Feminist reflections on fitness, sport, and health
Author: catherine w
I'm a feminist public health ethicist (yes, that's a thing). 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, sort-of-off-road, commuter), regular yoga-doer, occasional swimmer and kayaker and leisurely social walker.
On Saturday I posted about a new study investigating whether morning or evening exercise is better (in what sense? they don’t say) for us. Spoiler: it doesn’t matter, at least as far as they know.
The investigators did their study using mice– male mice in particular. This did not go unnoticed by me, and certainly was noted plenty in the comments section.
Some made inquiries about where the female mice might be, along with plausible explanations:
Someone suggested they (the female mice) were tied up with other duties.
There were commenters who tried to defend the use of male-only mouse subjects on grounds of it-being-too-hard-to-do-science-on-female-organisms. Yeah, we’ve heard that before.
You didn’t think I was going to let that one get by me, did you?
Another attempted defense of the men-mice-only research plan came from this comment:
There’s a lot here, but let me just say that the mice could be held in separate cages, which would provide a low-tech solution. Am I missing something here?
In response to the male-mice-only defenders, someone suggested maybe doing more and better science might solve the air of mystery surrounding the ovulation cycles of female mice.
And I’m sure this person was trying to help, but…
Finally, someone got to the heart of the matter, pointing out what scientifically aware readers want to know:
Readers, what do you think? Do you personally know any female mice who’ve been turned down for science experiments? Have you metabolized cheese after-hours or only during daylight? Is ovulation too mind-blowing even to think about, much less study in a scientific fashion? I’m hoping that future comments sections will enlighten me as much as this one opened up a host of new questions…
This week, the NY Times published an article with the headline “Is is better to exercise in the morning or evening?” The answer, when I dug into their article and the original research paper, was this: we learned many groovy facts about male mouse metabolism this week, but we still don’t know what time of day is best for you (a human) to exercise. Or even them (the mice), really.
Huh. You might be wondering why, after the NYT went to all the trouble to write this headline, that they don’t have an answer for us. And then there are those scientific researchers, who published this paper that shows a lot of results and many beautiful multicolored charts and graphs.
And yet. I maintain that we still don’t know what time of day is better for exercising. Why not? Here are some reasons.
No one has worked out and gotten other people to agree about what counts as a “better” or “best” time to exercise. Better in what sense? Feels best? Burns the most calories? Burns the least calories? Results in quickest muscle recovery? Contributes most efficiently to this or that training goal?
These are all really different ways to optimize on an exercise session. The researchers do mention time-dependent metabolic processes and effects on the mice-bros, but don’t offer general recommendations. The NYT article cites some studies (here and here) done on type-2 diabetic dudes (always and only the dudes… sigh) that show preferential effects from afternoon exercise. But that’s a particular sub-group, so the results don’t apply to everyone.
This study was done ON MICE. So, any effects they found, they found IN MICE. Yes, animal studies are common and often helpful in directing further investigation. But these results don’t tell us much of anything about humans. Which is no one’s fault, because the research subjects were MICE.
The study used only male subjects. In this case, it was male mice. Argh. So, if you’re a non-male person reading this, then you can’t know if the study results (if they had something even approaching advisory, which they don’t) apply to you. This is not a one-off case. Recall the research articles the NYT cited testing the metabolic effects of different exercise times on type-2 diabetes. They only used male subjects, too.
What the research article never mentions and what the NYT saves until the end of their piece is the number one reason why it doesn’t matter whether I exercise in the morning or evening: the best time to exercise is the time I actually can and will and do exercise; it doesn’t matter when I move; it matters THAT I move. Here’s what the NYT said:
…as additional studies build on this one’s results, we may become better able to time our workouts to achieve specific health goals. Follow-up studies likely will tell us, for instance, if an evening bike ride or run might stave off diabetes more effectively than a morning brisk walk or swim.
But for now, Dr. Chow said, “the best time for people to exercise would be whenever they can get a chance to exercise.”
