Metabolic Health Is a Feminist Issue

campfire[Note: I am by no means an expert on metabolic health. I hardly know anything about it. I just know it’s an idea with major liberatory potentialFor more information about it, check out some of the links below]

Recently, after blogging about the thigh gap and taking Go Kaleo‘s recommendation to read Matt Stone’s Diet Recovery 2, and then reading Caitlin’s post that reminded us that, hey, we actually need to eat, the penny finally dropped for me.

Yes! I finally understand that metabolic health is a big deal. Huge. Bigger than the next fad diet, bigger than any particular training program, bigger than aspiring to have ripped abs or a thigh gap.

After we posted about fitness models earlier in the month, we noticed some fascinating discussion on a figure competitors’ discussion boards about ways to train smarter with more calories. Sam drew my attention to former figure competitor Clara Ross’s post about how she destroyed her metabolism and her decision to retire forever from competing to restore her metabolic health.

One of the missteps that Clare Ross admits she made was to go beyond her coach’s advice.  She ate fewer than the recommended calories. She did more than the recommended cardio. She did not take rest days.  Ross thought she was training harder and better than everyone around her. She pushed through the exhaustion and didn’t think about any health consequences.  She says:

“In reality what I was doing was conditioning my body to cope with and anticipate ongoing famine and severe physical hardship. Faced with this, it did exactly what it is supposed to do – it adapted. It learned to do more and more with less and less.”

I have long been aware of the so-called “famine response” or “starvation response” to drastic reductions in calories.  Fitness Mantra defines it as “a proportional reduction in metabolism in response to reduced availability of food.”  If the body reacts this way to severe calorie reduction, that explains why the metabolism slows down when we go on extreme diets.  But that’s just half of the story.

If eating less slows down the metabolism, then why shouldn’t eating more speed it up? In his Diet Recovery 2 plan, Matt Stone recommends more or less that we do exactly that if we have suffered metabolic damage. By definition, if you have slowed your metabolism by eating too little, then even apparently normal amounts of food will be more than your body strictly needs.

His plan follows many of the basic principles of Intuitive Eating, which is the approach I use and is working for me.  He recommends that people eat regular meals with snacks in between if they’re hungry, eat enough to feel satisfied (not more, not less), eat what appeals to you, listen to your body and respond to its feedback (i.e. make adjustments where necessary), eat nutritious foods as the main basis but there is also unlimited freedom to supplement with “junk” food as desired.

He is big on taking fluids only in response to thirst. Most of us drink more than is optimal for our metabolism, he claims.

He does do a quite a bit to fill in the sorts of things that we should be striving for to achieve metabolic health, with an emphasis on body temperature, warm hands and feet, regular bowel movements, uninterrupted sleep, and urination every 4 or so hours and your pee should be yellow or gold, not clear.

But this post isn’t about Matt’s plan, it’s about the more general idea of metabolic health and its relationship to anti-dieting. For reasons I won’t go into here, I’m happy to stick with intuitive eating, at least for the time being.

I love this takeaway point in both approaches: under-eating will not sustain long term weight loss because the body will adapt.  This one little fact goes a long way to explaining why diets simply do not work.

It also explains why you need to keep eating and keep moving.  Activity as much as food stokes the fire of metabolism.  We have all heard of the idea of “calories in, calories out.”  Many of us, like Clare Ross, have interpreted this to mean simply that if we eat less and move more then we will automatically lose weight.

“Eat less, move more” is one of the main tenets of the Weight Watchers program, a plan on which the more you lose the less you get to eat.  They are awful at recognizing activity as requiring more food to keep the body functioning adequately. When I last went there, it was totally optional to add food to compensate for activity points, and it was definitely regarded as extra-virtuous NOT to eat more if you earned extra points through activity. That’s one of Sam’s reasons for hating Weight Watchers.

In terms of metabolic health, you can see why this makes no sense.  If you move more, you need to eat more to keep your metabolism working. Otherwise, you risk going into the famine response. Your body, like Clare Ross’s body, will adapt to the new conditions, thus further reducing what it “needs”.  At a certain point, however, this becomes unsustainable.  Even Weight Watchers has a minimum amount of points you need to consume in a day.  For those like me whose “plan” kept them at that minimum, losing weight eventually became impossible.

