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.
Yesterday I went to ropes yoga (at my local studio Artemis Yoga) after a very long break (mainly because of scheduling conflicts). It was exciting and a little nervous-making to be back; I’m still recovering from cold and bronchitis and a month of very little physical activity, so I’m definitely not operating at full strength. But I love this practice—it appeals to my inner 8-year-old who enjoys climbing, hanging upside down, and trying new things.
The teacher, Pam, is a great instructor. She’s attentive, very knowledgeable, and offers loads of modifications in a low-key way. She also keeps the class moving at a good pace, which is not always easy when you’re using a lot of props (blocks, blankets, sometimes chairs) and moving ropes around and tying knots.
This class for me was an exercise in acceptance:
acceptance that I’m not recovered from this chest cold/bronchitis, so I can’t exert myself as much as I would like;
acceptance that my strength/conditioning are what they are at this moment, which will determine what my ropes practice is today;
acceptance that my body has a history of injuries (shoulder surgery for rotator cuff tear, to name one) and vulnerabilities and hard limits (there are some poses my body flat-out refuses to do);
acceptance of being seen and being helped while doing this practice– I was feeling a bit dizzy, so didn’t do the headstand inversion; instead Pam suggested a standing rag doll pose on the wall that felt good.
I didn’t take any pictures yesterday, so I’m reblogging my previous ropes yoga post so you can see how things are set up. I highly recommend this kind of class if you have an opportunity and like to climb and explore space, limits and what your body might be able to do with them.
I’ve been going to yoga classes off and on since my early 30s, when my friend Deb and I decided to celebrate finishing our dissertations with a hatha yoga class (not very wild and crazy, I know, but anything seems exciting compared to dissertation writing). My attention turned back to yoga in January when I started going to a local studio (Artemis Yoga in Watertown, MA) that is a 10-minute walk from my house. Again, it was motivated by a friend (Norah this time—what would we do without supportive friends?)
I’ve been loving and appreciating yoga for its focus on where my body is right now, the attention to thoughts, feelings and sensations, and the choices it offers for adjusting the intensity of the experience.
Which is why taking a ropes yoga class—also called Kurunta Yoga—was irresistible. And it didn’t disappoint.
It’s January. It’s cold. It snowed this weekend. Here’s what it looks like outside my house:
Of course, other places got more snow this weekend:
Yeah, it’s January.
Despite all this January-ness, I’m finding little signs of spring. Yesterday I noticed that a few of my orchids are putting out new shoots with buds.
These orchids, by the way, are the champions of consistent, independent plant performance. I bought them at IKEA years ago for $11.99 apiece, and they have kept blooming and re-blooming, with very little help from me. What can I say, I think they like it here.
Budding plants are my favorite sign of optimism for the future. We don’t know that blooms will happen, and in the case of these orchids, it’s going to take some time for them to come into full flower. But as long as I pay a modicum of attention to them, they’ll do what they do, and I’ll be rewarded with blooms like these (this one’s from last March):
This week, I was feeling some budding of my own optimism. I signed up for the Bikes Not Bombs bike-a-thon for this June 14. I’m doing the 30-mile ride and fundraising for this organization that gives bikes to kids, teaches them how to ride and maintain bikes, and how to be good world citizens through bike riding.
And yes, there’s a little fundraising.
Signing up for a June charity ride has got me feeling excited about spring and summer riding already. Of course, I’ve got to pay attention to preparation (yes, this means riding the trainer) in order for my riding to be in full flower by June. My orchids and me– we’ve got some work to do. And this is the time for it.
Color me smiling.
Hey readers, what are you thinking about this January? Any budding thoughts or plans for spring and summer activities? How are you feeling about them? I’d love to hear from you.
Every day for the next 7 days, we’ll share a simple new strategy for cutting added sugar from your daily diet [and] …readings about how sugar affects your body.
The Sugar Challenge will show you, step by step, how to cut all that added sugar in your diet as well as tricks for satisfying your sweet tooth. Each day you will take on a new challenge while repeating the challenges from the previous days. By the end of the week, you will have adopted several new healthful habits and discovered that life really is sweeter without all that extra sugar!
Great! I will have a whole new relationship with sugar (that of total abandonment, I assume) in just seven days. Wow.
Color me skeptical.
