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.
For some weeks now, I’ve been thinking: maybe it’s time to find a nice gym. Okay, I admit that reading Samantha’s posts about her fancy new gym has definitely put me in a state of yearning for pools, saunas, nice weight room, interesting classes and pleasant locker room (if there is such a thing). Another friend just told me that she joined the nice athletic club not far from her house and mine. So, what am I waiting for?
I’m really busy and mostly out of town for December, so maybe it makes the most sense to join in January. Or maybe not.
If you google (as I did) “should I join a gym in January?”, you’ll get loads of links to articles giving you reasons not to start a membership at the beginning of the year. Here are some:
It’s the most expensive time of the year to join
80% of gym members don’t ever use the gym again past February (numbers and months vary by article, but the message is clear)
It’s a big schlep to get to the gym when it’s winter vs. working out at home
When/if one goes, the January throngs at the club will be rude or clueless about gym etiquette
Yes, yes, I know all of this. But but I still want to join anyway. What are my reasons?
January is when I have the time to explore a new club and new classes
I’m looking to switch up my exercise routine and get out of the house more
The last time I joined a nice club I really enjoyed it, and I’m looking for that experience
The pool– I want access to a nice pool!
I have a flexible work schedule, so I don’t have to work out at peak hours
The place I have in mind (where my friend just joined) has a 7-day trial. I think checking things out in December makes sense. And then, I’ll need to look over the contract carefully– the devil is in the details, so they have to work for me (cancellation policies, putting membership on hold, etc.)
I’ll report back on progress, but I think I’m gonna do it.
Readers, have you joined or restarted a gym membership during the January rush? What was it like? I’d love to hear from you (I think… 🙂
Last week, a new study came out on the effects of high-intensity exercise on metastatic (late stage) cancer. Medical news sites and medical Twitter have been all abuzz about the results. Take a look:
For those of you who know me or have read some of my critiques of medical journalism, you might think I’m about to lower the boom on the journalists and twitterers who are very enthusiastic about the results of the study. I’m not doing that. Not today… But, a little unpacking and clarifying of what we now know (and don’t know) about exercise and cancer is in order.
First of all, what were the researchers looking for in this multi-part study?
Researchers hypothesize that exercise-induced metabolic reprogramming of organs transforms them into metastatic-resistant metabolic micro-environments by limiting nutrient availability to the cancer cells thus creating a metabolic shield.
That is, they were investigating whether the metabolic effects of exercise might increase the likelihood that our organs would consume more glucose than usual, depriving tumors of the nutrients they need to grow and migrate.
Spoiler alert: the results of their study suggest a “yes” answer.
Exercise protects against cancer progression and metastasis by inducing a high nutrient demand in internal organs, indicating that reducing nutrient availability to tumor cells represents a potential strategy to prevent metastasis.
But (and as RuPaul says, it’s a big but), the details of the study show the results to be promising but still preliminary.
from the study:
Epidemiologic data from a 20-year prospective study of a large human cohort of initially cancer-free participants revealed that exercise prior to cancer initiation had a modest impact on cancer incidence in low metastatic stages but significantly reduced the likelihood of highly metastatic cancer.
In a 20-year prospective study of 2734 men and women in Israel, researchers found that high-intensity exercise lowered the relative risk for more advanced/metastatic stages of cancer (e.g. spreading to other sites in the body) 72%, compared to low-moderate exercise. Note, this is relative risk, not absolute risk. And, this is population-level, not taking into account other factors that strongly influence individual baseline risk. One more and: the researchers say that much more research is needed to know more about which particular cancers respond to increased exercise. All of this is TBD, if incredibly promising.
The study also included an analysis of this effect in mice.
In three models of melanoma in mice, exercise prior to cancer injection significantly protected against metastases in distant organs.
Note, this experiment was done with melanoma, one form of cancer. It’s well known that different cancers set up shop, as it were, in the body in very different ways. Again, the effects of increased exercise on other cancers is still TBD.
