fitness · swimming

“Love that dirty water”: Catherine jumps into the Charles River in Boston

The Charles River in Boston: I’ve kayaked there many times– with Samantha, even! But I’ve never swum in the river. Why not? Because the river was too polluted. This is a sad truth about some of the great rivers in some of the great cities– the Seine in Paris, the Thames in London, the Tiber in Rome, the Yongding in Beijing, and on. Centuries of no sanitation procedures followed by decades of neglect resulted in water water everywhere, and not a place to swim.

Happily, the situation is changing all over the world. Governments, spurred on by environmental advocacy groups, have been doing cleanup for the past decades. And it’s making a difference. Paris recently opened up a summer swimming area along the Canal de L’Ourcq, and it’s hugely popular.

Happy Parisians swimming and sunning in an enclosed area along the Canal de L’Ourcq (yes, I checked the spelling).

Boston has something similar in mind. But it takes a while. So they’ve started out with a one-day-a-year Charles River in a deep-water roped-off area, with timed entries and lifeguards. Here’s what the Charles River Conservancy says about it on their website:

The Charles River Conservancy’s first City Splash on July 13, 2013 marked one the first public community swims in the Charles River in more than fifty years. Swimming has been prohibited in the Charles since the 1950’s when a growing awareness of the health risks posed by pollution in the Charles caused the beaches and bathhouses lining the river to close. After years of environmental health progress, most notably the EPA’s Charles River Initiative, swimming is now allowed through state-sanctioned events such as the Charles River Conservancy’s City Splash events and the Charles River Swimming Club’s annual One-Mile Swim Race, which began in 2007.

I’d intended to do this swim for several years. But, with the added motivation of going with my friend Nina, I managed to score a ticket (they’re free and run out in a couple of hours). So off we went on Saturday June 18.

We waited in line, and then ambled to the dock, our identities checked twice– once on the way in, and once on the way out. They don’t want to lose anyone…

The water was warm– around 72 F/22 C. Nina and I swam and chatted and got out and dived back in, making satisfying splashes. Most folks got out after 5–10 minutes, but the die-hards (including Nina and me) swam for half an hour.

You can probably tell from these pictures that it was very big fun for everyone who went. Seeing (and being one of the) adults squealing and laughing loudly, using their outside voices– we need more of this.

The Charles River Conservancy has a vision to create a seasonal home for swimming in the Charles. Here’s what their vision might look like:

A vision of a future water park and swimming area on the Charles River in Boston, with a false bottom to protect swimmers from sediment and allow for different depths. I want to swim here ASAP.

Readers: have you done any urban swimming in rivers or lakes in cities? Was it sanctioned or wild swimming? How was the water? I’d love to hear any stories you’d like to share.

Before I go, I’ll leave you with the song my blog title was based on. Please to enjoy the Standells with “Dirty Water”, an ode to the Charles River in Boston.

family · fitness

To Black Fathers and Daughters on this Juneteenth Father’s Day

Today is Father’s Day in many places around the world. In the US we are also celebrating Juneteenth, which is now a federal holiday and in many states (including mine– MA). Here is some information about Juneteenth, from this NYT article:

Juneteenth, an annual commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States after the Civil War, has been celebrated by African Americans since the late 1800s.

President Biden signed legislation [in 2021] that made Juneteenth, which falls on June 19, a federal holiday, after interest in the day was renewed during the summer of 2020 and the nationwide protests that followed the police killings of Black Americans including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

On June 19, 1865, … Gordon Granger, a Union general, arrived in Galveston, Texas, to inform enslaved African Americans of their freedom and that the Civil War had ended. [This] put into effect the Emancipation Proclamation, which had been issued almost 2 1/2 years earlier, on Jan. 1, 1863, by President Abraham Lincoln.

Early celebrations involved prayer and family gatherings, and later included annual pilgrimages to Galveston by former enslaved people and their families, according to Juneteenth.com.

Today, while some celebrations take place among families in backyards where food is an integral element, some cities, like Atlanta and Washington, hold larger events, including parades and festivals.