So as not to waste your valuable blog-reading time, I’ll put all seven days in a list:
Eat breakfast foods with no sugar (no grains, sweetened dairy, doughnuts, etc)
Start jettisoning packaged foods from your diet, as lots of them contain added sugar (even those that don’t seem sweet)
Eat fruit (but the higher-fiber and lower-sugar fruit– no bananas or grapes)
Drink only water (or plain selzer– whew…)
Eat spicy food (and you can maybe have some berries or orange slices after)
Roast root vegetables, and enjoy their sweetness
Savor a small piece of dark chocolate sometimes (but not every day)
Now, I do give the NY Times credit for finding scientific research behind all of these suggestions (which you can find in the articles). But honestly, this is pretty much advice of the buy-low/sell-high variety. Who doesn’t know that most sodas, juices and sports drinks contain a lot of sugar?
What they don’t do is what (almost) everyone doesn’t do– they don’t tell you HOW to bring yourself to the point where you can make what may be big changes and maintain them over time. Like almost everyone, they just say, “decide to do this, and before you know it, it’ll be a habit”.
(Brief aside: even though I’m skeptical hippo, I think Nia Shanks really gets that we need to dig deeper into the narratives we place ourselves in that keep us in habits we wish we could change. Check out what we’re writing about Nia’s 100-day reclaim here. Now back to the current blog post…)
Lest you, dear readers, think I’m just writing another rant about how media gets nutrition advice wrong, let me say this: I come here not to bury the 7-day sugar challenge, but to praise it. Well, its illustrations anyway. Check these out:
Yep, there are more:
And then there’s the chocolate:
The artist responsible for these marvelous yummy creations is Reina Takahashi, a paper artist and photographer. She does magnificent creative renderings of food, ordinary objects, scenes, all sorts of things. Her illustrations made me much more interested in beets and water pitchers and chili peppers than all the articles the NY Times could throw at me. Here’s what she said about some of her work:
This paper beet is my favorite of the series for the way that it photographed. The green leaves have crisp edges against their shadows and a good bit of texture, while the rest of the beet has a clean range of light/dark.
The little green hats on these red chili friends were my favorite part to make!
I bought a bar of dark chocolate in order to use its silver wrapper in this illustration (the contents went to good use, I promise).
Reina’s paper food art reminds me of the whimsy and fun that we can have with our food. Food is about color and texture and depth and light and little green hats and silver linings and more. Seeing my food in a different way– MADE OF PAPER!– made me think about possibilities for preparing it, serving it, displaying it and eating it differently. And that, my friends, is a good way for us to open pathways to new ways of being, seeing, doing, and maybe even eating.
These illustrations tickled me pink. I hope you like them too.
Oh, and about the sugar challenge: I say go straight to day 8: Make or draw or construct or paint or prepare some food (out of paper or just out of food), and enjoy its beautiful qualities.
So, readers, are you as transported by these illustrations as I am? Did you go to Reina’s blog? Are you impressed or unimpressed by the sugar challenge? Do you want to meet skeptical hippo? Let me know if you have inquiries about any or all of these issues.
January is not just the month of motivation; it’s also the month of measurement. Yes, we join gyms, buy equipment and sign up for 8-12 week programs to transform our bodies. We’re also pushed to take stock of what we’ve got going, from head to toe. We are expected to weigh and measure ourselves in every dimension, and at arbitrary levels of precision. Why all this detail? It’s not as if we’re planning on mailing ourselves to Argentina. Are these numbers helpful to us in pursuing our physical activity and health-according-to-us lives?
On the one hand, numbers can provide us with concrete information. I’m reminded of my absolute favorite New Yorker cartoon:
On the other hand, numbers don’t always mean what we might think they mean. Case in point: the Bello belly-fat scanner.
Bello is supposed to tell you how much belly fat you have, rate you based on it (ranging from best to worst– really!), and then offer you tips on what to do about it. The tips include “exercise more” and “eat more vegetables”. All for the low low price of $379. How could you say no?
Well, that’s what we at Fit is a Feminist Issue are here for. As a part of our consumer products debunking division services, here’s an FAQ about Bello (and probably other so-called belly fat scanners).
Should I buy this thing? NO.
Why not? There are a bunch of reasons.
First, It says false things in its advertising. On its indigogo page, it says, “subcutaneous fat is a big issue, and an indicator of a number of metabolic issues, like diabetes and heart disease”. This isn’t true. Visceral fat (not subcutaneous fat) is a standard indicator of risk of metabolic disorders. How do I know this? I read about it in this journal article:
In contrast to visceral fat, it is reported that subcutaneous fat might even be beneficial against metabolic abnormalities…the relative distribution of body fat might be more important than visceral fat area (VFA) or subcutaneous fat area (SFA).