There were other analyses done, and if you’re up to the task, you can access the whole paper here.
The authors themselves issues a bunch of caveats at the end of the article. For instance, the literature doesn’t show how long the tumor-starving effects of intense exercise last. They also point out that high-intensity exercisers, like Olympic athletes, are not themselves immune to various cancers. This suggests to them that “a personalized exercise regime for each patient might provide better clinical outcomes.”
Yes, I fully concur. Until we know more– a lot more– we can conclude that all forms and intensities of exercise are, in many ways, good for health ad longevity. A Healthline article on this study agrees:
High intensity also might not be possible depending on age and other factors. For these people, even moderate exercise still has a protective effect against cancer, Hicks said.
“Hundreds of epidemiological studies, comprised of millions of participants, provide strong evidence that regular, daily activities like brisk walking significantly reduce the risks of many cancers,” he said. “These results show 10 to 20 percent risk reductions for bladder, breast, colon, endometrial, esophageal adenocarcinoma, and renal and gastric cancers.
Well, yay for that! Reading those words has given me enough energy to maybe do this high-intensity move:
Today is Sunday, November 20. At the moment, I’m keeping track of numbers. For example:
how many workouts I need to finish up the 222 in 2022 challenge (46)
how many days until my sabbatical is over and I return to teaching (60)
how many minutes I have to finish this post before I have to get in the shower and go to church (30)
I’m also reading about numbers. A popular science news outlet reminded us this week of the results of a 2020 study showing that we need to do 30-40 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity to offset the mortality risk conferred by sitting all day (at work, etc,) Here’s an excerpt:
The analysis found the risk of death among those with a more sedentary lifestyle went up as time spent engaging in moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity went down.
“In active individuals doing about 30-40 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity, the association between high sedentary time and risk of death is not significantly different from those with low amounts of sedentary time,” the researchers explained in their paper.
Okay, so now I guess I need to count the number of minutes I sit during the day and then count both a) the level of vigorousness of my physical activity; and b) how many minutes I do that activity in order to reduce my risk of early death.
What? What about the whole “risk of early death” thing? Don’t we need to step up our game to avoid the grim reaper?
The big message in the article (both the science one and this post here) about counting, is that everything counts. Here’s an actual scientist saying so:
“As these guidelines emphasize, all physical activity counts and any amount of it is better than none,” said physical activity and population health researcher Emmanuel Stamatakis from the University of Sydney in Australia.
“People can still protect their health and offset the harmful effects of physical inactivity.”
I have to say, I’m not loving this idea of counting the minutes I’m sitting as edging closer to death, and the minutes I’m engaged in physical activity as dragging myself back from the brink of oblivion. That sort of motivation doesn’t work for me. But hey, YMMV.
I like the idea that I can consider a 30–40 minute break (or 2 15-minute ones, or 3-4 10 minute ones, however you count it is fine) as a pleasurable time for me to do something I like– yoga, walking, strength exercises, short bike ride, spinning on the bike trainer. It’s not offsetting risk so much as offsetting work with play, concentration with relaxation, obligation with liberation.
Maybe some of these contrasts will appeal to you. They make life seem more pleasurable and less perilous to me.
And now, I must go– my number is up, and it’s time to shower!
Hi everyone– I’ve been thinking more about sitting lately because I’ve a) driven a good bit the past two days; and b) went to a conference where sitting is what almost everyone is doing almost all day. Luckily I’ve been able to combine my sitting (both in car and conference room) with plenty of walking in between long sits.
But speaking of long sits, meditation presents an altogether different challenge on the sitter. You have to get comfortable, but in a way that is supportive, non-achy and non-drowsiness-provoking for maybe up to an hour (longer for some). Even sitting upright and not moving for 10–15 minutes can prove difficult. Feet fall asleep, necks twinge, calves cramp, and the imperative to move is strong. Not that moving to adjust position is a bad thing. It’s just (in my experience) that a quiet body is more conducive to a quiet mind.