Amber at Go Kaleo linked to a metabolic calculator that she likes to recommend. Based on your age, height, and activity level, it tells you how many calories you need to consume to maintain an “energy balance” of optimal metabolic functioning. I’m always astonished when I put in the numbers because it tells me I should be consuming over 2600 calories a day! That’s about double what Weight Watchers recommended for me and 800 more than I was told to eat last fall by my sports nutritionist and my personal trainer.

I have stopped attempting to lose weight or even to lose fat. Instead, I am simply doing what I can to gain muscle through resistance training and to increase my performance as a runner, yogi, and swimmer. I eat when I feel hungry and focus on whole foods in satisfying amounts. I enjoy sweets.

I do not know how much I weigh because I stopped weighing myself on January 1, 2013. This might be the single most liberating thing I have done for myself in the past year.

Without being overly preoccupied with body temperature and without needing a long period of what Matt calls “rest and refeeding,” I feel well on my way to firing up my metabolism so it functions more effectively than it did when I was caught in the cycle of chronic dieting.

Metabolic health is a feminist issue because women are taught much more than men to under eat, to starve themselves in order to look a certain way. The message that diets don’t work has great potential to free women from the false promise that dieting will lead to thinness and thinness will lead to happiness. The further message that we can eat our way back to good health is liberating and empowering.

If instead of dieting, we eat what we need, and engage in fitness activities with performance goals that will increase our physical functioning and fire up our metabolisms, we will be stronger and freer. I like this idea:  Instead of going on a low carb diet, increase your activity level to the point where you need to eat carbs.

Let’s move and let’s eat!

[disclaimer:  Matt Stone is not a feminist. The book has good information for those interested in learning more about metabolic health.]

Finding clothes to fit athletic women’s bodies

Physically fit women face a variety of clothing challenges. Tracy has written about the woes of women who’d rather have a choice not to work out in pink.

I’ve written about how I’d rather risk the chance of visible nipples than wear padded bras but that’s a tricky choice these days when it comes to sports bras. (Short version: I don’t like to surround some of the more sensitive bits of my body in foam and it feels weird jogging along with added structure.)

But the indignity doesn’t end with pink or with foamy sports bras.

I had dinner recently with a friend who is in training for a fitness competition. Of course, we chatted about food and about weight training but it wasn’t long before the topic turned to our favourite lament: muscular women’s bodies and finding clothes that fit. Her leather jacket fit nicely around her waist but she was having back and shoulder issues. My fitted black raincoat worked but was obviously straining at the biceps.

We all say, and it’s true, that the standard fear of weightlifting–“But what if I get big?”–isn’t really a worry for women. Our bodies aren’t made, we say, to develop big, bulky muscles. But over time, your proportions do change.

I’ve been shopping for awhile now for jeans, boots, and jackets that fit me without fitting me like academic regalia does, that is, like a tent.

I’m a large woman it’s true but I wear standard sizes of clothes, or at least I would if I could get my biceps, shoulders, and calves into things.

My jeans are a 12 but my black coat is an XL because there is no way to get my arms into a mere large. Or my shoulders actually. I haven’t worn a button up shirt in many years. If they’re fitted, they just don’t fit. And I’m not a fan of tents.

And don’t get me started on cyclists’ legs and skinny jeans. Not a match made in heaven. When Betabrand finally announced they were making their bike to work pants in women’s sizes, many women wrote in and offered helpful feedback–room for calves, please.

Each year I admire friends’ boots and start posting to Facebook about my quest to find boots that fit. It’s almost an annual ritual that ends badly each time. Women cyclists all chime in about how we’re doomed never to wear tall boots.

So my three “problem” areas–a problem for clothing, I quite like these areas otherwise–are shoulders, biceps, and calves.

Do you have muscular bits that don’t fit into standard issue women’s clothing? What’s your strategy?

Bicep Betties Burnout T - Bench hedr Tshirts

What’s So Bad about Pink Anyway?

female_symbol_color_colour_pink_1-999pxLast week’s strength training tips for women drew lots of feminist commentary, as you can see from this and this and this and this, as well as the comments on the original post (to which, for the sake of principle, I have vowed never to link again).

One of the observations made in the original post is that women tend to like wearing pink to the gym. I’m not sure why this comes across as a criticism, but it did.  That might have to do with the rhythm of the piece, in which criticism and misogyny are delivered in disguise, as “tips” and “observations.” By the time I got to the pink comment, I was just waiting for the next blow to women.