Yes, I can fully endorse that recommendation.
Readers, do you need to know what ways you can optimize on your physical activity? Do these results matter to you? Do you have your own optimal times, or do you mix it up in your workout schedule? I’d love to hear from you.
For immediate release: If fish are driving now, how soon before they’re cycling?
Has everyone seen the story about the fish who were taught to drive by dedicated (but clearly bored with their regular research) scientists? Just in case you haven’t (or want to see it again), here it is.
This got me to wondering: if fish are learning to drive now, can they also be taught to ride a bike?
James Brown was a complicated person. But we would all do well to heed his advice here. Before reading the rest of my (tangentially related) blog post, please enjoy his masterpiece below.
While we’re here, let me point out that the unsung hero in this video is the woman dancing on the platform in the back. Could you move that well for that long in those go-go boots? I can say for myself: most definitely not. But I’d love to try…
Alas, heels like those and I don’t work and play well together. I’m just going to say it: I don’t move as well as I used to. For instance, getting up from my yoga mat on the floor has become steadily less graceful for me. I can’t go from hands and knees on the mat to a full upright position without using my hands. Bending over to make my way up, sometimes I feel a little bit like this:
Of course, toddlers are not so fussy about up, down, using hands, feet, whatever it takes to have fun and explore.
I don’t think I can maintain a squat like that long enough to make a snowman. However, at the moment I’m more concerned about my general functional fitness. Yes, I can carry groceries, go up and down stairs, access things high and low in my house and elsewhere. I do yoga and walk and cycle and swim and sometimes paddle, but not as frequently or vigorously as I did a few years ago. I’m lucky and privileged to have the degree of function and autonomy and support and access to resources that I do. But like lots of people approaching 60 (less than 3 months from now for me!), I worry about this.
Enter functional fitness training. Yes, many of you are doing it right now, but late to the party is still at the party… I really like these sorts of exercises because they are arbitrarily customizable for many different bodies.
Note: to do the following exercises requires types of mobility, balance, etc. that many people don’t have access to, especially given constraints of equipment, space and training. I recognize that my post doesn’t include these members of our community. There are programs and plans that provide opportunities for people with wide ranges of abilities and disabilities to train for functional fitness (as well as engage in all levels of athletic training). I’m not (yet) knowledgeable about these programs, but will do some work so we can blog about this in future.
Basically, these workouts all include some of the following:
push-up: against the wall, on knees, extended body from mat, etc.
plank: against the wall, weight bench or table, on knees, extended body from mat, etc.
bird dog: I love this one, which I do in yoga on my hands and knees from the mat; also done against a wall or beside a chair, bench of table.
wall sit: done against a wall and modifiable by adjusting depth of sit, time held, possibly adding reps of up and down
squats: chair-assisted (chair behind for safety) or not, adjust depth of squat
split squats: with one leg behind and one in front, dropping back leg; either chair-assisted for balance or not; can adjust depth of lunge and number of reps
bicycle crunches: can do standing (touching one bent elbow to opposite knee), sitting on a stool or chair, or while lying down on mat; can adjust number of reps, whether to incorporate elbows and how close to bring elbow to knee
standing lunge: done to the rear, holding a wall or chair for balance, or not; modifiable by number of reps, depth of lunge
mountain climbers: can do them standing upright (lifting legs whatever height), against a wall, against a bench of whatever height; adjusting speed
I love it that all of these are modifiable to give me options. I want to say right now that I’m unlikely to be doing these advanced mountain climber moves or burpees (even though they’re modifiable, as you can see in the link, I can’t even countenance them). But hey, YMMV.
I’m revisiting these functional fitness exercises, rotating them into my weekly movement plans. I want to be stronger, with better balance and flexibility. It’ll help me feel better doing activities I love, like cycling, swimming, paddling, yoga, dancing, etc.
More base strength, flexibility and balance will allow me to be more adventurous, too. Will another parkour class be in my future? Martial arts? Surfing? Tennis? Dunno, but I want to be ready for what comes as I slide into my 60s.
