fitness · fitness classes · Guest Post

“No excuses” no more: Fitness instructing from a place of body positivity (Guest post)

loveLast week, Tracy posted about her transition from indoor to outdoor cycling. In her post, she mentioned some of the things she likes about indoor cycling (everyone stays together, none of the unpredictability of the road, to name a few). She also mentioned some of the things she doesn’t, namely, being stuck right next to me:

“I may have grumbled a little bit about my winter of basement biking on the trainer. I’m not a huge fan of loud music. And one of the reasons I avoid fitness classes is that I get irritated when instructors holler out commands and tell us to work hard.  It motivates some, but it’s not my cup of tea. The other day I had the dreaded spot right beside the instructor. Cheryl is great, but please don’t put me right beside her with the speaker two feet behind me ever again.”

That’s right, I’m the Cheryl that busted Tracy’s eardrums and probably flung sweat on her in our coach’s sweaty basement. I’m also one of her former students, a freelance writer, and a blogger myself at Happy is the New Healthy.

Continue reading ““No excuses” no more: Fitness instructing from a place of body positivity (Guest post)”

fitness · health · training

Is Strenuous Exercise “Bad” for You?

three women running on a trailThere’s a new study, called the Million Women Study, that says that strenuous exercise is bad for you if you do too much of it.  I’m never sure what to think of this kind of thing. And the reporting never sends quite the right message. The Wall Street Journal headline reads: “Couch Potatoes Rejoice: Strenuous Exercise May Be Unhealthy.”

Note that it says “may,” meaning it’s not necessarily unhealthy. So it might be a bit early for non-exercisers actually to rejoice.

According to this report:

A recent study in Circulation, a journal of the American Heart Association, found that exercising strenuously four to seven days a week conferred an increased risk of vascular disease, compared with two to three days a week of strenuous exercise. Accompanying the study, published in Circulation’s Feb. 24 edition, is an editorial entitled, “Physical Activity: Can There Be Too Much of a Good Thing?”


Continue reading “Is Strenuous Exercise “Bad” for You?”


Where’s my neon green bus with snacks? Or, some of the differences between a cycling holiday and training camp

To get fast you need to ride with faster people.

That’s true. This week I rode with lots of them. (And I think I got faster. Wheee! Zoom!)

Well truth be told my group was just 10 of the many. And I wasn’t slowest in all settings. On the flats I can usually hold my own and I always surprise people when it comes time to sprint. But it’s hilly at camp (very hilly!) and given my size and the hills, I’m the slowest.

If you’re a regular reader of the blog you’ll know that’s why I’d love to be smaller. See more on that theme in this recent post.

Somebody has to be the slowest. I tell that to all my friends who are new to riding. (Hi Tracy!) But this week I needed to listen to my own advice.

Where exactly was I that I was the slowest rider? Coach Chris’s Training camp. It’s held every spring in Table Rock State Park in South Carolina. We weren’t the only Canadian cyclists there. Indeed, we saw at least four other organized training groups–all from Canada, all seeking warm weather, bare roads, hills, and a chance to get a head start on the spring cycling season.

Continue reading “Where’s my neon green bus with snacks? Or, some of the differences between a cycling holiday and training camp”

eating · Uncategorized

Living Clean without Eating Clean

green salad with grilled pineapple and chickpeas.Last Friday was a big day for me. It was what I refer to as my “clean date.” Six years ago, March 20 was the first 24 hour period of a new way of life for me, free of alcohol and drugs. In the circles I move in, we call that lifestyle “living clean.”

Living clean means more to me than pretty much anything else in my life.  Lots of people who know me now and even who knew me back on March 20, 2009 might be surprised that I, of all people, needed to make such a choice.

On the outside, my life looked pretty good: a successful career, a solid marriage, family and friends who cared about me. And yet I existed in a relentless state of self-loathing and sought things outside of myself to fix what was broken inside. To no avail.  That is the typical of the doomed cycle of addiction.

It’s progressive, and I have no doubt things were about to get worse.

Getting clean changed all of that and set me in a direction where the inside started to match the outside. And both are getting better all the time.

So when I think of “clean,” that’s what I think of.  Which brings me to this thing I’m hearing more and more about these days: “clean eating.”