What better way for the blog to commemorate this double holiday than to celebrate black fathers and daughters? So, let’s look at some father-daughter teams that celebrate family strength, grace, power and speed of movement.

“The Greatest” Muhammed Ali and his daughter, boxing star and champion Laila Ali. In an interview not long after her father’s death in 2016, Laila Ali said this about him:

“Not too long ago, I said, ‘Mom, you know, do you really think daddy was really, really proud of me? Or do you think he was just trying to make me feel good, like, girl, you’re bad and all that kind of stuff?’ She’s like, ‘No. Your dad really was proud of you.’ She’s like, ‘You changed his mind about boxing and women in sports.’ And then she’s, like, ‘That was big because you know your father, he’s very hard headed.’ And I was like, ‘You’re right. I did. You’re right. I won that battle against Muhammad Ali.'”

Pro tennis star Sloan Steady, daughter of NFL running back, the late John Stephens. They were not in contact with each other until Steady was 13. They stayed in touch until his death in a car accident when she was 16. You can read more about their relationship and her growth as a top-level tennis player here.

Venus and Serena Williams and their dad, Richard Williams. There is a lot written and broadcast about the tennis legends Serena and Venus Williams and their father’s role in developing and supporting their tennis careers which I won’t try to summarize here. I like the hugging, though.

Finally, here’s former NFL offensive lineman Bubba Paris and his daughter, pro and Olympic and college basketball powerhouse Courtney Paris. Bubba helped the San Francisco 49ers clobber the Denver Broncos in the Superbowl, 55-10. Ouch.

Courtney  is the only player in NCAA history, male or female, to have 700 points, 500 rebounds, and 100 blocks in a season. She was a star player for Oklahoma, an Olympian, and then played for the WNBA, leading the league in rebounds two years in a row. She’s now an assistant coach back at Oklahoma. Courtney’s dad isn’t at all surprised at her success. Below is from a 2004 interview, when she was still in college:

 “I knew at an early age that basketball wasn’t for me,” Bubba said. Courtney Paris put her father’s hoops skills plainly: “He’s a horrible basketball player!”

On the other hand, “Courtney is so gifted; she has the ability to be the next Michael Jordan, the female version,” Bubba Paris said. “She has a mental toughness she is prepared to face anything.”

Bubba Paris and Courtney Paris. I think she gets her focus from him...
Bubba Paris and Courtney Paris. I think she gets her focus from him.

To all the fathers and daughters (including my own late father Billy Womack, who was an amateur golf champion), I wish you a happy Father’s Day. And to all of us in the US, Happy Juneteenth!

fitness · Science

Is marathon running good or bad for hearts? And whose? And how? Science doesn’t know yet.

Newspaper reporters just love lurking around medical conferences, or so it would seem. Not willing to wait for papers to come out in journals, peer-reviewed and edited over time, journalists are showing up incognito at ballrooms of large hotels, consulting schedules, jotting notes and taking names.

The thing is, though: just because some group of researchers gives a talk with a particular result, that doesn’t mean that result is true, or applicable, or important or generalizable. Sometimes it takes a while to figure out what’s going on; there’s often a period in which different studies yield conflicting results. That’s common in real science. It may take a while for a more accurate picture to come out.

And so it is with a recent study about the relationship between endurance sports and what’s called “vascular age” — something to do with stiffness of arteries, which is bad, and an indicator of greater risk for vascular disease. If that wasn’t helpful, maybe this graph will clear things up:

Tables on how to derive one's vascular age. Easy-peasy, right?
Tables on how to derive one’s vascular age. Easy-peasy, right?

You might think that running marathons would be good for your arteries (I don’t know why; uh, why not?). Way back in January, a study came out saying just that.

According to a new study … researchers found that training for and completing a marathon, even at relatively low intensity levels, was associated with reversing age-related stiffening of the body’s main artery, the aorta, and helped to reduce blood pressure.

… researchers tracked 138 untrained and healthy first-time marathon runners over the course of a six-month period ahead of the 2016 and 2017 London marathons, including two weeks post-marathon….