Samantha and Tracy started this blog with “Fittest by Fifty” in mind. I want to be
Sassy (I can check that one off now)
Spry (well, Spryer/Sprier)
by Sixty. It’s totally doable.
Of course, functional fitness isn’t the only thing that helps us meet our adjective list. But it’s a part of what helps us get around and be fabulous.
Readers, how are you feeling about your functional fitness? Is it in the background for you, or are you paying more specific attention to it? What are you doing? I’d love to hear from you, as always.
CW: mention of diets and other methods for changing eating habits.
Everywhere I look this month, I see article after article about changing habits, about developing new patterns, about getting unstuck from whatever behavior I’m currently mired in.
The New York Times is doing an Eat Well Challenge (of course they are…) They recommend ditching the dieting (yay!) and suggest we “train the brain” instead. Train the brain to do what? To eat differently from the way we ate before January 1, 2022. Their current advice involves mindfulness, some psychology, and focus over time to see what results occur.
My favorite meditation app Ten Percent Happier is doing a two-week challenge called Getting Unstuck. I’m now on day 7. It’s a series of short discussions and 10-minute meditations, all on themes related to attention, focus, self-compassion, identifying thought and feeling patterns, and other topics TBA. So far I’m enjoying it, but you all know I’m already a huge fan of theirs. YMMV.
Yesterday, Natalie wrote a post about celebrating small victories from tiny changes. (Spoiler alert) She’s been walking a lot-a-lot in 2021, and she’s now a better walker and also feeling more resilient in the face of, well, times like these. Go Natalie!
But, if you read the small print (actually all the print in her post is the same size), what Natalie says is that, over an entire year, she (with lots of support) has implemented some new habits. She also opened up some space for adjusting to the vagaries of life (e.g. weather, schedules, etc.) and set up her house and clothing to make it easier to get outside. Again, go Natalie!
My 2021 behavior change story is similar to Natalie’s. Over the course of a year, I’ve developed a daily meditation practice. How did I do it? I did/do a lot of things:
I bought some apps (Ten Percent Happier, Headspace, Calm). I also downloaded free apps (Insight Timer, Buddhify).
I virtually always do a 5-minute in-bed morning meditation, using my phone. I sit in my living room on my yoga bolster, which is handily in the corner to meditate several days a week. I do an in-bed evening meditation for sleep or just cool-down before bed
I notice times during the day when I’m feeling extra anxious or stuck or fearful, and I’ll stop and do ten good breaths. I can’t recommend this enough for everyone.
I spent some time and money on books and also a weekend meditation retreat with my favorite teacher, Jeff Warren. Spending dedicated and extended time deepened my practice and my dedication to exploring it.
After more than a year of adjusting our lives to accommodate and incorporate these new patterns, are Natalie and I drastically different versions of ourselves? No. Well, sort of yes, but not in the Gut-Busting-Challenge sort of way. Both of our guts are intact (Natalie delicately hinted at this, and I’ll say it outright about me). My physical health is about the same. But I’m moving more than I did in 2020, and I’m more focused and happy and resilient (I’m borrowing that last term from Nat, but it’s just as true for me).
Challenges are fine; I’ve finally, after much struggling, made my peace with them. And there’s nothing to be done about the fact that it’s raining challenges every January. But, readers, we here at Fit is a Feminist Issue know (and know that you know) that developing different behaviors (around whatever you’re looking to add or subtract from your life) is a year-long and years-long enterprise. It’s also influenced by life changes (like getting a dog or changing jobs or moving or shifts in health status). The results are often subtle and not what the challenges often promise. There will be no splits done by me on February 1. But that’s fine.
Readers, I know I keep asking this, but I’d love to hear from you what your current thinking is on adjustments or plans you’d like to implement and where you are in that process.