What does it even mean?  According to this website:

Clean eating is a deceptively simple concept. Rather than revolving around the idea of ingesting more or less of specific things (for instance, fewer calories or more protein), the idea is more about being mindful of the food’s pathway between its origin and your plate. At its simplest, clean eating is about eating whole foods, or “real” foods — those that are un- or minimally processed, refined, and handled, making them as close to their natural form as possible.

The main idea seems to be to avoid processed foods.  So “clean” is a bit of a misnomer. As Sam said to me the other day, it’s not as if processed foods are dirty.

And it’s not only about processed foods. I came across this overview of 10 Ways to Eat Clean, offering itself up as a “foolproof guide” to eating clean. And here’s what it recommends:

1. Limit processed foods

2. Bump up your veggies

3. Cut down on saturated fat

4. Reduce alcohol intake

5. Un-sweeten your diet

6. Watch the salt

7. Choose whole grains

8. Eat less meat

9. Up your fruit intake

10. Nix refined grains

When I look at the list, I’m actually not doing too badly.  As a vegan, I get plenty of veggies, hardly any saturated fat, and lots of fruit. I almost always choose whole grains over refined, so that covers 7 and 10 right there. I gave up alcohol six years ago and can’t imagine going back to it. That leaves processed foods, sweets, and salt.

I eat soy milk, tofu, almond milk, pumpkin seed protein powder, almond butter, and peanut butter several times a week.  Veggie burgers end up on my plate at least a couple of times a month.  Are those all processed? Is hummus processed? I like Marmite on my toast. It’s definitely processed. Is toast okay?

Though it’s crossed my mind that I might take in more sugar than is healthy, I like sweets sometimes. I like to eat salty things. Does that mean I’m not a clean eater?  I do not know.

I thought clean eating would have something to do with organic foods, truth be told. If anything is suspect, it’s got to be pesticides and chemicals, don’t you think? Or GMO. But nothing I read pointed in that direction. No, it’s all about quinoa and brown rice, avocados and cucumbers, veggies and olive oil, black beans and kale salad.

Sam asked me the other day whether I think the clean eating movement (is it a movement? I don’t even know) has co-opted the language of “clean” from the recovery movement.  I hadn’t really thought of it that way. I’d say it’s not so much co-opted as perhaps borrowed.

When we get clean in recovery, we choose to abstain from certain substances. It’s a total commitment. Clean eating is kind of like that, though I don’t think they go for total abstinence. It comes in degrees. The primer I quoted above, for example, talks about limiting, reducing, watching, cutting down.

I myself prefer urging moderation when it comes to food anyway. From what I’ve seen, the “clean” movement demonizes certain foods. Even though they don’t go for abstinence, I’ve never seen a self-proclaimed (they’re always self-proclaimed and proud) clean eater choose something “unclean” without an accompanying, “I shouldn’t be eating this.” That comes perilously close to making some foods good and others evil, which runs in the opposite direction of my belief that food is beyond good and evil.

Maybe that’s what irks me about the whole clean eating thing. I want to roll my eyes when I hear someone say they’re “eating clean.” It’s always said with an air of self-satisfaction, as if it’s a virtue and they’re saints or angels for making clean food choices.

Don’t get me wrong. People can eat what they like, when they like, if they like. Even as an ethical vegan who wishes more than anything that industrial food production was more humane, I’m not about to tell people how they should eat.

At bottom, I’m probably bothered by this clean eating thing less because “clean” means something else more fundamental to me, more because it just sounds like another diet in disguise.  It’s just another way to moralize food and make people feel bad about their choices.

A couple of decades ago when I was still caught in the throes of dieting, losing, gaining, dieting, losing, gaining, a friend gave me a card. It had a Victorian style painting on it of two young women in a garden. One of them gazed down at a strawberry she held in her hand.  The other delivered the card’s punchline in a comic bubble: “For Pete’s sake, just eat the thing.”

For now, I’m going to keep on living clean, and I’m going to keep on eating how I eat.  Agonizing over food choices isn’t part of my life anymore.  Clean, semi-clean, not-clean — when it comes to food, if I want it, I’m having it, one day at a time. 😉



Guest Post · health · injury

Exercise and coping with extreme stress (Guest post)

Me and my mom, in my less active youth!

