Feminist reflections on fitness, sport, and health
Author: catherine w
I'm an analytic philosopher, retooled as a public health ethicist. I'm interested in heath behavior change, particularly around eating and activity, and how things other than knowledge affect our health decisions.I'm also a cyclist (road, off-road, commuter), squash player, x skier, occasional yoga-doer, hiker, swimmer and leisurely walker.
In the midst of it, I feel– calm. A bit quieter than usual. Slow and deliberate. The indirect light suits me. The early dusk I find entrancing. This is a new experience and completely unexpected.
Reading these words now, I wince a little. I think they were more aspirational than actual. That is, I was shooting for this feeling:
When in fact, in December, I pretty much always have this feeling:
This December, I admit that I’m way overburdened with work, physical therapy, lots of family strife around me, unmet writing obligations, and my usual body shame/dissatisfaction that accelerates during the holiday season.
So I’m going with it. This is me, moving forward in super-messy fashion. I’m:
doing a bunch of yoga, mostly in very small bits (7-15 mins, even)
walking more, with the accompanying soreness of the ankle with no brace now
sleeping 8 hours at least, because I have to in order to function
being present for my family, trying to maintain boundaries of some sort
accepting that my house will be super-messy and my writing obligations will have to wait and that my body is actually helping me do all these things so thank you body
Forget ethereal. I’m going for pragmatic this season.
What’s your word or attitude this December? I’d love to hear from you.
Hey everyone– I just had this really great new exercise experience and wanted to share it with y’all. It’s called weight training. You do it either with machines like this:
Or you can do it with weights that you hold in your hands:
Or you can use big weights that are on a bar. And you can use your own body weight, as I have learned.
So I thought it imperative to share all this new information with you ASAP.
Of course I’m kidding. Well, not completely. Here’s the real story:
This week in physical therapy my therapist got me started on strength training to help me be more stable, given that I have had multiple sprains and some fractures in both ankles. We’re working on hips and glutes, among other muscles. It’s hard work, but I’m finding that I like it.
This is the real news: I am really loving weight training. I always thought I hated it. In the past, I’ve gone to gyms, gotten rudimentary info about using machines, worked on them half-heartedly, and then abandoned them in favor of cardio workouts and stretching. I never made the effort to get proper instruction, and I never really experienced what it’s like to do these workouts over time. But now, recognizing the importance, nay imperative nature of this kind of workout to my future self, and experiencing how interesting and cool it feels to my current self to work my body in these ways, I am pretty stoked. Sam predicted this, and you’re right!
Now, I just need three more things, and I will be all set.
Thing one: a gym. I’ve got to go shopping for a gym, as I’m in between memberships. I’ve been a member at an all-women’s gym, which I enjoyed, but it was expensive and had no pool. And the chain gym I tried, I didn’t love. But of course that was before I discovered weight training. So that is a task before me.
Thing two: a personal trainer. I’ve tried reading books and even cutting out pages from magazines or printing out web pages with workouts, but I’ve never managed to translate the print into an actual workout over time for me. I would like an actual person to help me get started on figuring out where I want to start, how to start, and what to do once I’ve started.
Thing three: some aspirational goals and realistic plans for them. I don’t know how much time I want to or can or spend on this, as it’s all new. Of course the trainer can help me.
All of this (except maybe picking out a gym– I can do that) seems pretty overwhelming. I’m not sure how to start. Except I guess I already have.
I’ll be posting some in the upcoming weeks/months, asking advice about personal trainers, gyms, workouts, etc. And I’ll let you know how things are going. But for now, I just wanted to say that I’ve found my way to the weight room, and I’m ready to… uh…pump some iron? Do people still say that?
Help on weight training slang would also be most appreciated.
Who knows what the Ballon D’or is? Well, I took high school French, so I would guess it is the balloon of gold. But I would be wrong. It’s the Ball of Gold award, given by FIFA (International Football Association Federation) to the best World player of the year. The good news is that this woman– Ada Hegerberg of Norway– won the first Ballon D’or recognizing women’s professional soccer.