I wrote this post back in 2020 (remember 2020? Never mind) about ways people sit in meditation. Of course sitting isn’t required at all– standing, lying down, walking– all of these are ways to comport one’s body while meditating. But I hope you like these options if you’re looking for a sitting posture that might work for you.
I’ve been thinking and writing a bunch about streaks, in particular about meditation. So have a bunch of our bloggers. I mean, we at FIFI tend to pay attention to what we are doing and also how often we are doing it. In October, I ended up missing two meditation days (not in succession) in one week. That broke my almost-150-day streak.
Okay, time to start on over again. Yes, this has happened before, and will happen again. It’s not about the numbers, it’s about the moment. (Feel free to insert more platitudes here). But, when I looked at my milestones on Ten Percent Happier (yes, of course they keep track), I saw this:
But wait, there’s more.
There’s one more streak photo to show you:
Here’s what I’m seeing from all this: it may be hard to sit 200+ days in a row, but it’s really easy to sit 3 days in a row. After all, I’ve personally done it 37 times! Honestly, this gestalt shift has made me very happy– it means (to me) that I know how to start and restart at something I want to do, but am not perfect or flawless at. Yay! This bodes well for the other things in my life I’d like to do more often and more consistently.
While I’ve got you here, let me say that I’m at 172 workouts in 2022, That means 50 to go. I can do it!
And it bodes well for you too, dear readers. I’m just a girl, standing in front of an app, asking it to help her love whatever activity it’s promoting. Who knew counting would be so much fun?
Readers, how do you feel about short-repeated streaks? Do you take them in stride? I’d like to know what you think.
I’ve been seeing all these lists from the NY Times Well section on “how I hold it together”, written by various staff members. They started in 2021, and reflect responses to stresses and fears around the pandemic. But of course that’s not all. All the stresses and fears, I mean. But while the rest of the paper of record covers those worries from outside of us and around us, the Well list writers’ coverage is internal and personal. They’re telling us what they themselves are doing to maintain equilibrium and calm in their own lives, which may include children, family members, partners, pets, plants, etc. Here are a few of them:
Uses coffee pot as alarm clock—sets pot to start brewing so to wake up to coffee smell
Traveling “to-do” list—on sticky notes to carry with and keep track of
Therapy as lifeline—enough said
Rest for at least 10 minutes a day—maybe meditation, more often breathing and relaxing
Distress walks—dissipates negative emotions (with time and mileage)
Knitting (and not)—enjoys process around projects, relaxed about doing and finishing them
Get at least 7 hours of sleep
Limit electronic notifications
Cuddle the dog!
Update phone lock screen photo with new family photos
Go on app-guided runs
Practice 3-breath hugs—hold child or loved one for three deep breaths
Spontaneous phone calls to distant friends and family
Really slow running
Hang out with pandemic puppy
Hike with friends
I like these lists. No, I don’t have a dog, and police procedurals are not my preferred binge watching. But other peoples’ comfort techniques definitely speak to me. What do these lists have in common?
Developing and trying to stick to a routine, especially around movement and sleep/rest
Cultivating an activity that brightens the day and mood
Reminding oneself to be realistic and modest about productivity expectations
Off-the-clock or off-the grid time, in whatever ways give pleasure (binge-watching, thinking about knitting, fantasy travel planning, resting, ceramics class, etc.)
Regular human social connection, though phone calls, group texts, shared walks, long hugs with loved ones
Physical activity– either with or without dog– but without performance goals or expectations
So, what about my list? When I’m holding it together, how do I do that? I know I promised one in the title of this post.,.. Okay, here goes.