Members of the Fit is a Feminist Issue non-virtual community (that is, those of us who live and ride and row and lift and run here in little London, Ontario) know that I’ve been having a very hard winter. My mother is ill with dementia (you can read about that on my own blog, here). Today she moves into a long-term care facility after 30 very difficult days in hospital, during which my father and I took turns visiting daily, helping her keep her spirits from sinking too low. Meanwhile, I’m trying to adjust to life in Canada after more than two years living and working in the UK (where I learned to love riding my road bike – see here for more), and I’m trying to adjust as well to life without my partner, who stayed behind. The winter in the great lakes region was hard as nails this year, too, and the spring flood has brought water flowing into my basement… so, basically, I’m a stressed-out wreck.

In my younger life, I probably would have thought that doing regular exercise – and in particular scheduled fitness classes, boot camps, and the like, plus committing to riding with friends – would have been way, way too much on top of all this trauma. I grew up a chubby kid, teased for my size and my wacky hair and my weird, bookish ways; I was not what you would call active, and my diet was not what you would call healthy. I pretended not to care. (Hey: I was the “smart” kid, not the “sporty” kid. Right?) I grew up, went to university, to grad school, got married…

Then, when my husband and I split up for a while in the early 2000s – just before I wrote my qualifying exams for my doctoral degree – I realised that I weighed almost 200 pounds and was really unhappy. At that point – possibly my first encounter with a really extreme, concentrated period of stress – I decided to try going to the gym and swimming in the pool at my apartment building as a way of coping with my feelings of isolation and distress. What the gym gave me at that moment in my life was a community of people doing something together that they all wanted to do; I mostly worked out on my own, but it was comforting having others around who were into the same things I was and sometimes had really useful insights and stories to share. After about three months of going regularly to the pool and the gym I lost 25 pounds and gained some confidence; I felt better in my clothes and in my heart. I found the energy to look for a new apartment, one that was all mine and in a neighbourhood I really liked; that neighbourhood had a pool I wanted to join, and I quickly found an amazing community of endurance athletes there to swim with. Through a modest commitment to exercise, I’d found people, fresh interests, new community spirit, and a stronger sense of myself at a time when I needed reassurance that I was going to survive the troubles littering my life. I realised I felt pretty good!

(I should note here that, like Sam and Tracy and Nat and the others at FFI, I do not believe weight loss should be sought in and of itself, simply because society wants us all to believe thin is beautiful. The weight I lost in the early 2000s was part of an initiative to get myself healthy, one that included seeing a superb therapist, changing my diet to include more green veg and less meat, and shifting my outlook beyond the narrow confines of my apartment and my doctoral dissertation. Losing weight was part of a life-changing, life-saving series of events for me. I’m proud of my fit, healthy body now, but I’m a completely average-sized woman – which means 158lb, not 130lb, by the way  –and I’m not interested in becoming smaller. I only want to get stronger for my summer of time trial races!)

So here we are, in winter 2015, and I’m experiencing once more the kinds of mini body crises that come with consistent, high-level stress. I’ve been getting nosebleeds. My chronic hip problem has been acting up. Headaches. Shoulder tension. Frequent crying, and feelings of depression. I recognise all of these as physiological responses to what’s happening for me emotionally as I cope with the painful changes and losses in my life: bodies and minds are a unit and share their burdens equally. But I also know from my own past experiences that moving my body, being active and whenever possible active with others, is not an added stressor but an antidote for me. While superficially requiring me to expend precious energy, heading for the park to ride or walk with friends, or getting to the gym for a class, or just getting out on my bike by myself, all ultimately raise my endorphin levels and leave me feeling better in my limbs, lungs, and heart. I was reminded of this recently by my friend and coach Jo McRae, who encouraged me to sign up for a late-winter cycling boot camp as a coping strategy that also allowed me to continue my training – as long, she insisted, as I gave myself permission to miss a session or two if I just wasn’t feeling up to it.

