diets · sports nutrition · traveling · weight loss

Hunger and Nutrition

There’s a lot of talk about hunger in the literature about making food choices. It doesn’t matter whether your focus is sports nutrition, weight loss, or ‘making peace with food’ and ending dieting, most books in these areas talk about hunger. It’s clear that hunger is something we need to recognize and to which we need to respond. We need to listen to our bodies and to eat when we’re hungry.

I struggle a bit with this because I’m often not hungry when I know I need to eat–during long, intense bike rides is the most common example–and at other times I’m famished even when I know there’s no need for extra calories (after long bike rides when I’m often hungry for the rest of the day and into the next one even after I’ve refueled.)

I was interested to read recently that part of my confusion may be connected to our misunderstanding of hunger.

In Hunger. What it is and what you can do about it Richard Feinman writes:

“We grow up thinking that hunger is somehow our body’s way of telling us that we need food but, for most of us that is not usually the case.  Few of us are so fit, or have so little body fat, or are so active that our bodies start calling for energy if we miss lunch.  Conversely, those of us who really like food generally hold to the philosophy that “any fool can eat when they’re hungry;” passing up a really good chocolate mousse just because you are not hungry is like … well, I don’t know what it’s like. “

When I was focusing on sports nutrition last year, I played a bit with the feelings of hunger in an effort to make peace with them. In situations where I know I’ve had enough to eat, and it’s just a feeling that I can choose to act on or not, I tried to live awhile with hunger and see if I could just let the sensation be. It was interesting experiment and it served me well to realize that the world doesn’t end. I needn’t binge at the next meal. Sometimes it’s okay to live with hunger and wait.

These days I use that to my advantage on traveling days. Yes, I pack food but if I run out it’s not the end of the world.

I hope I don’t have to use that trick as I travel home from Atlanta, site of the 2012 Eastern Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association, today.

the hunger

That’s the 1983 film The Hunger, of course. My first vampire movie starring Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie, and Susan Sarandon.

fitness · health · training

Zzzz, Sleep and Fitness

Sleep, it’s the one part of healthy living that’s zero struggle for me. But from what I read that it’s a big problem for lots of people.

If you’re keen to get fit in the new year, be sure to budget time for sleep. You can’t train without enough sleep. Sleep is necessary. Indeed, if you’re the sort to make resolutions it may be more productive to focus your efforts on sleep than just about anything else.

Sleep helps us metabolize carbohydrates, maintain leptin, growth hormones, proper blood pressure and insulin resistance, and helps us keep a positive attitude through decreased anxiety and perceived stress.

Read more here from Lifehacker (of course):

Sleep Your Way to Better Fitness

Most people fall off the exercise wagon after about three weeks. Their motivation for it crashes when they do not maintain or change to healthy sleeping habits. Without enough sleep, it becomes difficult to get motivated to go out and get proper exercise. In fact, the main excuse for not getting enough exercise is either being “too tired” or having “no time.” Often, it is the combination of both, making it extremely difficult to maintain a balanced approach as taught by these Zen masters.

The “no time” bit is basically a priority issue. If someone feels tired and beat up the day after a workout, there is a tendency to have the “no time” issue become an impediment to fitness. This is because they can feel less productive, more lethargic and so on while being stiff and sore. The tendency is to feel the need to work longer to make up the time spent for the exercise. If someone goes into the exercise well rested, that day and the next day goes by better with the benefits of the natural “endorphin high” and a generally positive sense of health and well being, the “no time” issue vanishes.

It generally takes about 7 hours of quality sleep for most people. Too few achieve that with today’s harried lifestyles. People often get the sequence backwards, working on sleep after getting going on a new exercise routine. Or worse, getting no sleep or less sleep than before. This is often because the exercise is simply added to the existing busy schedule.

Making an exercise program stick is a problem for many people. One way to do it is to combine the tracking of both sleep and exercise as part of the fitness program. For example, block out 8 hours of the 24 hour day for “fitness” and mark down the actual sleep time and the time in the gym or while out jogging, hiking or playing tennis. Measure the sleep hours and quality as carefully as tracking the weights used or mileage covered. Make this part of your reporting requirement if you have a personal trainer involved in the process

Not persuaded yet? Read Your New Workout Success Secret: Sleep!