Commenters on the post and commentators from other blogs have had varied responses to the point about pink, ranging from “sometimes it’s hard to find something functional, that fits, and that isn’t pink” to “what’s so bad about pink anyway?”

The post’s author admitted that he hadn’t given any thought to the difference in availability of pink clothing for women and for men.  He was completely bewildered one day when five of his female clients showed up with some pink on their outfits, remarking that none of his male clients would ever do that.  Seriously?

I want to say that I like pink, especially hot or neon pink, and I own a pink winter running hoodie that I love, another pink winter running top, and a pair of casual sneakers with pink trim.  I love them all.  For each of them, when I purchased them, I had no alternative with respect to colour.

What’s so bad about pink has nothing to do with the color itself. It’s lovely.  The issue is more about a lack of choices coupled with the social meaning of pink.

In the Western world, girls are socialized into pink before they are even born.  Prospective parents who know they are going to have a girl have a green light to start decorating the nursery in pink, buying pink clothes for the baby, stocking up on pink accessories.  When the baby is born, assuming the sex is clear (it is not always clear at birth) and assuming it is a girl, she will be put in a pink blanket. And so the socialization into pink begins.

I have gone shopping for children and requested clothing in gender neutral colours. If you want the salesperson to look at you as if you have three heads, ask for gender neutral products for children. One of the most prevalent tropes for distinguishing the girl stuff from the boy stuff is pink. It’s not the only marker of the feminine, but it’s powerful, consistent, and virtually inescapable. Enter the girls’ clothing department or even the girls’ part of a toy shop and you will find yourself in a sea of pink.

It’s not much different for women seeking workout clothes. Yes, there are some choices sometimes. But last weekend in Toronto, I passed the storefront of an upmarket yoga clothing retailer and of the five mannequins in the window, not one of them had a top or a bottom on that was devoid of pink. Either the item was pink or it had some pink trim.  The “observation” about pink gnawed at me some more and I started to feel, well, pissed off.

I’d purchased a running top from said retailer the week before, hadn’t yet worn it. It was black with pink trim. On Sunday, I returned it for a refund. I will not be coerced into wearing pink, even if I like the colour.

So what’s the social meaning of pink? It’s all about feminine—girlish, dependent, a little bit silly, a little bit soft, a little bit fickle, cute, and just generally weak.  I don’t mean that girls and women are actually this way. I mean that femininity as a cultural ideal likes to represent us this way.  Add a bit of zip to the pink, going for neon instead of pastel, and you’ve got sexy too.

If women have pink (i.e. femininity) foisted upon them, men have few pink options.  Pink’s association with femininity means that men who choose to wear pink are either openly gay or leaving themselves open to speculation about their sexuality. If a boy likes and wears pink to school, he risks ridicule and becomes subject to bullying.

The only exception is when a thoroughly macho, straight man in a position of power wears pink. In those cases it has the paradoxically opposite affect of making people even more enthralled by his masculinity. He’s SO masculine he can wear pink without having his sexuality called into question (because powerful, masculine men are never gay, right?).

pink dumbbellsThese days it’s not just pink workout wear that’s available to us, but also pink dumbbells and pink stability balls. Recently there was a big promotion of pink Bosus for breast cancer awareness.

I lift weights to get strong. I am sorry, but I just don’t find the associations with pink to be all that empowering.  Not to mention that the high end for pink dumbbells is usually about 5 pounds, with 2 and 3 pounds being more common. No one is going to get all that strong lifting only pink weights.

I agree with what Samantha said in her Play Hard, Look Cute post (she took this pic while out shopping): if you want to wear pink, if you want to look cute in the gym, then you have a right to do that.  But I also think that pink doesn’t do us any favors in the gym at the moment. And given the plethora of pink items available to women and not to men, I wonder how much choice there really is.

Now, one way of responding to this point is to say that we need to change the culture. Maybe bringing pink into a traditionally masculine domain like the weight room might be just what is needed.  I use similar logic when I knit at a philosophy conference—it feminizes a traditionally male-dominated environment.  And it also means that (unless I ask a really good question of the speaker in the Q & A) I risk being taken less seriously by other philosophers.

I don’t agree, of course, that the feminine should be considered less valuable and taken less seriously, either in philosophy or in the weight room.