And that’s the other piece of this puzzle, of course; if you’re an active person, exercise offers a wonderful way to help with stress. (And if you’re not an active person, I should add, trying out some modest exercise, with supportive friends, can be really freeing – as I learned in 2001!) But even active people need to be kind to themselves; we are not bionic men and women, and in times of severe stress there will be days when it’s just not possible to get on the rollers, or out for a run, or whatever. On those days we need to remind ourselves that there are lots of different ways to cope with stress; exercise is part of a package, not a cure-all. On those days, a chocolate bar, cup of tea, and a movie might be what’s needed – and that is really, really ok.

As for me, here’s a brief list of what I’ve been up to since things really hit the fan for me in late February. This isn’t meant as a model for coping; it’s just an example, in case you’re curious or looking to create a coping plan for yourself. (And if you are: I wish you the very best of luck!)

  • First, I sent an SOS to my friends and colleagues. I told them what I was going through, and asked them for love, support, and all the invites they cared to send for walks, rides, swims, yoga, etc, anticipating that things might get worse and that I might not have the energy to reach out later. (Read more about that strategy here.)
  • Next, I signed up for a fantastic cycling bootcamp with my friend and fellow road rider Rachel Skinner; we ride twice a week, two hours at a time, on the spin bikes at a local gym. Rachel cues the rides like an outdoor course, including a lot of flat roads and aerobic (mid-zone) work, as well as some hills and drills. It’s totally manageable, including plenty of recovery riding as well as good challenges, and a heap of fun.
  • I committed to getting on my rollers once a week. So far, it’s more like once every 10-12 days, but I’m ok with that. (I’m still working on relaxing my upper body, and not falling off all the time!)
  • I’m trying to do yoga once a week – chilled yoga, not hard core stuff. Stretching, yin, Iyengar. This week, Jess invited me to an acro-yoga workshop (eek!).
  • I’m getting as many massages as my health plan will pay for. (And I told my massage therapist what’s going on in my life; since I need to be fully relaxed in order to take best advantage of his good work, I figured he needs to know. And he’s a health care professional, so I was not worried about oversharing; it’s his job to listen!)
  • I’m walking my dog with my dog-loving friends, in the woods, as often as possible.
  • image
    Even Emma the Dog thinks it’s been a hard winter.
  • I’m seeing my psychotherapist (the same one I started seeing many years ago – he’s still with me!) as often as possible, too. I’m really lucky to have a therapist whose services are covered by our provincial health care plan, and I want to remind all our Ontario readers that these people DO exist – and many of them are excellent. (Just ask your family doctor for the current list of OHIP-covered therapists, and a hand in finding a good one.)

In other words, I’m coping. Yes, I’m still crying a bit more than I’d like. And I’m aching a bit more than I’d like. But I’m not drinking too much (a risk for me), I’m not overeating (also a risk), and I’m feeling increasingly ok when I wake up in the morning. So far, so good. I’m so grateful to have a healthy body that lets me do the exercise I love and need right now, and I’m ever so thankful for my community of supportive, active friends. Here’s to you, gang.


advertising · Guest Post · Weekends with Womack

Cleaning is NOT the new cardio: Women, housework and not working out

Tammy Wynette had it right: Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman. Especially when it comes to domestic labor. Tons has been written about how women, after coming home from paid work outside the home, commence “the second shift” in which they cook, clean, do childcare, and manage household needs. And despite the fact that the women’s movement is easily more than 40 years old, this situation is still pervasive. In the New Republic, Jessica Grose tells her own rather typical story:

“When it comes to housecleaning, my basically modern, egalitarian marriage starts looking more like the backdrop to an Updike short story. My husband and I both work. We split midnight baby feedings. My husband would tell you that he does his fair share of the housework, but if pressed, he will admit that he’s never cleaned the bathroom, that I do the dishes nine times out of ten, and that he barely knows how the washer and dryer work in the apartment we’ve lived in for over eight months. Sure, he changes the light bulbs and assembles the Ikea furniture, but he’s never scrubbed a toilet in the six years we’ve lived together.”