The results found that for first-time long distance runners, training and completion of the marathon was associated with reductions in their blood pressure and aortic stiffening — which is when the arterial wall begin to fray due to stress.

Older, slower male marathons saw the most improvement. Researchers noted that while they only recruited healthy participants for the study, “those with hypertension and stiffer arteries might be expected to have an even greater cardiovascular response to exercise training.”

Well okay then. I’m happy for all those first-time marathoners. You go with your non-stiff arteries!

But wait– 5 months later, the news turned grim, at least for male marathon runners. According to another group of researchers, endurance sports like marathon running can increase vascular age by up to 10 years for men. But for women who ran marathons, their vascular age improved. Here are the deets, from a news article published this week:

Running marathons could age men by as much as a decade, research suggests... The study of males aged 40 and over who had taken part in at least 10 endurance events, found that their major arteries were far stiffer than would be expected for that age group.

However, the study of more than 300 regular athletes found the health of women who took part in endurance events improved. Female athletes had a vascular age around the same as their actual age and, by one particular measure, their vascular age was six years younger than their true age.

Scientists said the study… could not explain why the impacts of such events differed between men and women.

Okay, so some researchers gave a talk at a conference with some preliminary results that they can’t explain. Fair enough; this is legit practice at conferences. But I wouldn’t consider it news, much less important news, much much less worthy of the headline “Running marathons could age men over 40 by a decade”. Nope.

Sometimes, in fact most of the time, we need to wait for science to do more work and reach a solid consensus about what’s going on and why and for whom. this is one of those times.

While you’re waiting, it seems okay to rely on existing standard health advice, which is that exercise is good in many ways for us. More than that I shouldn’t say, lest some reporter is lurking around the corner…

You never know who's listening in from around the corner... picture of Mr. Bean behind a brick wall.
You never know who’s listening in from around the corner…

fitness · meditation

Catherine’s favorite meditations from the Ten Percent Happier App

Hi everyone! You know this already: I’m a big ol’ booster for the Ten Percent Happier App. What can I say? I’ve got the zeal of the relatively-new convert. I’ve been meditating almost daily for 2 years now, which in the grand scheme of things isn’t that long. But it’s long-to-me, and makes me feel happier. Maybe even more than 10% happier, honestly.

So, I thought I’d share some of my favorite meditations with you. It’s not so much that I want to promote particular teachers or particular apps, but rather that there are certain kinds of meditations I keep returning to, that center or ground or soothe me. Others lighten my burdens. Some are just fun mental explorations. So here goes, in no particular order.

“I need to chill out right now” meditations:

Jeff Warren does a Ten Good Breaths meditation. I love love love this. It lasts 3 minutes. It’s focused but also a little on the light side, with a smidge of humor. Here it is on YouTube:

I also really like Diana Winston’s meditations for a moment of panic. There are 1-10 minute-long options. I’ve used them when I’ve worked myself up into a serious lather. They emphasize noticing the body sitting, feet on the floor and then awareness of body parts that are feeling quiet (like hands or feet). I couldn’t find a free version, but here’s a 5-minute breathing meditation by Diana on the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center site, which has lots of free guided meditations.

“I need to wake up” meditations

I used to think that meditating first thing in the morning was useless because I’d immediately fall back asleep. It never occurred to me that mindfulness and focus could help me make the transition to wakefulness. Some of the techniques use body scans, an introspective check-in (e.g. how are my emotions this morning?), or even a gratitude practice (e.g. what are three things I’m grateful for right now/in the next hour/in general).

Every morning, when my alarm goes off, I hit snooze once. Then I turn on one of the morning meditations for 5 or 10 minutes. It helps me adjust to the reality of leaving my bed sooner or later…Joanna Hardy has my go-to morning meditations on my app. She’s got a lot of online talks and guided meditations accessible here, and below is a very strange video but worth spending a minute on (keep watching for the breathing dog):

One the one hand, there’s that universally annoying saxophone music. What is that song, and why hasn’t it been banned? On the other hand, there’s that dog. Is it just me, or is his breath making heart-shaped humid patterns? Awww….