“Clocking two extra hours a night for six weeks helped basketball players up their shooting percentage by 9 percent, the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory reports. “No time!” you say? Even 30 minutes more each night may improve skills during activities that take focus and determination, scientists say. That translates to better performance, in a boot camp class or at the office.”

fat · weight loss

Fear of fat more dangerous than actual fat

On my 2013 list of books to read is What’s Wrong With Fat? by Abigail Saguy, published by Oxford University Press.

What caught my was this press release from UCLA in my twitter feed.

Public obsession with obesity may be more dangerous than obesity itself, UCLA author says

“”What’s Wrong With Fat?” shows how debates over the best way to discuss body size — including as either a health or civil rights problem — do not take place on an even playing field. Saguy contends that powerful interests benefit from drawing attention to the “crisis,” including the International Obesity Task Force (a lobbying group funded by pharmaceutical companies), obesity researchers and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On the other hand, fat-acceptance groups, which try to reframe fatness as a civil rights issue, are at a disadvantage because they have considerably less economic power and cultural authority, she says.”

But beyond the incomplete and misleading information on the issue, America’s obsession with obesity is itself unhealthy, she argues.

Saguy cites studies demonstrating that fat women are reluctant to get medical care for fear of being chided about their weight or treated insensitively by their doctors. In fact, research has shown that obese women are more likely to get cervical cancer because they are less likely than thinner women to get pap smears.
Meanwhile, Saguy’s own research shows that people who read news accounts of the “obesity epidemic” are more likely than people who have not read such reports to perceive fat people as lazy, unmotivated, sloppy, and lacking in self-discipline and competence.
Those attitudes have been shown to play out in a variety of socially damaging ways, Saguy says, including in increasingly widespread weight discrimination. Recent research has shown, for example, that bias against fat people in employment, education, health care and other areas is now comparable in prevalence to reported rates of racial discrimination in the U.S.
Heavier women in particular, Saguy notes, are less likely to be hired and less likely to earn a higher salary, compared with their similarly qualified but thinner peers.
“American attitudes about fat may be more dangerous to public health than obesity itself,” she says.”
The scary critters in the image above are from the first episode of series 4 of Dr Who  which features Adipose, the drug that makes your fat “just walk away.”
cycling · running

On running and riding with friends

There are many different reasons to join in, to run and ride with other people but here I want to talk about an overlooked reason, beyond the usual camaraderie and coffee.

When you first start to run, or ride, there’s just one speed you go at, the only speed you can. The distinction between race pace and a recovery ride isn’t really that meaningful yet. Everything you’re doing is pretty much flat out, max effort. Best not to wear a heart rate monitor at this stage!

Later you’ll learn what’s a fast but sustainable pace for a 20 km time trial versus the pace you want to be riding for a fast but sociable 100 km coffee ride with friends.

Maybe later still you’ll wear a heart rate monitor and learn how speed, time, effort, and heart rate correspond. You’ll do drills like running fast till you hit a certain heart rate, jog till your heart recovers, and run fast again. Rinse and repeat as many times as you can and still recover in a reasonable amount of time.

The best training plans teach you the difference between short and fast and long and slow and everything in between.

And you could ride or run these on your own. That’s true.

Or if you’re a member of a team or training group, you’ll do some of these drills together.

On your own turns out to be tricky.

Truth is, there is a speed we naturally like to go and your own you’ll tend to go that speed no matter what the plan says. It takes incredible discipline to do otherwise. You might think it’s the fast runs and rides on your own that are hard but slow is tricky as well. I’ve done some drills where I am supposed to ride or run but not let my heart rate exceed a certain number and that means going VERY slow. It’s tough.

I admire people who stick to training plans on their own but if you’re not one of them, I have a better plan, one that’s more fun and will make you more friends.

Ride or run with a range of people, fast, slow, and everything in between.

On a typical week’s cycling I might do a fast paced club ride of 100 km, noodle around the bike paths with family members slowly for a short distance, ride 40 km with a friend who is about my speed (ok, he’s faster on hills and I’m faster on flats, hi EK!) and ride together some of the time but have fun racing each other when the mood hits, and then ride 40 km with a friend who is a lot faster and spend time chasing his wheel.  You might add to the mix riding at a moderate pace with a friend who is new to cycling or a friend who is coming back to the bike from illness and/or injury.