Catherine’s Hold-it-together list, version 1.0
Morning meditation every day– either while still in bed, or directly after coffee
Late afternoon quiet pause– during low-energy time, a break to rest, read, do phone puzzle, meditate
Talk to friends or family on the phone every day– real-time connection through conversation is my life blood
Spend a little time on house tidying or organizing– it makes me feel more calm and in control of my environment
Move my body– on my yoga mat, on my bike, on my two legs– preferably outside, but even inside will do in a pinch
Set phone alarms for eating, taking meds, turning off media to go to bed– reminders help me avoid falling down a rabbit hole of whatever’s got my attention at the time
I’ll revisit this later on to see how well my hold-it-together list holds up. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you– how do you hold it together? Do you craft, canoe, communicate in Morse code across continents? Let us know.
When Sam posted to the FIFI bloggers that she was enacting a clothing purchase freeze (with a few exceptions) until July 1, 2023, I thought to myself: 1) what a great idea! and then 2) OMG, what will happen if I see something super-cute on sale on the internets? Spoiler alert: the answer to 2) is: I look at it, maybe swoon and sigh, and then go about my no-buying business. It’s surprisingly non-hard to do this, I found.
Like Sam, I also allowed myself a few exceptions:
replacement of necessary active gear in case something gets ripped or lost or otherwise needs replacing (this hasn’t happened so, far, btw).
Purchase of replacement bras whenever mine get too ratty or lost, etc.
Purchase of used items at my favorite consignment shop Wearovers, IF I bring in some of my own stuff at the same time.
Purchase of clothing as gifts for my niece and sister.
I admit to some frantic ordering of jeans (white, blue denim and black) on June 29. In my defense, I returned all of them except one pair of white jeans, which I love. I also sort of accidentally broke my own rule when ordering bras– I got caught up and bought a cute pair of dark pink and white tie-dye pajama pants. It all happened before I knew it.
Rules feel hard to me. The idea of following them ALL THE TIME feels very constraining and a little anxiety-producing. Of course, I regularly and easily refrain from big things like arson and blackmail (whew, you might be thinking), but the little things feel hard sometimes. I think it’s the pressure of doing (or not-doing) something ALL THE TIME. EVERY DAY. WITH 100% SUCCESS RATE. Put that way, it’s enough to make all of us a bit anxious.
The first couple of weeks felt hard for that reason. Just knowing that I wasn’t supposed to buy anything made me a little antsy online. As time passed though, I realized why: I used to spend a lot of time looking at clothing and other items online. Sam mentioned this too, and we talked recently about how not doing this kind of idle computer-window shopping has changed our online behavior. Sam’s now doing other activities (like Duolingo) and also getting more curated and tempting items in her media feeds.
I’m feeling liberated from anxiety-browsing of clothing, and relaxed when I do see cute things in my media feed. I think Facebook knows what I’m up to, though, and isn’t happy. I keep getting these ads in my feed for clothing that clearly appeals to me personally– bright colored and patterned tops in light-weight fabrics in easy-to-wear styles. And (get this): the top line says: MADE IN SOUTH CAROLINA (my home state). Man, do they play hardball…
And yet, I’ve browsed but not bought. Knowing I’m not buying is calming. I can browse all I want, not worrying about buying. But I don’t browse nearly as much.
So I’ve also turned to my closet and chests of drawers. Man, do I have a lot of clothing and accessories. I decided to do triage on earrings, getting rid of those I don’t wear, and polishing the ones I do. I have a lovely handmade wood earring rack (bought on Etsy a while ago), and it’s now set up so I can see all of them in their timeless glory.
Okay, that’s not all of them. But these are the ones in active rotation. Hey, it’s all a process, right?
My closet is not yet fit for public inspection. But I’m working on it. The goal isn’t to provide some beautiful instagram-worthy space, but rather to make the clothing I have more visible and therefore more used by me.
Originally I committed to the no-clothing-purchase only until December 31. But now I’m inclined to continue until the summer. We’ll see how it goes, but it’s getting to be a habit, which is, I guess the whole point.
Readers: have you ever imposed a clothing or accessories embargo? For how long? What was it like? We’d love to hear from you.
This ad just came across the FIFI social media outlets (thanks, Nicole, for bringing this to our attention). It shows a bunch of 46-year-old white women in an ad for Geritol. The fact that all of them are the same age is supposed to be shocking to us. What separates them, the ad tells us, is that some of the women “take care of themselves”, while others apparently don’t.
