shows, like BoJack Horseman. And somewhere in the archives there’s a post about Once Upon a Time. Anyway, I’ll keep watching but I’ll either do physio while watching Netflix or ride my bike on the trainer.

How about you? Where and when do you watch your favourite shows? What do you make of the TV/health connection? 

Here’s more:


Knit, Bake, and Be Merry

I'm on a bootee knitting kick right now and I'm using this book. Right now I'm making the denim shoes and they are adorable.

I’m on a bootee knitting kick right now and I’m using this book. Right now I’m making the denim shoes and they are adorable.

The health benefits of knitting aren’t new. I blogged about the actual physical benefits of knitting earlier this year.

But it’s good for your mental health too. And so is baking. A recent study says that “creative activities like baking and knitting boost mental well-being.” And, reporting on the same study, “Feeling Down? Scientists Say Cooking and Baking Can Help You Feel Better,” notes that it’s all about getting creative.

New Zealand researcher, Tamlin Connor, found that participants in his study experienced a sense of “flourishing” when they engaged in little creative projects every day.

This confirms what I’ve always known. When I want to relax, cooking is my go-to, with knitting not far behind.

And ’tis the season for knitting and baking, baking and knitting, and knitting and baking some more!

Close-up of my latest project. I used chunky yarn and the Vogue Knitting (Summer 2005) antique lace pattern.

Close-up of my latest project. Chunky yarn following Vogue Knitting (Summer 2005) antique lace pattern.

And yes, these projects have increased my sense of well-being. A day when I get to stay home and cook and knit is a special day indeed!

And though this is not the Christmas pudding I will be making this year, here is a vegan steamed Christmas pudding recipe that might be worth trying. Here’s the one I have been making for over a decade, and I’ve converted it into a vegan version that turned out well the last time I made it.

Have you got a creative activity that you do regularly and have you found that engaging in it increases your sense of well-being?