There’s also a coffee meditation, where you are drinking coffee and meditation by design. Yes, I do this often, too.

I need to get in touch with my breath” meditations

These meditations are the meat and potatoes (as it were) of meditation apps, workshops, practices. Focusing on the breath is the foundation of mindfulness meditation. Every meditation teacher has their own variations, but for my money, no one does the classics like Sharon Salzberg. I love her reminders that whenever we come back to awareness after getting drowsy, bored, or distracted, that’s the work– that’s why we’re here. We come into contact with our own experience of ourselves, breathing, over and over again. That’s it.

Here’s Sharon leading a large room of people in a short and simple breathing meditation:

I do these sorts of meditations anytime I want to take a break, stop, and focus for a bit. It helps me reset myself, and it’s also restful and refreshing.

“I need to deal with scary emotions” meditations

These sorts of meditations are ones I do when I have a bit more time to process some difficult emotions or issues I might be facing. It could be that I’m anxious about an upcoming work event, or worrying about a member of my family. Maybe I’m avoiding dealing with something that’s too daunting. I’ve found that if I sit and meditate, something will come forth; I don’t know what in advance. But I’ve never been sorry that I did them.

Jess Morey does a great meditation in which she guides us to find a place in our bodies that feels calm, settled, grounded. Then we visit a feeling or belief or memory or a part of the body where there’s anxiety or disturbance. We don’t stay there long, but while there, just pay attention to how it feels. Then we go back to the grounded settled place. this repeats a few times. You can find a version here— look for dis/comfort. It’s 11 minutes long.

“I need to find something good, like right now” meditations

I like meditations that confront difficult emotions, but sometimes I want to see the light, the hope, the optimism that I know it out there (all news coverage to the contrary). For this, Sebene Selassie is who I turn to. Here’s a discussion and guided meditation from the Ten Percent Happier folks (the meditation starts at the 5-minute mark).

We are living in a glorious age of apps, podcasts, substacks, self-styled videos of all durations, and of course old-fashioned YouTube. I happen to like the features of Ten Percent Happier and don’t mind paying for it, but there are loads of free meditations everywhere. It’s kind of fun (for those of you who are meditation-inclined) to venture forth and explore what and who’s out there.

Meditator-readers: what are your favorite meditations? Where does one find them? Whose do you like best? I’d welcome any tips on new or familiar voices.

family · fitness · holidays · kayak · kids and exercise

Catherine tows two boats with her kayak and learns more kayak lessons

What better place is there for a sunny and warm US Memorial Day holiday than the water? That’s just what I thought, so I went paddling with friends Deb and Tim and their teenagers Mari, Leah and Jacob (who actually just turned 20, but who I’ll refer to as teen for the purposes of this blog post), as well as their dog Ruby, who is turning 7 soon.

It was Tim’s birthday, so he planned a group paddle trip with the current down the Concord River in Massachusetts. We left cars at put-in and planned take-out spots, and then launched a) two inflatable tandem kayaks; b) one inflatable rowboat; and c) my sleek lightweight zippy carbon/kevlar 13′ kayak. Off we went.

There was paddling. There were hijinks. There were photo ops. There were snacks.

Ruby the dog liked to keep herself moving, preferably between boats. She moved nimbly, but sometimes resorted to swimming (with her doggie life vest). My narrow boat was a no-go. That didn’t stop her from trying, though.

About an hour or so into the trip, though, the teens began to tire. Admittedly, wrangling the inflatable kayaks is difficult– they simply aren’t made for speed or distance, and they’re difficult to steer, too. And the inflatable rowboat? Fugetaboutit.

I had an idea: I’d practiced towing another kayak in a Maine weekend course. But I didn’t have a tow line. Rats! Luckily, Tim came prepared with lots of rope. So we tied one kayak to the stern of mine, and I began paddling. Turns out it was way easier than I thought. Yay! And, it was much easier to paddle in a straight line while towing than not while towing. Great!