In much of my feminist work and life, I worry about the way our choices and preferences are shaped by social forces.  It’s not some biologically innate feature of girls and women that we like pink stuff. Pink is just a colour and for that reason may seem innocuous. But its social meaning can be undermining in certain contexts.  And at the moment, the gym is one of those contexts.

Changing entrenched social meanings doesn’t happen overnight. And it doesn’t happen without an awareness of the pernicious messages associated with those meanings.  As a woman, when I choose to wear pink, I need to be aware that I am choosing more than a colour, and that my desires, preferences, and options have been heavily influenced by my upbringing and environment.

Sometimes that awareness alone will make me question my choice long enough to ask, “Is this available in another colour?” And when I do ask that, I would really appreciate it if the answer, at least some of the time, could be “Yes.”

The joy of jumping rope

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I love jumping rope. I’m keen on exercises that take very little special equipment and are easily accessible to just about everyone. Skipping also makes me feel like a kid again.

I learned to skip as a school girl attending Catholic elementary school in Newfoundland. Elementary or primary school was mixed gender (high school wasn’t but I left Catholic school by then) but there was still separation between the boys and the girls. They had their own side of each classroom and even their own half of the school yard.

I don’t remember what games the boys played but on our side of the school yard we jumped rope. Usually we played with two girls one on each end of a long rope and we skipped to rhyming songs. So skipping for me is one of the few things that at one time only girls did but now as adults fitness types of all genders skip rope.

These days I often jump rope on our back deck in the summer. Lots of Crossfit workouts involve jumping rope, usually double unders. I can only do six doubles in a row right now but I’m working on it.

I was reminded of how much I love skipping reading this post from Wild Juggling, Jump Rope Training.

On not growing old gracefully

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“Aging also helps us grow into ourselves. We start to know what we like and don’t like. We stop giving a fuck what other people think of us.

Imagine, younguns, a world where you just don’t give a shit about looking stupid or what your friends think or falling down in public or impressing the Joneses or having to go along with the crowd to do things you hate. Imagine how awesome that would be. The liberation. The joyous freedom. The glorious sense of possibility. Well, if you’re lucky, that’s what getting older is.” Krista Scott Dixon, In Praise of Older Women

For what it’s worth I don’t plan to age gracefully. Depending on how well you know me this may not be a surprise.

Here I am approaching my life’s halfway mark. Halfway? How could that be?

I’m 48 and 96 might strike you as a tad ambitious.

Let me explain the math. Given family history, if I make it through my forties, 90 isn’t unreasonable. One can hope.The first ten years of life don’t count as years of my life really. That wasn’t me in the sense philosophers most care about. You can read more about the problem of personal identity here.

So, dying at, or around, 90 gives me 80 or so years past the age of ten. Counting after the age of 10 then, it’s 38 done, 42 to go. Fingers crossed. Knock on wood. Etc.

I’m also at the halfway mark in my career. I began as an assistant professor at 28 and ending at 68 sounds good. And here I am at 48.

And, here’s the best bit, lots of the hard work is done. I’m a full professor. (Professors move from the rank of assistant, associate, to full.) Kids are successful and happy, in their teen years and beyond. So the stressful, hard working of getting tenure and coping with toddlers is behind me.

So I’m going to have fun. I love my job, love teaching and love research and writing. Great friends. Great family. And as you know from reading this blog, lots of enjoyable and rewarding physical activities. Fun times and adventures ahead.

And unlike young me, I no longer fret over being taken seriously in the profession and in life.

Young me wasn’t ever that concerned about what people thought about how I looked, I explained why in a blog post on body positivity and the queer community. But older me could care even less.

As I get older, I’m happier there are fewer rules but the judging of women’s bodies, clothing, and choices doesn’t go away. Feminists should see a connection between the patrolling of young women’s clothes–think of slut shaming–and the policing of older women’s choices.

There are rules, I’m finding out, about what older women shouldn’t wear: no sleeveless shirts, short shorts, mini skirts, bikinis, and more. Mutton dressed up as lamb, blah, blah, blah.

There are ways we shouldn’t do our hair: not long, no pig tails, no bangs, no wild colours.

A friend recently decreed that she was now too old to paint patterns on her nails. Patterned nails, not my thing at any age, turn out to be for the young.

Who knew? It’s a minefield of inappropriateness.

I’m not going to tread carefully.