The point is that you can build the challenge of riding at different speeds into your routine by varying who you ride with.

Ditto running. I had a very fast friend (hi MM!) whose recovery runs were my tempo runs, And that’s fine. We enjoyed running together although I made him do all the talking.

So next time a friend who is faster than you asks you to ride or run with her, don’t think “Oh, I can’t. She’s so much faster than me.” Recognize that fast people can go more slowly and that running and riding at different speeds is part of being fit enables you to do. Enjoy the company of other runners and riders and make moving at different speeds part of the fun.

(The above photo is of women cycling in the 1890s. I found the image here, http://kclibrary.lonestar.edu/19thcentury1890.htm. I gave my talk to the International Association for Philosophy of Sport at the APA today and so I’ve been thinking a lot about the early feminists and women’s bicycling.)

cycling · racing · Rowing · running · triathalon

Six reasons not to race and why they might be mistaken

I love racing, even though I’m a midlife, middle of the pack athlete. I know this puzzles some people (okay, some of my friends) and I often find myself in the situation of responding to the objections to racing that they raise.

Some of my friends are not at all interested in competition but I worry that their reasons are based on some misconceptions about why those of us who do race enjoy it.

I often think the anti-racing crowd might like it too.

So here’s my attempt to respond to the race-shy or the race-skeptical.

1. Some friends say, ‘I’ll never win so why race?’

Note first that this is true for lots of athletes. Think of how many riders there are in the Tour de France and how few are serious contenders for even winning one of the stages, let alone the overall race. Think about the numbers of people in the Hawaii Ironman. They aren’t all contenders for the podium, even in the age group categories. I’ve only won two races in my lifetime but I love the ‘winning moments’–passing someone even if I can’t hold them off, for example. In bike racing I love being part of the team effort, participating in strategies that get one of my team’s riders into the front pack.

2. Some friends say “I’m only interested in fitness.”

I get that but to be fit you have to push yourself and trust me, you’ll never ever push yourself as hard in training as you do when racing. I wear a heart rate monitor when training on the bike and I’ve done VO2 max testing so I’ve got some idea of what the various sports training zones mean for me. I’ve also worn the heart rate monitor when criterium racing. The first time I did this and then looked at the data after I laughed out loud at how much time I’d spent in the red zone, E4. That’s something I just can’t make myself do for very long outside race situations. I won’t bore you with all the geeky gory details but here’s the my HR data from a crit last year: Avg HR 171, max HR 178 (32% in E4) Avg speed 33.2, max speed 42. No way I could do that outside a race.

3.  Some friends say, “I just want to train, not race.”

Okay, but it helps to have a focus for your training, something to train for. Races give structure to your training as you build endurance, then speed, then both together, taper off coming up to the race, race, recover, and rebuild.

4.  Some friends say, “I’m too old.”

These friends admit they might have enjoyed racing in their youth but now they are too old, they think. They’ve grown up and put all the fun away. To which I say, don’t be ridiculous. It’s like saying that sex is for the young.  We’ve only got one kick at the can, one try at this life, and if something would have been fun when you were young, it’s probably still fun now. (Like sex.) The Vets Racing Club in Canberra requires a doctor’s notes in order to keep racing after age 75 and there are people in that category.

5.  Some friends say, “I might get hurt.”

Yes, that’s true you might. You also might get hurt sitting on your sofa for too long, or shoveling snow. Life is risky, no way around it. But in the category of recreational racing most people recognize that we aren’t professional athletes and there’s no sense risking injury unnecessarily. Some of the rules in masters and recreational racing reflect this. On the one dodgy corner on the crit racing course in Canberra–“collarbone corner” as it’s known–race organizers decided not to allow passing through that bend. For that one short turn the race is “neutralized” and riders are asked to hold their place. I also love the reminder that the race organizer gives riders before the start, “Remember we’re not racing for sheep stations out there.” In other words, we’re out there for fun not fortunes. (See image above.)

6. Some friends say, “I’m just doing this for fun.”

Racing is a lot of fun. Whether you most enjoy the training, being out there competing, or the music, snacks and prizes after, at the level of recreational athletics it’s all about the fun.