We tried rotating the kids into different boats to take breaks. Deb hosted her son Jacob, who was in turn hosting Ruby in one of the inflatables.

Deb paddling a yellow inflatable kayak, her son Jacob lying with his head in her lap, and Ruby keeping watch.

Then, about 30–40 minutes later, more teens got tired and our pace slowed to a crawl. The charm of the wildly careening inflatables was wearing off, and the kids just wanted to head down the river. No amount of snack application was working. Fair enough. So, Tim once again dug into his backpack of treasures and came up with more rope, this time tying the rowboat to the kayak (which was tied to my kayak). I restarted paddling.

This time it was harder, and I made very slow progress. But it was forward motion and it was sustainable over the next couple of hours. Check out the picture below for verifiation.

Me, towing an inflatable kayak and rowboat, with three teens and a dog.
Me, towing an inflatable kayak and rowboat, with three teens and a dog.

Tim and I decided it was best to take out at the next big landing. We arrived, and some of us stayed with the gear while others took an Uber to get the other car at the desired but un-reached take out spot. Hey, it happens, right? (Raise your hand or comment below if you’ve had this experience.)

We all made it home, considerably later and considerably hungrier than we expected, but none the worse for wear. It was a really fun time, with lots of laughs, some snacks, great weather, serious energy output, and some lessons learned. Here are my takeaways:

  • I can paddle for longer than I thought, even when it’s not as fun and I’m going slowly. This lesson may be applicable to other areas of my life, maybe…
  • I’m getting a tow line for my next trip– you wear it around your waist so you can attach and detach yourself from the line.
  • Slowing down the process of getting into my kayak worked very well. I kinda wish I had done the same with the getting-out process; I might’ve ended up less wet and smelly. Duly noted.
  • Bringing in-case gear, especially since it’ll fit in my boat’s rear hatch, is a good thing. I’ll be bringing extra rope and bungee cording, a knife, bug spray, headlamp, extra snacks, space blanket, an extra-extra bottle of water, and probably a few other things for all my kayak trips.
  • Every active trip I take– by land, sea or air– is going to be am opportunity for learning something new. Janet suggested I document my kayak outings with what happened, how it went, and what I learned. Imma do that.
  • I’ll bring a map next time. And the time after that. and so on.

Hey readers: any anecdotes about over- or under-shooting pickup or car locations during hikes, paddles, etc.? I bet you’ve got some good stories, which I’d love to hear about.

death · fitness · kayak · meditation · paddling · swimming

The power of water

My favorite thing about summer is the knowledge that, at any time, I could run and jump in water. Ocean, lake, river, backyard wading pool– just about anything will do. All of them call my name throughout the season. My best real-estate fantasies include a backyard pool, with beautifully landscaped surroundings, all of which are magically maintained by unnamed third parties. Alas, I know (second-hand from my sister) how much work and expense a pool takes. So far, none of my friends have taken the plunge and kitted out their residences with a gorgeous aquatic oasis. But one can hope…

In fact, I’m lucky to live not far away from both ocean and freshwater places to swim and paddle. This summer, my plans include regular dips and laps and floats and strokes and landings and submergings, always surfacing for that big breath of air waiting for me.

Surfacing, taking big breaths of air. I think of those children and teachers in Uvalde, Texas, with no more breaths of air awaiting them, and my own breathing becomes more ragged from anger and grief. I’m not alone. Author and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg led an online loving-kindness talk and group meditation on Friday night. One thing she said that resonates with me is that sometimes, the breath is not the thing that settles us. Sometimes it is sound, or a visual image, or a touch. Maybe it’s the feeling of the weight of our bodies in contact with a cushion, mat, chair or floor.

What always settles me and puts me in contact with the world and myself is the feeling of my body in (and even on) water. I feel feelings I rarely experience on land: I’m buoyant, weightless, sleek, smooth, strong, even patient. I know, right?

I don’t know what to do or say right now. I don’t even know how to settle my breath when I read about or focus on the horrors that are happening in the US. There’s a lot to be done, and I want to do my share, pull my weight. This requires strength and stamina and stability. I think that being in and on and around water– for me– will help me gather myself for the work to be done.