This vintage ad came across the FIFI social media feed (thanks, Nicole for bringing this to our attention)– it’s for Geritol (a vitamin and iron supplement later pulled off the market; more on this below) featuring a bunch of 46-year-old white women. The ad singles some of them out, although it doesn’t say which ones. But it’s got some concerns:
I don’t know about you, but these women all look around the same age to me. But, the ad implies that some of them clearly look older, and it’s THEIR OWN FAULT. Why? Because they are not “the ones who take care of themselves”.
(Parenthetical comment: props to the woman in the blue jacket for pioneering resting bitch face in a good way. She’s having none of this.)
(One more parenthetical comment: the product in question, Geritol, was marketed as an iron and B-vitamin tonic in the 1950s. It was supposed to relieve tiredness, and was 12% alcohol. It was pulled off the market because of risk of diseases associated with too much iron, and also because Geritol engaged in “conduct amounted to gross negligence and bordered on recklessness”. The FTC ruled them as making false and misleading claims and heavily penalized with fines totaling $812,000 (equivalent to $4.96 million in 2021 dollars). See their Wikipedia page for more details.)
Back to the main rant. According to the fine folks at Geritol, women who “take care of themselves”:
Never eat too much or too little;
get a good night’s sleep every night;
exercise every day;
do all the things that women leading busy women’s lives in the mid-20th century have to do, regardless of income;
and of course take Geritol every day.
But how, pray, can we tell which women are “taking care of themselves” and which women aren’t? By how they look, of course! Aren’t you silly…
I have to say that just writing about this nonsense is getting me a little worked up.
Okay, I’m back. Here, in no particular order, are some problems with a culture in which this ad is just one little horrid illustration:
“Looking your age” or “better yet–younger!” is assumed to be a universal imperative for women.
The markers for “looking your age” or “better yet– younger!” are based on classist, racist, misogynist and (I might add) boring and bland criteria, which are unattainable by most women (even the ones who made it in into that ad, for goodness’ sake).
The notion of “taking care of yourself” (subject to same influences as “looking your age”) censures all women whose busy lives involve burdens of family care, domestic labor, paid work, and endless waking and working hours, with no time for bridge club, facials or golf.
Geritol was harmful alcoholic snake oil, marketed by lies, targeting consumers with money but also vulnerabilities.
The idea that “taking care of yourself” is, for women: a) a lifelong obligation; b) something whose success can be read off women’s faces and bodies is false and also vicious.
How can we take back the notion of “taking care of ourselves”? I think we’re doing it already– right here on this blog, out in the working and playing and political world, in our homes, and with our friends and families. And what are we doing in this updated version?
We prioritize ourselves as best we can, given our constraints and connections and interests. That means choosing– as we can– the aspects of our lives to focus on. And, in cases where we currently can’t choose (e.g. reproductive health and safety in the US right now), we speak up, fight back, disobey, organize, and act. Oh, and vote, too.
We set boundaries– again, as best we can– so to protect time and resources for activities of our own choosing. Where the boundaries aren’t there, again we work to change them.
We dare to love ourselves as dearest members of our families (sometimes, families of one). We do this all the time– or as much as we can.
But who am I to go on and on about self-care? Let me step aside for someone who said it better.
Readers, how do you understand the phrase “taking care of yourselves” these days? What do you do? I’d love to hear from you.
In case you’ve been outside or busy with other things non-internet this weekend, a) good for you; and b) a dense but very interesting research article came out; and c) this article has made otherwise sensible science journalists go hog wild. Researchers Mark and Deborah Hamilton and Theodore Zderic found:
…the human soleus muscle could raise local oxidative metabolism to high levels for hours without fatigue, during a type of soleus-dominant activity while sitting, even in unfit volunteers. Muscle biopsies revealed there was minimal glycogen use. Magnifying the otherwise negligible local energy expenditure with isolated contractions improved systemic VLDL-triglyceride and glucose homeostasis by a large magnitude, e.g., 52% less postprandial glucose excursion (∼50 mg/dL less between ∼1 and 2 h) with 60% less hyperinsulinemia.