Hope to see you out there!!!

athletes · fitness · training

Am I (Are You) an Athlete?

jackie-joyner-kersee-jumping-rtr12e5g_13925_600x450When I first wanted to be a writer, I used to read lots about writing. I read more about writing than I actually wrote. Something I read that stuck with me more than anything was that if you want to be a writer, start thinking of yourself as a writer. Call yourself a writer. Organize your schedule as a writer would. Write.

It took awhile, but eventually, instead of thinking in terms of wanting to be a writer, I started to think of myself as a writer. And I behaved as a writer. That is, I started to write.

I wonder if we can say the same for athletes? If you start to think of yourself as an athlete, will you then behave as one?

As I’ve said before, I don’t consider myself an athlete. I didn’t grow up thinking of myself as an athlete in any way, shape, or form. I played no sports. I’m fortunate that the other kids liked me for other reasons or I would always have been picked last for a team. I couldn’t hit a ball, throw a ball, or run fast. My best sport was the broad jump. I enjoyed roller skating and tap dancing more than baseball (not that I was all that great at tap dancing either, but I didn’t compete).

The one thing I excelled at was swimming. And I did swim for much of my childhood, even competed. But I didn’t stay with it long enough to consider it an athletic pursuit.

When I think of athletes, I think of Olympians, elite cyclists, champions in various sports. I think of people whose lives are dedicated to their sport and who have reached a certain level of achievement. In some sense, I understand that there is more to being an athlete than competing and winning. But even still, I have difficulty thinking of myself as someone to whom the descriptor “athlete” could ever, in all fairness to those who really are athletes, apply.

What makes a person an athlete? Does it make sense for me to think of myself in those terms.

In Samantha’s recent post on athletic values, she comments that athletes care about competing and winning. This is in opposition to those who would pursue fitness for a particular aesthetic. I think the rest of the post suggests that it’s not necessarily competing and winning, but the emphasis on performance, that distinguishes the athlete from the fitness enthusiast who is pursuing a particular aesthetic.

At least a couple of times Gretchen Reynolds’ The First 20 Minutes, she puts the question to her reader: “Are you an athlete?”

When talking about how much a person should work out, she says: If you have ambitions beyond glowing health; if essentially you are an athlete –which does not mean that you must compete, only that you ache to be a little faster or better at your chosen activity–you will have to push your body somewhat.

I aspire to run faster, lift heavier, and hold my yoga asanas with more strength and better form. On the “aching to be faster or better” criterion, that makes me an athlete. I don’t need to want to compete and win. This is a good thing because competing and winning are not my main goals.

When discussing who should think about sports nutrition, Reynolds says: Ask Yourself: Am I an athlete? Be honest. If you’re not working out for more than an hour a day or at an achingly strenuous intensity, then, really, you’re not.

In my regular routine, not interrupted by travel or injury, I either run or spend time on the elliptical machine every day for 30-40 minutes plus I do either yoga or strength training for a minimum of 60 minutes each day. It’s the perfect balance, for me, of cardio and strength training, doing activities that I enjoy. (side note: I don’t exactly enjoy the elliptical, especially now that I am doing tough intervals, but it’s not a bad way to spend half an hour. It makes me feel a sense of accomplishment and in the recovery intervals I am able to read. I consider the reading time a bonus).

I’m sure to many, thinking of yourself as an athlete is simply a practical thing. If you are engaged in activity as an athlete, with particular goals for improvement, then you need to feed yourself appropriately (sports nutrition!) and train appropriately (intervals!). I could try to explain my resistance to calling myself an athlete in terms of my aversion to both of these things. As I said, sports nutrition is a risky path for me. And even though I am doing intervals, they are hard.

If Gretchen Reynolds’ take on the latest research is accurate, you can’t achieve better performance–faster, stronger, better–without intervals. And if you are active at the level of athlete, then you do need to pay attention to what you’re eating. In particular (she says) you need to eat more carbs than the non-athlete.

But I don’t think that’s what I’m resisting. Instead, I’m not distinguishing between athletes and elite athletes. Just as all writers are not Pulitzer Prize winners or even full-time authors, not all athletes are Olympians or professionals. If it’s about quantity of activity and having performance goals instead of aesthetic goals, then there’s no question that I’m an athlete.

And maybe, as it was when I was an aspiring writer, the qualifier “aspiring” was part of the problem.

What about you? If you fit these various criteria for being an athlete, are you comfortable with the label?