This story illustrates how gendered domestic labor often is. The above-mentioned husband assembles Ikea furniture, which is a one-off enterprise. But doing dishes and laundry, both ongoing enterprises, fall to his wife. And the data show that this is a common phenomenon:

Fathers do slightly more lawn care than moms—11 percent of working dads are out mowing the lawn on an average day compared to 6.4 percent of working moms. So that means dads are out clipping the hedges on sunny Saturdays, while moms are the ones doing the drudgery of vacuuming day in and day out. And this isn’t solely an American phenomenon. Even in the famously gender-neutral Sweden, women do 45 minutes more housework a day than their male partners.

So what’s a pressed-for-time 21st century woman to do if she wants to:

  1. work at a job for money;
  2. cook nice food for meals;
  3. wear clean clothing;
  4. live in a clean house;
  5. hang out with her clean and fed children;
  6. get some exercise?

Well, I can’t speak for all of 1–6  but there are some ingenious websites out there dedicated to helping women combine house cleaning and exercise. One of them urges women to “turn spring cleaning into spring training”, and offers 7 ways to “put the lean in clean”. Among the techniques promoted are:

  • Eschew vacuuming in favor of taking rugs outside to beat them; it will burn more calories.
  • Take multiple trips running up and down stairs to retrieve and put away laundry.
  • If you insist on using the vacuum cleaner, combine vacuuming with lunges.


Another site combines weight-loss and house cleaning advice:

Forget the gym! If women are really spending almost 2½ hours cleaning and tidying up every day, there’s plenty of opportunity to get a sufficient workout without even leaving home!

Housework is a great way to burn calories. But as is the case with any workout, the more effort you put in, the greater the benefit. In particular, polishing, dusting, mopping and sweeping are great for keeping arms shapely. Bending and stretching, for example, when you make the bed, wash windows or do the laundry are good for toning thighs and improving flexibility. And constantly running up and down the stairs as you tidy is a good aerobic workout.


A woman calling herself “Clean Momma” offers dozens of videos that purport to combine exercise with cleaning tasks; one of them promises “great arms and countertops” at the same time.

It’s obvious that these websites are trading on gender and class stereotypes in domestic labor as well as pushing a weight-loss-is-always-good-always-necessary message that we all know is wrong-headed, bad for our health, and bad for our self-esteem. Not to mention ridiculously time-consuming, taking time away from pursuing real projects and goals for ourselves. So, launching into a long criticism of them would be like shooting fish in a barrel.

But, I’d like to suggest that there’s a more subtle form of this cleaning-as-women’s-primary-activity at work in hipper and more modern women’s media.  Apartment therapy, a home decorating/improvement/DIY website, features the January Cure, a month of cleaning, organizing and home improvement tasks. They are motivational and upbeat:

Do you want 2015 to be your best year yet? We believe that when your home is under control, fresh, clean and organized, good things happen throughout your life. If you are ready to get your place back in shape, the very best way is one manageable step at a time, during our once-a-year-only January Cure. By the end of the month, you’ll be sitting pretty in a clean, fresh, organized home. We can do this – together!

Every few days they publish another home-organization task. One of them—a better kitchen by Sunday evening—involves this as a weekend project:

  • clean fridge
  • clean cabinets, inside and out
  • inspect all contents of cabinets and get rid of stained, chipped, extra, unused items
  • clean all surfaces (using earth-friendly cleaners, of course)

Screen Shot 2015-03-21 at 10.17.33 AM

This is really impressive, but just reading this list makes me want to retire to the couch for the day.

All of the mainstream women’s magazines (like Better Homes and Gardens, Redbook, Good Housekeeping, Real Simple) emphasize the importance of very detailed attention to every part of one’s house. Maybe I’ve arranged my furniture incorrectly. Or perhaps I need to build my own laundry hamper, which is supposed to make laundry so much easier (hmmmm…)

Now, of course it’s nice to have a lovely clean house, complete with sparkling fridge, uncluttered cabinets, and maybe even a groovy new wire laundry hamper on wheels. But it’s worth noting that women are the ones targeted for these sorts of tasks. And what’s worse, we are at risk of reducing or eliminating physical activity from our daily routines because of the pressures to be responsible for creating an ideal domestic environment.