Readers, I hope one or more of the elements speaks to you and strengthens and sustains you. Thank you for reading.

fitness · kayak

Return to kayaking: paddling and learning things

As many of you readers know, I bought myself a new-to-me kayak in honor of my 60th birthday in April. It’s a used (but in beautiful condition) Epic GPS Ultra– 12 ‘ 11″ (3.3 meters), weighing 27 lbs (12 1/4 kg)!

In case you missed it: me, sitting on top of my kayak (on dry land).

This weekend marked my debut outing with my very first boat. Seasoned kayaker and good friend Janet met me at the boat ramp on the Concord River. But first I had to load the boat on top of the car by myself. ACK!

I had taken pictures of all the places the boat was tied down when Janet and I had previously loaded it on my car. We used foam blocks and straps tying the blocks to the car and the boat to the blocks. Also there was a bow line, connected under the hood of my car. This was the setup I was to reproduce.

tl:dr version: it wasn’t pretty, but it happened. I managed (with three phone calls to Janet) to load the boat and get it to the launch intact. I had loaded it backwards (stern to the front), which made Janet smile. Thing #1 learned- always load the kayak with the bow facing front. It’s apparently a kayaker superstition, which I’m happy to respect.

Unloading the boat was easy, as was getting it to the launch– did I mention it only weighs 27 lbs? Then comes a hard-for-me part: getting in (and then out of) the boat. I have always had a hard time getting in and out of kayaks without a lot of help (even with help, honestly). It totally stresses me out. I’ve tipped over so many times, it’s no longer surprises anyone who paddles with me. For you kayakers out there, I’m the queen of the shallow-water wet exit and solo rescue…

Yes, there are loads of techniques for getting in and out of kayaks, and I’ve had 1) a lot of instruction; 2) a lot of experience kayaking off and on over more than a decade; and 3) a lot of help and tips from friends. And still it feels scary and embarrassing.

Which leads me to thing #2 learned: getting in and out of my boat is something I can practice, both on grass and in the water. After all, I have my own boat now– why not play around with ways to deal with this so that I can avoid throwing a conniption fit every time I go paddling?

I did some googling (as one does), and discovered I’m not the only person who has trouble getting in and out of a kayak. One site suggests that, if the water is warm enough, just tip over and roll out of the boat (which in fact I did– twice– during our paddling outing). It worked fine, other than getting me wet. But, as Janet reminded me, kayaking is a water sport… Still, it would be nice to have drier options.

Once we got on the water though, the fun began.

We paddled easily down the river, chatting and looking at the many birds. We even saw a happy yellow lab fetching sticks in the water. I was getting used to steering this boat, which has no rudder or skeg, and also is flat on the bottom (as opposed to angled in a v-shape). Also I was getting used to paddling again after a hiatus of at least 3 years (wow). Which gets me to thing #3 re-learned: I love being on the water in a kayak! I hadn’t actually forgotten, but I had been away from it for a long time. It’s so great to be back! I’ve already made plans to kayak with some friends next weekend, and will keep it up this summer.

But of course there’s still the issue of loading the boat on my car and unloading it. Twice. All by myself. Enter thing #4 learned: there are some super-cool gadgety kayak carriers out there for every price point and preference. Janet recommended, and I ordered an inflatable roof rack that will carry my boat easily, and has built-in D rings for tying my boat to the rack and tying the rack to my car. It was delivered just as I had loaded the boat onto my car using foam blocks (a fine low-cost way, but this is much better). I took the package with me, and Janet and I tried it out for my boat’s trip back home.

Inflatable roof rack secured to inside of car, with boat tied to rack. Handy and dandy.

It is easy-peasy to use, inexpensive and simple to store. Perfect.

As we were able to depart, Janet told me that she keeps a notebook to log her paddling trips, noting location, distance, conditions, etc. But she also writes about things she’s learned or needs to learn based on that trip. She suggested I do the same. I like this idea. So, for the last thing, #5, I close with: note my experiences and what I learned from them, and what I can change or add or subtract for next time. This will prepare me for future trips and help me enjoy paddling even more. I’m down with that.