[photo: Olympic champion Jackie Joyner-Kersee soars past spectators during the long jump at the 2000 U.S. trials. http://kids.nationalgeographic.com/kids/photos/awesome-athletes/#/jackie-joyner-kersee-jumping-rtr12e5g_13925_600x450.jpg%5D

running

Buddha Brain

20121226-143942.jpg Samantha loaned me Gretchen Reynolds’ great book, The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer. It’s a great read, filled with loads of good information about the science of fitness.

I love Chapter 8: How to Build a Better Brain. And I really like the part about “Buddha Brain.” Based on experiments with rats, it appears that running creates “a brain that [is] biochemically and molecularly calm.”

In general, the science Gretchen Reynolds cites supports the idea that exercise insulates us against stress, even against anger. It can act as an “emotional shield,” making people who engage in regular activity more resistant to stress than those who do not.”

I have found this to be true in my own life and based on the anecdotal reports from my friends and family members. If I’m feeling stressed out, I decompress immediately if I spend some time doing yoga, running, swimming, even weight training.

More importantly, it has a preventive affect too. The more I stay active, the less likely I am to succumb to stressful situations. The research shows that the real molecular biochemical changes in the brain take time. A trip to the hot yoga studio might help, but repeated activity over time will have a profound impact on mood.

Reynolds cites loads of other interesting findings in this chapter. Exercise doesn’t just make you feel better, it can actually improve cognition, lower your risk of neurological disease and memory loss, raise IQ.

If you want to be smart and keep your marbles, be in a good mood, and approach life’s stresses with the calmness of Buddha, there is a magic solution. Hit the pavement, the pool, the yoga studio, the bike, or the weight room, play tennis, kick around a soccer ball, or take to the slopes.

accessibility · athletes · body image · fitness · training

Come join in the fun

It’s a familiar theme among both beginners and more seasoned athletes, the idea that you need to train on your own in order to be fit enough to join in with others. I’ve fallen prey to this reasoning myself and it’s almost always a mistake.

If you like to work out alone, that’s one thing, but if you’d rather train with others but you don’t because you fear you’re not fit enough, then you might be making a mistake.

If groups say they welcome beginners, all levels, they mean it.

Here’s one example: I keep meeting people who say they want to join Crossfit but who think they have to get in shape first. Crossfit, they say, is for fit people to get even more fit. And in the case of Crossfit, I’d say their own advertising doesn’t help. And so these aspiring Crossfitters slog away, on their own, training to meet what they think of as the entrance requirements of a group that actually doesn’t have any.

There are Crossfit beginners classes, personal training programs, and boot camp classes that serve as entry points for new people. All the workouts are scalable and there’s a pretty big range of levels across the members.

Here’s another example: Among cyclists, I’ve met lots of people who buy bikes, ride on their own for years, waiting to get faster, hoping someday they’ll be fast enough to join a group. (Trade secret: if you ride your bike at 20 km/hr for 2 hours all you’re doing is getting better at riding 20 km/hr for 2 hours. You need to push yourself and other people help.)

There are groups that welcome beginners and you’re much better off riding with other people than you are on your own. Local bike shops often offer group rides for new bike owners too. In London, you can check out the London Cycling Club. Group rides are faster, safer, and much less dull for longer distances. You learn about riding in a group and learn lots about riding and bike fitness from more experienced riders.

Runners might be the only group that gets this right with a wide range of learn to run and 5 km programs that are obviously geared to beginners.

If you want to run, ride, or lift weights in your own, that’s terrific. But if you’re avoiding groups because you think you need to get in shape to join, for most groups that’s a mistake.

Come out and play with us!

clothing · fashion

Just walk slowly away from that rack of $100 yoga pants

I’ve been teaching a course on egalitarianism in moral and political philosophy this term and issues of access to physical fitness have been big on my mind, as I work on my own “fittest by fifty” project and do the readings and prepare for the class.

Egalitarianism is, roughly, the view that equality matters in our evaluation of various states of affairs. It doesn’t just matter how much wealth or happiness there is in our society. If you’re an egalitarian it also matters how it’s distributed.

There are some huge differences in time and money available to individuals that create gaps in our access to fitness. There many places this crops up but one of them that interests me is the cost of workout wear for our various fitness pursuits.