Is it me, or are there even more January 1 challenges than ever before? Or maybe it’s just that I’ve reversed myself my views on challenges. I wrote here a while back that I found challenges, well, challenging. In that post I also laid out a beyond-challenging challenge for myself to readjust my eating/movement/sleeping/hair part, all for the better. Did it happen?
Later on, though, I found the challenging nature of challenges more intriguing, and decided to dip a toe in. My gateway challenge was the 218 workouts in 2018. Seemed simple enough, and of course in January there seemed to be oodles of time to do all those workouts. I did finish– on Dec. 31. Just in time!
In 2021 I completed several Ten Percent Happier meditation challenges: work life, anxiety, and anti-diet (it was all about intuitive eating and was fine; I’ll blog about this sometime). I’m now coming up on day 2 of their 14-day Getting Unstuck challenge, which is all about changing habits. Good luck to me…
For this year, I also signed up for the New York Times Eat Well Challenge, mainly for professional and blogging purposes. I’m wary of being preached to about “good” and “bad” foods, which, as we all know, are not things. Tracy and Sam and I and others have blogged about this fairly extensively, and our work is still not done. I’ll be reporting back on this challenge when it’s done (or when I give up, whichever comes first).
And then of course there’s the Yoga with Adriene annual January challenge. This one is called Move. I like the name: short, to the point, no attempt to dress things up. I love Adriene. I love Benji the yoga dog. I love yoga. I own multiple internet-enabled devices. Therefore, I’m all set.
I think that covers it for my currently-running challenges. Hey readers, what challenges are you doing? What challenges are looking tempting? What challenges are just too absurd? Tell us– we want to hear everything.
Some days, movement feels delicious. You get on your bike, lace up your running shoes, adjust your swim goggles over your cap (FYI– not all at the same time), and then…. Everything just hums. You’re in the zone. You’re grooving on the flow. You feel like you can go on all day. You’ve found your “forever pace”– a level of exertion where your effort feels almost as easy as breathing.
Or so says this article, citing cardiologist John Higgins about the importance of finding a forever pace in order to increase the number of minutes of exercise per week (to optimize heart health, he says). In order to do a lot-a-lot of endurance exercise (e.g. running, cycling, swimming), you do a variety of workouts. But, he adds, you also have to find the sweet spot where movement feels effortless.
“Its that easy pace where you feel like you are gliding in an effortless zone,” says Dr. Higgins. (Think of it as a two or three on an effort scale of one to 10.)
I know the guy means well, but that quote rubs me the wrong way. Why? Because for several physical activities (hiking and running are my prime examples), I’ve never found an easy-enough pace to maintain for long periods of time. And the fact that I can’t seem to do them comfortably makes me feel self-conscious and crabby. Therefore, I’m blaming Dr. Higgins and his burbling on about this mythical “forever pace”. How about put a sock in it, Higgins… 🙂
Perhaps that was too abrupt. Okay, let’s look at an example: hiking. I’ve blogged about my conflicted relationship with it here. My experiences since then have been mixed, but mostly negative; that is, I’ve not found a pace at which I can hike up a mountain where it feels effortless, or easy, or even non-terrible. On the other hand, walking in nature where there’s some change in elevation is fun. Good to know.
Running is the same: I sort-of trained for some triathlons a looong time ago, and managed to make it through those 5k runs in the races, but neither the training nor the races were anything but laborious and painful. Yes, I know– the training should be slow slow slow, building up gradually. And no, I didn’t faithfully adhere to that principle. Rather, I just went out for slow runs, feeling bad about 1) how slow I was going, and 2) how awful it felt even though I was going slowly. A bad combo.
So what does this tell me about the notion of the “forever pace”? (I keep using the quotes because of my skepticism about its existence) Here are some quick thoughts.
One: Finding and maintaining a forever pace takes time, dedication, and confidence.
I do have a forever pace for cycling. But that’s because I’ve been cycling for a long time and love it dearly. My easy pace changes from season to season and year to year. Also, my notion of “forever” changes– these days I can do an easy ride for shorter durations than I could 5 years ago. It depends on a lot on bodily and environmental factors, and it’s important to acknowledge and respect them.