…no studies to date have explored the relationship between DXA-assessed SFM and T2DM. Which means: using the state-of-the-art medical Dexa scanners (which cost considerably more than $379), there haven’t been studies looking for a relationship between subcutaneous belly fat and type 2 diabetes. So they can’t say there’s a relationship at all between the two.
Second, it’s not clear that Bello accurately measures either subcutaneous or visceral fat. It predicts them, based on its proprietary technology. Here is one of the messages it displays, which doesn’t list percentage of visceral or subcutaneous fat.
It may be able to predict overall belly fat. But belly fat, in and of itself, isn’t an indicator of medical disorders. And, according to the studies I’ve read, it’s the ratio of visceral fat to subcutaneous fat that is more predictive of medical risk for various populations. Bello doesn’t and can’t provide that. So, whatever measures it gives you aren’t that meaningful in assessing medical risk. To assess your risk for various metabolic disorders, we need a lot more precise information. This includes information that medical research knows it needs but doesn’t have yet. Like this, from another journal article:
…abdominal fat distribution defines distinct obesity sub-phenotypes with heterogeneous metabolic and atherosclerosis risk.
These observations suggest that clinically relevant sub-phenotypes of obesity can be defined by abdominal fat distribution, supporting the notion of obesity as a heterogeneous disorder with varying cardiac and metabolic manifestations.
What do these quotes mean? Just this: the researchers believe that, among populations with BMI>30, groups with different body types and also different distributions of abdominal fat will have different types and degrees of risk of future medical problems. They don’t have the full picture yet, but are working on it bit by bit.
3. Will Bello help me spot reduce fat on/in/around my belly? NO.
Bello suggests that it will help you reduce your belly fat by using their device every day and following the advice on their app. However, it’s not possible to do spot-reducing of fat. How do I know this? I have to admit, this time I just asked Google, and it said:
Targeted fat loss, often refered to as spot reduction, is not possible and there’s no solid scientific evidence to suggest that you can burn fat on specific areas of your body.
4. Just out of curiosity, how many colors does it come in? WHITE ONLY.
5. Suppose I want to keep track of my belly size but don’t want to spend $379. What do you suggest? Funny you should ask. Here’s one idea:
Here’s another idea:
6. Does the blog have any other targeted advice about bellies? WHY YES WE DO.
Check out Natalie’s post about belly patrolling, which celebrates her belly and bellies in general. Sam wrote about lizards loving their bellies, and what we can learn from them. There are plenty more where that came from– for more belly love posts, look here.
This year, 2020, is the third year in a row that I’m counting my workout days. I’ve been in the 218 in 2018 and 219 in 2019 FB groups, and these experiences have helped me realized that counting can be a positive, motivating tool in my health-to-me pursuits. I also bought a fake-o Fitbit, which I used off and on in 2019. I plan to use it more on than off in 2020. Again, allowing myself access to data about my activity is proving more useful than scary. Of course, context is everything, so the numbers don’t say much by themselves. But over time, they do reveal patterns that I am finding useful. Take a look at my blog post from 2019 about changing my mind about metrics, and I hope you’ll tell me what you think about your numbers, if you collect that sort of thing.
Keeping track of number-y things has always been a little scary to me. I have never actually balanced my checkbook. There, I said it. Billable hours accounting? Hah. After all, I’m an academic. I don’t really want to know how many or few hours I work in a day/week/month. Yes, some of you may be thinking, what’s the deal with this?
Actually, I don’t think I’m really like the ostrich. I’m more like this:
Bad yogi is one of my preferred online yoga teachers (although I admit that yoga wth Adriene is my absolute fav). I like Bad Yogi because there’s a real variety of short yoga practices, done with a sense of humor and lack of reverence. About 90 days ago, I signed up for Bad Yogi’s 100 poses 100 days email– each day for 100 days, you get an email with a link to one yoga pose, and a short youtube video for that pose. I’ve written some about this: yoga poses I simply can’t do. Some of these poses are ones that non-contortionist people with certain types of bodies can do (but others happen not to be able to do). Sam just wrote about one of them (that neither she nor I can do): Hero Pose. I think that anyone who does yoga knows that there are some poses that their body just balks at, and some poses their body finds easy or fun or relaxing. Everyone’s mileage varies.
And then there are the poses that just about no one can do, except maybe Bad Yogi on a good day. At least that’s what I thought, until I was on vacation with my sister and her kids and some of their friends. I enlisted my niece Gracie (17), and her good friend Bethie (18) to test-drive a few of the more advanced-looking poses. You can judge for yourself how doable you think they are in real life.