Yay Ada! Yay women’s soccer/football! Yay strikers! Yay women’s sports!
But now comes the bad news, which I’ll let the Washington Post (experts in delivering bad news) tell you:
Accepting the Ballon d’Or was supposed to be Hegerberg’s moment. Instead, just minutes after she concluded a heartfelt speech in which she encouraged young girls to “please believe in yourselves,” Hegerberg was approached by French disc jockey Martin Solveig, the event’s host, who had a bizarre query.
“Do you know how to twerk?” Solveig asked in French. Clearly uncomfortable, Hegerberg shook her head and responded with a terse “no,” before appearing to attempt to leave the stage.
Yes, that’s right: some guy who was hosting the event, instead of praising her or asking her about soccer/football, asks a crude sexual leering question, completely deflating her Ballon D’or. Really? Ewwwwww!
I’m happy to report a little bit more good news, though: there’s been a huge media outcry about how gross and disgusting and sexist this guy’s comment was (he deserves no more mention of his name, in my view), and a bunch of professional athletes have issued spirited and strong messages of support. Well, good– it’s no more than Hederberg deserves, and I’m glad people have her back.
In addition, the press was all over this story, and it was gleefully reported by all the major world news outlets from the BBC (which reported it at first as “an awkward moment”), the New York Times to Glamour to Business Insider, which published a story that was really about how upset tennis star Andy Murray was about the twerking comment… Sigh…
But there’s more bad news, which none of the articles I read talked about (although it’s on video). After responding “no” to the twerking invitation, the DJ twerk-asking guy,, some other male host, and I guess the producers of the show all conspired to create a happy ending: they played a Frank Sinatra song, and Hederberg very reluctantly and briefly danced with Solveig before leaving the stage. Interviewed later, Hederberg said she didn’t consider his comment to be sexual harassment, and she posed with him for a picture he posted on Twitter.
I won’t dignify the DJ guy’s non-apology by discussing it. But suffice it to say, everyone was called upon to scramble to create a rapprochement (a word I didn’t learn in high school French) between them. And Hegerberg was required to do all of the heavy lifting, all of the emotional labor, and perform all of the actions to create a pretense of bonhomie (I am totally on a French-word roll here) which had to be exhausting and sad. This is much more draining than playing in a World Cup match, I bet.
What I wish had happened was this: when gross sexist DJ worm guy asked her if she could twerk, she had said, “no, but I do know how to do this”. And she would have done what she knows oh so well how to do, which is kick balls with strength and accuracy. Like so:
After hitting her mark, then the whole audience could’ve risen to its feet, yelling:
That’s an athletic performance I’d like to have seen, one worthy of another Ballon D’or.
Of course lots of fitness challenges targeted at women are gross. They feature those awful before-and-after shots, which are either photoshopped or artfully done to maximize the fitspo. They emphasize the look of women’s bodies rather than the feelings of movement. And they’re geared toward some event (wedding, beach vacation, formal dance) at which women’s bodies are on display and judged.
I guess I should stop now. Y’all knew this already.
Those are all good reasons to reject some challenges. But those are not the reasons why I’ve always reacted badly to fitness challenges.
I’ve taken on fitness challenges without thinking seriously about how I’ll make the time for them. Then, once scheduling conflicts hit, I’m unprepared for what to do. And what do I do? Feel angry at the restrictions imposed on me, feel shame when I don’t complete the task, and feel isolated from my friends who are (from my perspective) humming along with their challenge. This is a recipe for emotional meltdown or shutdown (take your pick). It’s no wonder I’ve always hated them.
Of course that’s fine. One can live a passably acceptable life without ever rising to the 30-day fitness challenge… But I just couldn’t seem to leave them alone, mainly because some of the bloggers have been doing challenges (Christine’s 7+ minutes of yoga every day, The 218 workouts in 2018 that Cate and Sam are doing, Sam’s end-of-year streak challenge), and I suffer from extreme fitness FOMO.