Two: The forever pace is extremely sport-specific and contextual.
Some activities (like hiking) have constraints (e.g. the effort you have to expend to move uphill) that make a forever pace not easily attainable for some people (e.g. me). Note, I don’t say impossible. If I loved hiking and wanted to become a hiker, I’d figure out a combo of physical and psychological adjustment to find that easy pace. I have done this with swimming. I used to do some lap swimming, but never liked it much; I’ve not (yet) mastered easy breathing techniques. But, I’ve found ways to swim that are easy for me and give me great joy. Yay!
Three: Not everyone is going to be able to access a forever pace for all physical activities, or at all times. Which is fine– it’s the way of bodies over time.
For me these days, it’s important to acknowledge that, for some sports and at some time, movement isn’t going to be easy or effortless, and I’m not going to be sailing or gliding or flying on gossamer wings. This knowledge minus the judgment will help me approach movement with more reasonable expectations and a greater chance of enjoyment.
Readers, what do you think about the idea of the “forever pace”? Do you have one for your favorite activity? Is it a happy place for you? Is it elusive sometimes? I’d love to hear from you.
Happy end of 2021, y’all! December is almost done, and it seems fitting to offer a overview of some of the best self-care gifts I’ve given and received this year. I think that, in a small way, they reflect what 2021 has been like: in dire need of domestic industry, friendly company (both indoors and out), and experiences with others, providing novelty, occupation and distraction.
Right off the bat I can recommend this back scratcher I bought for my mom on impulse. I got it for $1.50– such a deal!
My mom lives alone, and sometimes her back itches. This is self-care at its most basic. And economical, too…
I both gave and received a fair number of items like nice-smelling soaps and scents, cozy shawls or throw blankets, and yummy homemade jams, jellies, baked goods and quiches (of which I made 21 in November for my church’s harvest fair).
And books. I gave, received and bought for myself a lot-a-lot of books in 2021. More of them than usual were nonfiction. Reading, to me, feels empowering– like I’m actively trying to get a better handle on a complicated world. Or, I’m transported to another world, maybe also complicated, but one in which I’m carried away by a captivating story.
This year I read about octopus friends, long distance swimmers, why eating well is hard, how to cook better, how to write better, how to read better, how to think better, how to sleep better, what night was like in the past, and many memoirs, to name a few topics.
Then there were the experiences– with friends, family, neighbors, acquaintances, strangers. Early in 2021, even meeting up outside with friends felt precious and also brave; hardly anyone was vaccinated, and we were all worried about risk. That made even ordinary meet-ups extra fun and meaningful.
This year I’ve been to outdoor garden exhibits (yarn bombing thing in Feb; Gnomevember thing in, yes, Nov), a masked and distanced yoga weekend retreat, two fully-vaccinated beach trips with friends and family, dog walks, outdoor book club meetings, backyard hangouts, porch brunches, social swimming, and lots of other things I’m not remembering. All of these experiences gave us a booster dose of community, fun, hope, and increased stamina to deal with the next thing 2021 had in store for us.
All of these gifts I’ve given and received have provided me with more resilience, which I desperately needed after the body blow which was 2020. At this point in 2021, I’m in better physical and emotional shape. My life feels better and bigger and more meaningful. I’m rolling into 2022 looking to see what it brings, with more support and stamina at my disposal.
What about you, dear readers? What have you given or received this year that stood you in good stead? I’d love to hear from you.
I’m visiting my family for the holidays, and I just drove 16.5 hours to get there (over 2 days, but still). That’s a lot of driving, even though I love my car (2021 Honda Civic EX Hatchback, Aegean Blue). It was also a lot of podcasts; I estimate about 12 hours’ worth. If you have any questions about economic policy, the future of technology, or global public health, feel free to ask me… 🙂
Now that I’m here, it’s time to unwind, but also to stretch… everything. Sitting in a car, driving for that long, in this (or really any) body requires some attention. I’ve got regular yoga stretches I know to do (I brought my mat with me– a perk of driving is not having to pack light), and there are family dogs here to walk.