Readers, what have you had to remind yourselves about or relearn when coming back to a sport you were away from? Has it been fun? How have you dealt with the stresses and changes? I’d love to hear from you.

fitness · yoga

Laughing while doing yoga: gimmick or tool?

CW: mention of BMI and body weight in a medical study on laughter yoga.

Since yoga took off in North America, teachers and studio owners and social media hopefuls have trotted out every possible variation to make it more attractive to more people. I’m not talking about Kundalini yoga, Iyengar yoga, etc.

No, in this case, I’m talking about yoga with music, yoga with wine or beer or cocktails, goat yoga, bro yoga, naked yoga, yoga dance, etc.

Glow in the dark yoga!
Glow in the dark yoga!

One type of yoga I hadn’t heard of until last week was laughter yoga. Yes, this is a thing. Dr. Madan Kitaria is credited with inventing it, and this site goes into loads of detail about him and about what laughter is alleged to do to us and for us. In short, laughter yoga is supposed to lower stress and anxiety, provide ease from depression, release endorphins, and generally relax us.

If you’re interested in a demonstration of laughter yoga, here is a TED talk (of course there’s a TED talk!) that you can watch.

5-minute TED talk on Laughter Yoga

Okay, I get it: yoga is good for you. Laughing is good for you. So, laughing while doing yoga must be extra-good for you. And yet I maintain a smidge of skepticism. Why?

Lots of scientists and sciency-folks have been speculating about the role of laughter in health and well-being for decades. In this Shape article (an authoritative source if ever there was one), we get this capsule history of laughter as medicine (forgive me, I got lazy while googling):

William Fry, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, helped to pioneer the research on the health benefits of laughter back in the 1960s. Fry found that laughter enhanced the activity of immune system cells through an experiment in which he drew blood at regular intervals while watching comedies. In author Norman Cousins’ 1979 book, Anatomy of an Illness, he described how he battled a fatal disease for years through his practice of mindful laughter. And psychotherapist Annette Goodheart published a book titled Laughter Therapy in 2006 that included 25 ways to help yourself laugh about everyday things. 

It makes sense that people hope to leverage laughter to bring down blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, cortisol levels, you name it. So far, the research suggests diffuse and bidirectional effects– laughter may affect well-being, and feeling better influences frequency of laughter. For instance, in a 2021 study of the relationship between oral health and laughter, the researchers found

The participants with 10 or more teeth were significantly more likely to laugh compared with the edentulous participants, after adjusting for all covariates… There was a significant bidirectional association between frequency of laughter and oral health that was independent of socioeconomic and lifestyle factors among older adults.

Which is to say: people with more teeth laugh more, and people who laugh more have more teeth.

I bring up actual laughter research because last week, while perusing the weekly newsletter on body weight and metabolism research, I found this study:

Effects of a laughter program on body weight and mental health among Japanese people with metabolic syndrome risk factors: a randomized controlled trial. In BMC Geriatrics.

Curious, I read the article. Twice. Here’s what I found:

The researchers tried out a 12-week program of 60-minute laughter yoga classes and 30-minute rakugo performances (a traditional form of Japanese comic storytelling). The participants were mostly women over 60, and they had some standard risk factors like high blood pressure or cholesterol, diabetes, or slightly higher body weights (overweight according to researchers and adjusted BMI scale). The control group just went about their business, with no intervention.

So what did the researchers find?

The intervention group laughed a lot more. Their responses to all sorts of quality-of-life health surveys after the 12 weeks were a bit higher than the control group’s. The laughter yoga and comic performances seemed to do them good.

But laughing a lot didn’t really affect their body weight. The researchers document some teeny-tiny shifts in BMI– shifts which they acknowledge aren’t clinically significant. The men in the intervention group– which were 2% of the group (yes, I wrote that correctly) experienced stronger effects overall, but even their effects were very small. So much for laughter yoga as weight-loss method. This is entirely unsurprising.