So this year, I decided to take up the personal challenge of fitness challenges. I’ve been doing the 7+ minutes of yoga every day challenge. And I haven’t done it EVERY day, but ALMOST EVERY day– probably 25ish days out of 30 in November. And I’m really happy about it. It makes me feel good, and I’ll be continuing it.
In January I joined the 218 workouts in 2018 Facebook group. Then I got pneumonia, so my workout arithmetic stayed at zero for more than a month. But I decided to get started in February, and began moving and stretching. It’s been marvelous, being a part of this group. I blogged recently about it here. As of today, I’ve got 24 workouts left, and 30 days to do them. I’ve decided that I am counting all movement in one day as one workout, which means I’m challenging myself to do something 24 out of the next 30 days. If I don’t make it, that’s okay. But I’m curious to see how it will play out. And having that goal in mind for the holiday season seems nothing but good.
Then there’s Sam’s end-of-year holiday streak challenge. I find this one especially challenging. She started Nov 22, and it’s already Dec 2. Maybe this one isn’t for me… this year. But unlike past years, I’m feeling a less embarrassed at not jumping on the bicycle bandwagon. Although, if it looks like this, I am a bit bummed.
Laissez les bons temps roulez, Sam!
Of course, the most challenging challenge time is coming up: January 1 will usher in carloads of crazy cockamamie challenges. Of course we are all free to engage as we see fit. For my part, I’ll definitely sign up for 219 workouts in 2019. I’m not sure what else, but we shall see.
Readers, are you planning any fitness challenges? Are you in the middle of one, or winding any of them down in 2018? I’d love to hear from you. And with that, I’ll end with another interesting and irrelevant-to-this-content picture I found.
Is yoga a religious practice? A form of exercise? A form of therapy? A tradition that’s been co-opted and distorted beyond all recognition (think chocolate or wine-infused yoga)? An excuse to buy more tie-dye yoga pants (oops, that may be just me…)?
In case you’re curious, I just bought these recently, and they’re cutey-cute.
Do we have to care about the question of what is yoga?
Maybe not, but lots of others are forcing our hand/calling us out/dressing us down for doing yoga. In particular, the pastor of an Assemblies of God megachurch in Missouri warned his congregation that the positions in yoga were “created with demonic intent to open you up to demonic power because Hinduism is demonic.”
Let me be clear. By “demonic”, he did not mean that yoga was demonically difficult, as this pose might mislead him to believe:
My first thought here is– where did she get those super-cute leggings? I want some. My second thought is– yes, there are some very advanced balance poses out there (which I enjoy sharing with you, dear readers). But finding balance– physical and emotional– in yoga is its best thing for me. So yoga is not demonically difficult. It’s just itself.
Okay, back to the yoga-is-demonic charge: According to a Springfield News-Leader article,
Lindell explained that yoga’s intent is to “raise and expand consciousness for the purpose of experiencing peace, energy and divine presence.”
Then, he talked about meditation. During meditation, he said, people clear their minds. Sometimes they chant a mantra, which can incorporate the names of Hindu gods, Lindell said.
He said it’s “spiritually dangerous” for people to empty their minds.
Okay– probably most/close-to-all of you who read this blog will think, “Really? This is ludicrous and ignorant.” I happen to agree. And I could launch into a quick-and-dirty response, citing the most erudite Wikipedia pages I can find on Christian meditation, its history, Christian yoga practitioners, and other cute yoga pants I want (oops sorry– that just slipped out). But I won’t, mainly because when you ask around— and I asked my friend Matthew, who is an Indian philosophy specialist in my department– the situation is complicated.
So what have I learned this week about yoga and religion?
Some Christian groups oppose yoga, claiming it is a way to entice children and adults into becoming Eastern religion (presumably Hinduism) practitioners.
Other Christian groups endorse yoga as both wellness and meditative practice.
In India, there is conflict between some Muslim and some Hindu groups over yoga, and its use in service of Hindu nationalism. All the information I have on this comes from this podcast, so I don’t really know what’s up with this. But, it was worth a listen.
What roles yoga plays in Hinduism is a matter of serious discussion among scholars.