I’m the sort of person who sees a rule and then wants to break it. Think wild flowers and clotheslines and fat cats in neighborhoods which prescribe standards about such things.

For years I wanted a tattoo but then wondered if I’d regret it as I aged. I’m older now and I have three tattoos and I don’t worry about that particular regret.But I am annoyed by people who think that my new ink, fresh plumage (thanks Ivan for that expression) are inappropriate for someone my age.

My mother recently dyed a section of her striking white hair purple and she was surprised that her new steak of colour met with disapproval from some of her acquaintances.

Another friend had a fun and incongruous, harmless, but out of character relationship. It appalled her kids. They said she ought to act her age.

I think this is all rubbish and we should recognize it as such.

We should say goodbye to the idea of growing old gracefully. Women’s bodies and behaviors don’t need to be graceful. We can be as wild and unruly as we choose.

What does this mean for fitness? I’m not going to worry about which physical activities are dignified or age appropriate.

I saw a great post on Facebook the other day about a woman who took up mountain biking for the first time in her mid seventies. I love some of the older women doing Crossfit. I hope to be running obstacle course adventure races, trying out surfing, maybe some climbing in the years ahead. Perhaps fencing. But never bingo.

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Chairs are evil (once again)

Yet one more research article adds nails to the coffin of an idea. The soon-to-be-buried idea is that exercising vigorously for an hour a day can offset the metabolic damage to your health caused by sitting.

This one is of special interest to cyclists like me who like to spend our days riding hard, followed by flopping at the desk. (I’m reformed now. I have a standing desk. But if it weren’t for back problems caused by sitting, I’d still rather ride hard then flop.)

Called, “Minimal Intensity Physical Activity (Standing and Walking) of Longer Duration Improves Insulin Action and Plasma Lipids More than Shorter Periods of Moderate to Vigorous Exercise (Cycling) in Sedentary Subjects When Energy Expenditure Is Comparable.” You can read the piece here.

Here’s some highlights from the abstract:

“Epidemiological studies suggest that excessive sitting time is associated with increased health risk, independent of the performance of exercise. We hypothesized that a daily bout of exercise cannot compensate the negative effects of inactivity during the rest of the day on insulin sensitivity and plasma lipids.”

And their method and findings:

“Eighteen healthy subjects, age 21±2 year, BMI 22.6±2.6 kgm−2 followed randomly three physical activity regimes for four days. Participants were instructed to sit 14 hr/day (sitting regime); to sit 13 hr/day and to substitute 1 hr of sitting with vigorous exercise 1 hr (exercise regime); to substitute 6 hrs sitting with 4 hr walking and 2 hr standing (minimal intensity physical activity (PA) regime). The sitting and exercise regime had comparable numbers of sitting hours; the exercise and minimal intensity PA regime had the same daily energy expenditure. PA was assessed continuously by an activity monitor (ActivPAL) and a diary. Measurements of insulin sensitivity (oral glucose tolerance test, OGTT) and plasma lipids were performed in the fasting state, the morning after the 4 days of each regime. In the sitting regime, daily energy expenditure was about 500 kcal lower than in both other regimes. Area under the curve for insulin during OGTT was significantly lower after the minimal intensity PA regime compared to both sitting and exercise regimes 6727.3±4329.4 vs 7752.0±3014.4 and 8320.4±5383.7 mU•min/ml, respectively. Triglycerides, non-HDL cholesterol and apolipoprotein B plasma levels improved significantly in the minimal intensity PA regime compared to sitting and showed non-significant trends for improvement compared to exercise.”

Conclusions?

“One hour of daily physical exercise cannot compensate the negative effects of inactivity on insulin level and plasma lipids if the rest of the day is spent sitting. Reducing inactivity by increasing the time spent walking/standing is more effective than one hour of physical exercise, when energy expenditure is kept constant.”

I’d be curious about a group who did a mix–some high intensity exercise, followed by some standing and walking, rather than sitting. I’d like to know if they fared even better. Doesn’t matter really. I’d keep doing the high intensity for performance improving reasons. The take home lesson for me is–yell it loudly one more time–GET UP OUT OF THAT CHAIR!!!

We’ve written a lot here about the evils of sitting. Let me remind you!

To complete the picture here’s an evil chair, image from Deviant Art, by Blank Mange, http://fc02.deviantart.net.

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