One recent study, analyzing factors influencing amount of regular exercise in middle-aged women, cited “disruptions in daily structure, competing demands, and self-sacrifice” as barriers to regular exercise. Two factors that were NOT listed as barriers were lack of time and menopausal symptoms. This is good news; despite changes in our bodies and time-crunched lives, women still want to exercise to feel good and be active with others. But we still have to deal with competing demands and self-sacrifice, and these pressures arrive at our doorstep in many forms.

So I say: step away from the vacuum cleaner, march past the cluttered desk, and avert your eyes while passing the laundry room—at least for long enough to get out there for a walk, run, swim, ride, yoga class, unicycle lesson, game of catch with your dog. The mess will keep until you get back home.

Screen Shot 2015-03-21 at 10.09.20 AM

cycling · Guest Post · Sat with Nat

Cycling Outside on Ethel

I’ve been invited to post on Saturdays when I can on a feature Sam dubbed “Sat with Nat”. So here’s the deal, I’ll post as long as I have something to contribute and you find it relevant, deal? Deal!

Back in December I introduced you all to my new bicycle Ethel and I clipped her into a trainer and spun off and on through the winter. I even got shoes that clip in, I was feeling mighty ready to go outside. Last Saturday it was colder and wetter than expected but I just couldn’t stand being inside one more day so out we went on the Belmont 60km loop I did last November on my old bike.

First things first, I could not get myself on with my clip in shoes. I clipped in my left leg and my knees locked from what I can best describe as abject panic. It was though my lizard brain decided I was caught in a trap. It was too much change, new configuration, new bike, braking and shifting were different, the new shoes and pedals were just one challenge too far. I looked at my partner with the taste of bile in my mouth and said “I think I’ll just go back inside and hide in bed all day.” I cried a bit then I remembered we had flat pedals from another bike. Randonneur Dave had shown me over the winter how to swap pedals out so I scrambled to get that done and put running shoes on. This made me way late, that’s terrible cycling etiquette.

It turned out my companions were Randonneur Dave and my partner Michel. I was struck by two things almost immediately as we zoomed out of town, the first was effort and the second was cadence.


It felt like no effort at all as I pedalled. In part there was a mass difference of 40 lbs. I weighed Ethel and she is just under 20 lbs, my old bike was double that. I weigh about 20 lbs less than I did in November, so 40 less pounds to move is a significant change when you read about folks spending big bucks to shave a hundred grams off. I’m sure the fit of my bike and more aggressive posture helped with making my effortless ride. I know the gear ratio was better. The new bike has radically changed my riding experience.


I noticed that spinning on the trainer over the winter drastically improved my cadence, I was pedalling much faster. I noticed I wasn’t coasting very often at all, an old habit from my childhood that I was having a hard time breaking. Part of what helped my cadence was advice Bike Rally David gave me last fall, to stay in the lowest gear possible. That was a big shift in my thinking as before that conversation I’d always hurried to get into as high a gear as possible and push really hard. That is not the way of the distance rider.

I felt faster and it was easier, this was a dream return to outdoor cycling. Randonneur Dave had our old gps data and updated me on my speed with snippets like “through here last time you were at 11 km/hr, we just did 16 km/hr” or “Hey, we hit 28 km/hr there, how’d that feel?” It all felt GREAT. Zoom. Zoom. Zoom.

My favourite part of the Belmont trip is eating at the Belmont Town Restaurant, a little place that has a buffet on the weekends filled with lots of yummy food. We of course had to take a picture in front:

We made it!
We made it!

So my average for the ride was 16 km/hr in November on my old bike, this trip 19.5 km/hr and we even stopped for Michel to repair a flat. Sure, it was a grey day, it was damp, there was a stretch, the same as in the fall, where we we dead into the wind.

So great, in fact, I went with a group of friends around Springbank Park the next day. We did the loop that last September had been my longest distance ever. What a different perspective I have going around the day after a long ride. It flushed out my muscles but my groin was feeling the pain, I got a blister on Saturday and it burst on Sunday. Ouch. What made Sunday amazing was my oldest son joined me as well as two friends I’d never ridden with before. This middle aged cycling thing is a great way to meet people. We went for coffee and sweets.

It was a great weekend of cycling outside on Ethel!