However, I thought there might be some online information about post-car-ride stretches. I was correct. Here are a few that I liked, along with some urls for your edification.
On the Go RV’ing site, there are a bunch of exercises to do (using your RV) after a long day of driving/sitting. My favorite is this one:
Forward lunge kickwalk: begin with your left leg lunged forwards and your hands behind your head. Smoothly shift your weight onto the left leg as you lift your right leg and kick it forward before placing it down in a right-leg forward lunge. Continue to repeat taking alternating lunge steps forward, and kicking your leg before setting it down. Do 12 steps. Do this exercise slowly.
I think I like it so much because it reminds me of this bit by Monty Python on the ministry of silly walks:
leg swings (holding onto a chair or wall); forward, backward, and to the sides
bridge pose (very good for glutes, as you know)
I’m definitely doing these as soon as I finish this blog post (and before taking the dogs on their neighborhood constitutional).
We shouldn’t forget the upper body after driving, as shoulders, head and neck get creaky from being in one position for so long. Here’s a nice shoulder stretch:
Stand with one arm stretched out against the frame of your car door or a post. Twist your torso gently in opposition until you feel a stretch across your chest muscles. Take a few deep, slow breaths. Play around with the angle of your arm (higher or lower) to determine which areas of your chest need the stretch the most. Repeat on the other side.
You can also do a standard head and neck stretch, illustrated here:
After a long semester and a long drive, I will happily do these exercises. But I’m also looking forward to more of this kind of stretching out as well.
Readers, what sort of stretches feel really good to you after traveling? I’d love to hear from you.
(NON-SPOILER ALERT: I won’t be talking about the Sex and the City Reboot and any Peloton-related tidbits, even though I used it as a tease to get you to read the story… Sorry…)
Remember how it was impossible to get a Peloton bike in 2020? Well, I wasn’t trying to buy one either, but I did read all about it. The NY Times reported panic-buying trends in May of 2020: toilet paper (obvs), meat, and yes, Peloton bikes. And people were even using them:
[Peloton‘s] 2.6 million paying members worked out an average of 18 times a month, up from 13 in the previous quarter, the company said. Peloton added that it expected its revenue to more than double in the current quarter.
“The demand is through the roof,” John Foley, the chief executive, said in an interview. “It’s not just people wanting more bikes, but if they have one, they’re using it more.”
In a recent Peloton-related story by the NY TImes (do they have a dedicated reporter on the Peloton beat, one wonders?), they note lots of deep discounts on used bikes. I’m almost tempted.
What goes up comes back down again. Now, at the end of 2021, while Pelotons were once hot, now they are definitely not. The Wall Street Journal reported the onset of Peloton fatigue this fall. What’s the problem? Their analysis, replete with facts, figures, tidbits from quarterly reports and interviews with industry players, seems to be this:
People want to exercise outside of their house, preferably with or around other people.
It was bound to happen. As much as many of us love gear, gadgets, wifi-enable everything, and zooming ’round the world with others, sometimes you just want to be in real space, moving around in real time with others. I, for one, have ventured back to my yoga studio in person and also in-person this fall for a weekend yoga retreat (albeit with masks and distancing). It’s felt so good to be in a room with other people.
At the same time, the Omicron variant is making its way to all our hometowns, and we don’t know what that will look like. I’m vaccinated and boosted, and all of my close friends and family are, too, for which I’m very glad. I’m planning on hedging my bets: I’m hanging onto my home exercise gear (and I ride my bike trainer and not a Peloton bike, so I’m good), and also keeping my yoga studio subscription current.
Readers, where are you on this subject these days? Are you looking for a good deal on used equipment, hoping to resume more collective group space exercise? Are you holding tight for now? Have you put your rowing machine on ebay? I’d love to hear what you’re up to.