What are the actual roots of yoga is a matter of serious discussion among scholars.
This very interesting article from the Conversation says that yoga means a lot of different things in different contexts, and what it is now is pretty hodge-podgey (my words, not the article’s) and not coherently religious.
Last thoughts here: I do a lot of different physical activities for a lot of reasons. Both cycling and yoga help clear my head; they are thoroughly engrossing whole-body activities that take me out of my regular life and info the present moment. Hill-climbing, as much as I sort of dread it, is a case in point. I focus on the road about 8–10 feet in front of me, pedal and breathe. When I am in a one-footed balance pose in yoga class, I am aware of my back, my hips, my ankles, etc., and I focus and breathe.
The meanings I take from these activities are individual and change over my life course. I happen to love saying “Om” because the vibrations in my body feel great, and I like singing or vocalizing it loudly and long. That’s me. I love pedaling along country roads and hearing the sound of the tires and my breath. That’s me.
Are these experiences a form of religion? Are these experiences a form of some particular form of religion? Does engaging in these practices make one an adherent of some religion? For me, it doesn’t matter that I separate, label and assess what I’m doing in these ways. In the mean and terrible world we live in, all I can say is I want more of this:
Last week, an updated report with the newest physical guidelines for physical activity for everyone was released by the US Department of Health and Human Services. The last edition came out 10 years ago, and the new version, informed by the latest research, is saying this:
Move more. Sit less. Do all kinds of activity– aerobic, muscle strengthening, bone strengthening, balancing (this one’s very important for older people), and multi-component activities that combine these features.
Aim to do 150–300 minutes a week of a combo of moderate-intensity to vigorous-intensity level activity. This means anything from walking 2–4mph to running. Cycling and swimming, depending on speed and effort, can vary. Lower-intensity activities are good, too, although more intense activity is needed to get the most benefits.
Why should we do this? The guidelines give us the low-down (this was from a JAMA article):
Strong evidence demonstrates that regular physical activity has health benefits for everyone, regardless of age, sex, race, ethnicity, or body size. Some benefits occur immediately, such as reduced feelings of anxiety, reduced blood pressure, and improved sleep, cognitive function, and insulin sensitivity. Other benefits, such as increased cardiorespiratory fitness, increased muscular strength, decreased depressive symptoms, and sustained reduction in blood pressure, accrue over months or years of physical activity.
So, we get benefits now and benefits later. Immediately we feel calmer, clearer, more ready for good sleep, and metabolically in better shape. Over time, we get lowered risks of all sorts of bad health outcomes, from bone fractures to dementia to cardiovascular disease and on.
This advice holds for everyone– small children, teenagers, pregnant women, older adults, people with chronic illness, people with disabilities– everyone.
A new message for this version: everything counts. Every minute of walking. Every flight of stairs. Every time you park far away from a building. Every load of laundry you haul around. It all adds up, and it is all beneficial for us.
That’s really good news. And it’s important. Why?
Because, right now, only 20% of Americans engage in physical activity that meets the guidelines. It looks like this:
In Canada it’s the same– a 2016 report showed that only 2 out of 10 Canadians meet their physical guidelines of 60 minutes per week of moderate-to-vigorous exercise.
Why is that?
Probably everyone who reads this blog knows how hard it is to start and continue an exercise or activity program from scratch. Here’s what some of them look like:
These look rather daunting to me, and I’m usually one of those gray persons who meets the physical activity guidelines.
I wonder what it would be like if governments released a tl:dr version of the guidelines that just said this:
Move. Everything counts.
I even generated a meme for it:
You’re welcome, US and Canada! Other countries– you may borrow this as well.
Readers, how much or how often do you pay attention to or work on extending your everyday movement in your lives (apart from anything organized, like classes, rides, swims, gym workouts, etc.)? I’m curious to know if and how and when it figures into your activity.
Last weekend I was in San Diego for the American Public Health Association conference, which is huuuge– at least 12,000 people were expected to attend. That means a lot of walking to and fro in a big convention center (and to a nearby enormous hotel for more meetings), and interacting with a lot-a-lot of people (albeit friendly public health folks).