It seems important because unlike some of the other issues (number of hours worked, financial access to fitness facilities, gendered differences in free time available for leisure once child care and elder care are taken into account), this one is a myth we can help to dispel.

It’s clear that it’s not necessary to pay big bucks to pursue the goal of getting in shape. Most recently I started thinking about this in the context of the pricing of yoga pants, as part of an online discussion prompted by a story that came across my Facebook newsfeed.

Why is everyone so keen to pay $100 for yoga pants? So asks this story on ABC news.

“Lululemon is the leader in designer workout gear. The brand started as just one store in Vancouver, B.C.. Today it boasts 175 stores in the U.S. and many more worldwide. The company ranked fourth among the most profitable stores in the U.S., according to research company RetailSails. Who beat lululemon? You may have heard of them: Coach, Tiffany and Apple. Sales for lululemon were $1,800 per square foot.”

But should you pay $100 or more for yoga pants? Here are some of the questions worth thinking about as you make that decision.

  • First, do you need $100 yoga pants to do yoga?

Clearly not. You can wear regular comfortable clothes or even nothing at all. When I was in Canberra, Australia for my sabbatical at the Australian National University I noticed that the city offers Nude Yoga for Men. (Come and enjoy the sensual delights of practicing yoga naked under soft lighting in our new, toasty warm venue, read the poster.) You can read more about nude yoga here. No nude yoga for women though. At home, I find jammies work pretty well. Confession: To actual yoga classes, I wear inexpensive shorts from Costco. And $100 is more than I’ve ever paid for actual pants. Further confession: I do own bib cycling shorts that cost more, 1 pair.

  • Second, should you spend your disposable income on yet more clothes or should you give the money away to a respected charity, such as  Oxfam?

That’s a tougher question. Start by reading Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save.

If we could easily save the life of a child, we would. For example, if we saw a child in danger of drowning in a shallow pond, and all we had to do to save the child was wade into the pond, and pull him out, we would do so. The fact that we would get wet, or ruin a good pair of shoes, doesn’t really count when it comes to saving a child’s life.

UNICEF, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, estimates that about 24,000 children die every day from preventable, poverty-related causes. Yet at the same time almost a billion people live very comfortable lives, with money to spare for many things that are not at all necessary. (You are not sure if you are in that category? When did you last spend money on something to drink, when drinkable water was available for nothing? If the answer is “within the past week” then you are spending money on luxuries while children die from malnutrition or diseases that we know how to prevent or cure.)

The Life You Can Save seeks to change this. If everyone who can afford to contribute to reducing extreme poverty were to give a modest proportion of their income to effective organizations fighting extreme poverty, the problem could be solved. It wouldn’t take a huge sacrifice.

  • Third, should you buy anything, including yoga pants, from Lululemon?

That depends on your values and whether you think we should share the values of the companies to which we give our business.  My worry  is that the workplace philosophy of Lululemon is just a bit cult like and that it’s fueled by the ideas of Ayn Rand. But beyond reading the articles linked below I haven’t done much research but that’s because I’m already motivated by questions 1 and 2 to stay away.

The image above is a spoof of the Lululemon shopping bag manifesto. On the left is the original and on the right the student spoof. (Source: LuluLemon Ad Spoof: 400 Years of Yoga, And We Finally Figured Out How To Cash In)

Yet more confessions: I do think their clothes are gorgeous and stylish. I often admire them on other people. And there is some Lulu brand stuff in our house, hand me downs from a friend who is a fitness instructor. I think she got it free because they like to see their brand on the backs of teachers.

Worth reading:

Lululemon Athletica Combines Ayn Rand and Yoga

Murder At Lululemon: Yoga’s “Heart Of Darkness”?

Lululemon Run by Ayn Rand-Obsessed Ideologue

Are your favorite yoga pants evil?

body image

Athletic versus Aesthetic Values in the Pursuit of Fitness

As anyone who’s been reading this blog knows as part of our “fittest by fifty” campaign both Tracy and I are looking for ways to track improvements in fitness that aren’t about the way we look. No “firmer thighs, visible abs” goals for me. I care much more about being fit (how fast I ride, or how much I can lift) than I do about looking fit.

Staying clear of caring about looks is a challenge in our culture, whether it’s looking fit or looking fashionable. For me I find refuge from our culture’s hyper emphasis on looks  in the values of athleticism.