Very roughly, this means:
Our big calf muscle can work continuously for long periods, without fatigue
This process doesn’t use much glycogen, as it’s not intense muscular activity
But, it has some surprising beneficial effects (insert technical stuff here about V-LDL triglyceride levels, glucose release after meals, and insulin levels related to insulin resistance, a condition that is considered a precursor to type-2 diabetes).
Also, this is a surprising result, which is cool.
They were also nice enough to provide an illustration. So, if you like pictures:
But of course, the internet wasn’t satisfied with my explanation from above. Oh, no, that boring information won’t do at all. Here’s what they had to say instead:
The producers of the second article also got a little confused about where the “special muscle” was:
To be clear, the researchers tried very hard to stave off a new Tik-Tok calf-raise-at-the-desk craze. They say in the article:
This study was not a clinical trial. This was an experimental physiological study, conducted in highly controlled laboratory conditions. This study also did not test effectiveness of a free-living lifestyle intervention.
One should be cautious when interpreting the relative effectiveness in subcategories until follow-up studies with a large sample size are performed. The practicality will also depend on implementation in large parts of the population. The practicality will depend in part on evidence that people are capable of successfully performing SPU contractions outside of a laboratory without EMG feedback. There is a need to test when this could be integrated within the lifestyle without disrupting various seated behaviors.
But the science journalists ignored all this. All they saw was that maybe this– the fancy lab-telemetry-enabled calf raise– could potentially reverse the death-encroaching effects of sitting for too long. So they wasted no time in putting that message out to the public. Even though one of the articles showed the illustration below, it still trumpeted the result as instantly available to office workers everywhere.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with calf raises. I do them on airplanes to help circulation (and also pass the time). But the soleus is not the “special muscle” that the internet is all in a swoon over. It’s just another one of our hard working body parts that help us get through our day.
Readers, did you see the calf-muscle-fever articles this weekend? Were you swayed for even a minute? I didn’t think so….
Many of us have done charity rides or runs. We blog about it frequently. Samantha most recently did her PWA Friends for Life Bike Rally, as well as other more spur-of-the-moment charity riding. Amy has walked for Alzheimer’s research, Out of the Darkness (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and North Shore Juneteenth Association. Nicole has raised money running for the Canadian Diabetes Foundation as well as the Odette Cancer Center and spinning for Michael Garron’s Ride for Mind in Toronto. I’ve done the Bikes not Bombs ride in Boston a bunch of times, and others of us have done lots of charity events. Diane, our aqua-blogger (among other things) does a vampire swim every Halloween, with a donation to Canadian Blood Services (actual blood) or the Red Cross (money instead). Here she is with some water-loving friends, all dressed up for a swim a few years ago:
However, my friend Felicity did a charity ride recently, using a mode of transport that none of the bloggers has tried: on horseback. She and a bunch of other equestrian philanthropists did the Ride for the Cure in Woodstock Vermont, raising almost $40K for breast cancer research. She (and almost 50 others) rode 10 miles on a beautiful October day.
Segall, Felicity’s horse, got a pink ribbon on his hind flanks in honor of the day.
Other horses were decked out for the occasion.
If you want to watch a short video clip about the event, check it out here. Felicity herself says it was an easy, fun ride. If I find myself with horse transportation next October, maybe I’ll do it, too.
Looking this up online, there are (unsurprisingly) other horseback riding events for charity around. One of them is coming up in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina (where I graduated from high school): it’s the 41st annual American Heart Association Beach Ride, scheduled for early November. Wish I were there, with saddle and trusty mount. In the meantime, this will have to do…
Hey readers– have any of you done horseback charity events? This was the first one I had heard of, but apparently they’re out there…