I’m a classic extrovert (although the latest research and commentary is critical of the distinction and is at least reimagining it; here’s one newer take on it). However, even I can get tired of all that interaction with crowds of people all day long. So what’s the perfect antidote to a day of conferencing? an evening yoga class, of course.
It has been so much fun this year checking out yoga classes in other cities where I’ve been traveling for work. In July I encountered yin yoga for the first time at a lovely little studio in Tucson, AZ. I wrote glowingly about how relaxing and also intense it was and could be.
Apparently I was late to the yin yoga party; Natalie and Cate have both enjoyed and posted about it here and here. Others of our bloggers and readers also love it and some of them teach it, too.
Checking out yoga (or any fitness opportunities) in a new place requires a bit of advance research. I was looking for studios that offered classes I was interested in at times I could make it, and were also relatively convenient to where I was staying. Yeah, I guess all that’s obvious. But I was also looking for classes that seemed interesting or different from what I usually do at home or at my local studio. And, for me, vigorous vinyasa was not on the table, as I’m still recovering from my sprained ankle (it’s going to take a few months to get back strength and balance. Sigh).
Imagine my surprise and curiosity when I saw this:
I was determined to check this out. I know what yin yoga is, and I have some idea about what reiki is, but hadn’t experienced them together in one class.
Also, I just love the name Yinki. It reminds me of the Teletubbies, in a good way.
By the way, even the Teletubbies do yoga. Well, actually, they watch some live-action kids do yoga. However, they seem flexible and rubbery enough to do many poses. You can check out the episode here.
Back to the yinki class. Full disclosure: I am a reiki skeptic. However, the yin part of yinki was enough to get me in the door. And look what I saw when I entered this beautiful space:
The studio, called The Little Yoga Studio, is indeed little, but beautifully fitted up with warm wood paneled walls and honey-colored wood floors. I borrowed a mat from them, got my blocks, bolster, strap, and even a little eye pillow, and proceeded to set up.
I was careful to put my mat in an inconspicuous spot, as the regulars at my studio can get a little territorial about their spaces. Maybe it’s a Boston thing; after all, Bostonians are notorious for saving parking spaces in winter after they’ve shoveled their cars out. Lawn chairs and trash cans are the favored spot markers, but just about anything obtrusive will do.
However, when I asked these women whether I was in anyone’s way, they looked friendly but quizzical. They told me I could go anywhere I liked. Okay, then..
What followed was 75 minutes of sometimes intense, sometimes soothing yin yoga. The teacher went around to each of us and put her hands on us during every extended pose. That was the Reiki part. She also used some essential oils (I noticed the lavender especially) that she had on her hands, which smelled nice and not overpowering.
I didn’t feel anything unusual during the Reiki, but it was really nice to be personally attended to, and it felt comforting and not at all intrusive. I admit that I don’t mind at all when a yoga teacher touches me for adjustment; YMMV. If you’re not feeling touch-friendly, this is probably not the class for you. But it felt therapeutic, business-like as it were, and fine.
Finding ways to be active, to move and stretch, to connect with how I’m feeling during conference travel is more important to me these days. Partly it’s because travel is harder on my 56-year-old body. Air travel is uncomfortable no matter what, and my plane to LAX seemed even more tin-can-like than usual. Then there’s jet lag, restaurant food, reception food, and more sitting than I would prefer.
There’s another reason I like to be active while traveling: connecting to a local studio or local active event makes me feel more at home, in part because I’m around people who are at their home. It’s a good way to learn about potentially new-to-us ways that people do the things we do. I’ve found this by doing some local group rides while traveling, and visiting local yoga places is a new fun thing that’s easier to do than cycling– less gear required, and if I pick the wrong level by mistake, I’m still in the same studio with everyone else. That is, all yoga classes are no-drop. I like that.
Dear readers– have you had good (or bad) experiences dropping in on yoga or exercise or other classes while you were out of town? Do you recommend this? Do you have any tips? I’d love to hear from you.