However, that doesn’t mean that laughter yoga should be dismissed; far from it. It seems to be a way to introduce some people to both gentle movement and breathing techniques that reduce stress and improve mood and feelings of well-being.

Here are a couple of laughter yoga exercises you can try in the privacy of your own bathroom. I took them from the knowledgeable folks at Shape (obvs):

Smile-Ups: Stand in front of a mirror, or even better, face to face with a friend or family member. Practice breaking into a big smile 10 times. You can also do this when confronted with a stressful situation, such as being stuck in traffic.

Hand Puppet: Struggling with negative self-talk? Get rid of it by acting it out. This exercise, which you can also call the “I love myself” laugh, helps you to recognize the silliness of those thoughts. Lift up one hand and imagine it’s a hand puppet, and start putting those negative thoughts into words using a funny voice and moving your hand puppet accordingly. Then, take your other hand and “squash” the hand puppet with laughter.

Person using hand puppet technique. Googly eye additions optional.
Person using hand puppet technique. Googly eye additions optional.

Readers, have any of you tried laughing yoga? Did you try the smile-ups or the hand puppet negative self-talk? Let me know.

fitness

Swim buoys: good for safety and fun

Hi readers– this weekend I was reminded that there’s actually such a thing as warm/hot weather. Temps in Boston reached a record high of 86F/30C. Today will be warm as well.

I didn’t take take refuge from the heat in the water yesterday, but it reminded me that outdoor swimming season is upon us. I really enjoyed going to Walden Pond with my new swim buoy. It’s required there now, and honestly is a great idea for open-water swimmers in fresh and salt water.

Check out my post from last summer and see if you want to beat the crowds and get some water safety gear sooner rather than later.

-catherine

FIT IS A FEMINIST ISSUE

Friday was a beautiful summer day in Boston– sunny, mid-70s F/24C– so my friend Norah and did what one must on a day like today– we went swimming.

Walden Pond (yes, that Walden Pond) is 11 miles from my house, and is a swimmer’s paradise. The pond is big, deep, clean, and has all sorts of half-hidden shoreline coves where you can set down your towel and snacks and head into the water.

We did just that, but with one added item: our brand-new swim buoys. They are now required for anyone who swims outside of the roped-off guarded swim areas at the pond. There was a big kerfuffle over open-water swimming at Walden this summer, and the current rule is the third iteration after the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation abruptly banned all open-water swimming there.

I don’t mind at all using a swim buoy. They’re not…

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fitness · walking

Things not to worry about during a walking challenge

CW: mention of weight loss.

It’s been a busy week at FIFI headquarters; spring is here (for many of us in the Northern Hemisphere), and with it have swooped in loads of downright unhelpful (not to mention demonstrably false) media messages. No, we don’t need to do anything to get a bikini body, to cover up or distract others from our bellies, to diet in extreme and harmful ways to fit into items of clothing just because, or apologize for mentioning our periods in the course of our active lives.

Imagine our exasperation when this notice came across Sam’s news feed:

Publicity for virtual walking challenge that is exhorting us to walk and lose weight. No thanks.

Yeah, no. Here’s what I think they should have put instead:

New and improved notice, saying walk and do anything other than worry about how to lose weight.

In case you’re stumped for things to do instead of worrying about losing weight while you’re walking, here are some suggestions.

  • Hum to yourself
  • Sing to strangers
  • Hold a lively discussion with self about the relative merits of tulips and azaleas
  • Learn about something completely random from a podcast
  • call your mother
  • bring a dog along with you– yours or a friend’s– with poop bags
  • pick a different bakery/bookstore/coffeeshop/park as your destination each time you get out there
  • If arriving at a park, sit on a bench or climb a tree or stretch or splash water on yourself from a fountain
  • Practice saying phrases aloud that you remember from a foreign language class you took in school

Honestly, I could go on for a while. But you get the idea. I hope the organizers of this event (and other such folks) will get clued in as well.

Happy walking while not worrying about… well, anything!

love,

-FIFI management