First up, sundial pose:
This pose involves first getting one of your legs behind your shoulder, and then using your free arm to grab the foot and extend the leg. Here’s Gracie and Bethie doing sundial:
I think they’re doing great.
Then, there’s the standing split:
Gracie and Bethie got to work on this right away:
We decided to mix things up and try a balance pose next: side crow. Here’s bad Yogi:
Gracie and Bethie struggled a bit, and I couldn’t get a shot with both of them doing it at the same time, although both did do it. Here they are:
Gracie and Bethie can totally give Bad Yogi a run for her money on standing balances. Here they all are in standing big toe hold:
Not all of the pose attempts sparked joy for everyone. Fair enough…
However, some other poses that I found too hard to do, they moved into gracefully and fluidly:
We could’ve done this all day long, but had pre-arranged plans for mini golf with the rest of the family, so I had to wrap things up. Just to show you all that there’s a yoga pose day out there for everyone, here’s Bad Yogi in child’s pose:
My sister and I decided to show the younger generation that we can be bad Yogis too:
In summary, we are all Bad Yogis, probably in all senses of the phrase. I’m okay with that.
Readers, is there a yoga pose that you love, that’s hard, or that makes you crack up or makes you feel like a swan or crow or nightingale (or other animal of your choosing)? Let me know- I’d love to hear from you.
I’m writing this blog on Christmas afternoon while the rest of my family is either napping or gaming. It’s been a great day– gifts and food and family and kids and selfies with my mom, which I showed her how to do and send to others on her new iPhone. I may live to regret this… 🙂
It’s been really nice to receive gifts from folks. I got a new groovy bluetooth speaker (in red!), baking accoutrement (in honor of my late-to-the-party-but-sincere love of the Great British Baking Show), and assorted other fun or useful items. I love giving gifts too. My 14-year-old nephew got one of the xkcd comics guy books–What if? from me, which I think will help him cultivate his excellent geeky side.
Apart from things, though, the gifts I am giving my family this year are: 1) passports for everybody so we can travel outside the US this summer (watch out Canadian friends– we’re headed to Ontario in August!); and 2) experiences involving fun to be had together. We are headed to the beach in South Carolina for a few days, to ride bikes, swim in an indoor pool, eat copious amounts at a breakfast buffet, walk on the beach, play games, snooze, and make idle chit chat.
Yes, all this may seem altruistic, but it’s really a gift to myself. Why? Because I’m in a stage of life where I want to spend quality time with family and friends when I can. This means cycling trips, beach trips, book club weekends, family vacations, and combining conferences with active fun (preferably on two wheels) whenever possible.
So my big gift to myself this year was spending money and time on being places with people I care about, doing activities that are fun and offer us ways to deepen our relationships with one another. Like on these trips:
2020 promises to be a good year in one big way. As of Feb 1, I will no longer be doing two very big volunteer service jobs– member of my university’s tenure committee and co-warden of my Episcopal church. Both have been time-consuming, important, and rewarding. Stepping down from them will open up a lot of practical and psychic space for me. This presents an opportunity for me to turn back to my own life to see what I want. And what do I want for me, from me in 2020?
strength training: I did a bit of it in 2019, and I purchased an online 12-week program, which I started, but didn’t follow up on. I’ll resume that program, and start looking around for weight training classes.
saddle time: I set up my bike trainer before I left for the holidays. Now I’d like to use it. Lately I’ve found myself shying away from riding in cold weather. Yes, I’ve got the gear. Yes, I’ve got friends to ride with. But if all that doesn’t get me out the door, there’s always the trainer. In the past, I’ve found short workouts (30 mins or so) to be pretty satisfying. Let’s see if I can give myself the time and focus to do that again.
cooking on the weekends: I love it when I have ready-made lunches and some dinners in my fridge and freezer Sunday night. Sundays became work days for me this year as warden (horrible term, but it just means you’re keeping lots of things running smoothly at church). When I got home, I was depleted. What I want to give myself is more time to spend on things I love to do for myself, for my house, for my body, for my friends, etc. Preparing and eating happily and healthily-to-me lays a foundation for everything else.
I don’t think this self-gift list for 2020 is too much. I’ll be reporting back from time to time on how I’m doing. Let me know what you might like for yourself in 2020; we’d like to hear how you’re doing, too.
Oh– one last thing; I’d like a Bianchi e-road bike.