What’s different about athletes? Athletes care about competing and about winning, not about what you look like. It’s a very different world than mainstream culture in which looks play such an enormous role. Generally speaking, among people who view themselves as athletes, people respect you for what you can do. (Of course, athletes do run up against mainstream cultural values. Consider the case of advertising dollars and who gets them, the best athlete or the most conventionally feminine one?)

In environments where there are a lot of athletes no one seems surprised at what I do in terms of physical activity. This is different from fitness clubs and other environments where it’s assumed that non-thin people are just starting out.

The Fowler Kennedy Clinic at Western, for example, sees a lot of older athletes and their standard list of questions asks what physical activities or sports you usually do in the run of a week. No one blinks as a I rhyme off my list. They don’t assume from that you can make any conclusions about how active someone is from what they look like.  The physiotherapists and I chat and bond over recent sporting news and I’m not a weirdo to them. “Fit and overweight, how can that be?” is a question that never occurs to them. They see a lot of athletes and there I’m just part of the mosaic.

For what it’s worth, I love their honesty. They never ever mention weight so occasionally I ask. Would my knees be happier if I lost a few kilos? Maybe. We don’t know. Try it and see how it feels.

Yes, exactly so. Thank you.

Focusing on what your body can do can be tremendously liberating. I loved being pregnant and even took a great deal of satisfaction in giving birth. Yes, it was hard work but my body was doing this amazing thing and doing it so well. Wow. All of sudden, the shape of my body made sense to me. Ah, that’s what these hips are good for? Yes.

I recognize this isn’t true for everyone. There are limits to what our bodies can do that those limits are different for different people. That’s true in both childbirth and in sports. We start with different raw material. Able bodied and disabled persons both face limits in terms of performance in sports. But I find that’s not a distinction that is so meaningful when it comes to sports.  Certainly, some of the best athletes I’ve known have been disabled but with adaptive gear have been able to compete at high levels. And thinking about sports you soon realize that everyone uses specialized equipment. It’s just different specialized equipment.

Here’s two other examples that help make my point.

In the rowing room there are very large mirrors besides the erg machines. And it is true that when I first started I immediately looked and noticed my chubby tummy and my messy hair. But after a few training sessions of working on form, I lost all self-consciousness about my shape and instead paid attention to whether my arms were moving quickly on the return and on whether I was bending from the hips in that way I’d been taught. I was still evaluating, yes, but what I was evaluating was something that actually matters for the sport.

Many sports feature clothing that’s designed for speed, not looks. Time trial cyclists in the velodrome wear a skin suit to help minimize wind resistance. Few women I know like the way they look in a skin suit. But once you realize you’re there to win, you get over worrying about how you look in a skin suit. Likewise, rowers compete in something called a unisuit. You can see some pics here.

Almost all the athletes I’ve met have a relationship to their bodies that’s healthier than that of the average gym goer. Certainly there’s no mincing about behind towels in the changing room. We’re all pretty comfortable with the flesh we’ve got. Ditto with healthier attitudes towards eating. Food is fuel for performance. The women cyclists I know all joke about how cycling has influenced our shapes. But it’s not weight or leanness that we talk about. It’s the important stuff, like finding jeans and boots that go over our calves.

So identifying as an athlete helps me avoid the focus on “looking fit” that’s so pervasive in our culture. But identifying as an athlete or as an athletic person isn’t something I was always comfortable doing. After all, I’m not a professional athlete and I wasn’t even a college level athlete.  If I’m joking I sometimes say “adult onset athlete” or weekend warrior. More seriously, I tend to describe myself as a recreational athlete or club-level athlete or masters swimmer/cyclist/rower etc but that’s enough of an ‘in/ for me to feel I can learn from and share in the values of athleticism.

An interesting question is how much of these values–caring about bodily competence not looks–we can transport back into the everyday world.

And yes, not all is rosy in the land of athletic values. It’s not a perfect world. Consider what’s happening as the competitiveness of  professional competition sneaks into amateur athletics. See Wider Testing Reveals Doping Among Amateur Cyclists, Too.

But in terms of providing alternative values to those that rule in the land of looks and beauty, the world of athletics has something to offer women. Let’s sing the praises of our bodies for what they can do, not the way they look. In my own pursuit of fitness. I’ll take athletics over aesthetics any day.