dogs · fitness

Can fit be a canine issue, too? Dogs and human health

This week, a couple of “having a dog is good for your health” studies came out. One of them , a systematic review of medical studies on associations of dog ownership with health, found a 24% reduced mortality risk across various groups in studies done in several countries. The other one other one found a 21% reduced mortality risk (risk of death from any cause) for people with heart disease. Here’s a bit more detail about this study from the journal commentary:

The effect was remarkably consistent across various demographic subgroups but was modified by the number of individuals in the household: single-person households with dogs were associated with a markedly greater reduction in all-cause mortality than multi-person households. Interestingly, the effect appeared to be somewhat larger for owners of more active breeds like pointers and hunting dogs, possibly due to their need for greater physical activity.

This stands to reason. If you live alone and have a dog, you have to take care of it– feed, walk, play with, throw chew toys around with, etc. And if you have a more active dog, that dog will want and need more stimulation and activity. So you get the same as you take care of your dog. And this is good for you.

Of course, you may be asking the question: does finding an association mean that have a dog causes better health? No. The journal editor made this clear:

… Pet owners tend to be younger, wealthier, better educated, and more likely to be married, all of which improve cardiovascular outcomes… individuals who own a dog may have higher disposable incomes than those who do not. High incomes are in turn associated with a lower prevalence of tobacco use, diabetes, and obesity in the population, so the observed relationship between pet ownership and outcomes may be partially due to socioeconomic factors… Finally, the association between dog ownership and good health may even be reverse causal because adults with excellent physical health are more likely to adopt a dog than those who are too ill or frail to care for a pet…

But, the editor continues, it’s consistent with what we know about human biology that dog ownership has all sorts of positive physical effects on people. And,

…the most salient benefits of dog ownership on cardiovascular outcomes are likely mediated through large and sustained improvements in mental health, including lower rates of depression, decreased loneliness, and increased self-esteem. This may explain why the effect appears to be larger for individuals living alone than those in multi-person households.

The upshot, for me, is this: I should get a dog.

I’ve wanted to get a dog for years. I’ve hemmed and hawed and dragged my feet and trotted out excuses– I’m too busy! I travel too much! My life is already full! I’m not a morning person!

All of these things are true. But I keep coming back to this imperative: Catherine, you need a dog in your life. I do think that, once we (my future dog and me) get settled into a routine, I’ll wonder why I didn’t do this 30 years earlier. (I did grow up with dogs, so I know what I’d be getting into).

Dogs are not fitness accessories like gym memberships or shiny new bikes. They’re creatures with wants and needs who are utterly dependent on us. The seriousness of taking on the care of another creature is what’s given me pause all these years. But I keep coming back to the question: should I get a dog now? How about now?

My inner conversation hasn’t gone anywhere yet, except to endless online perusing of rescue dog sites and breed information gathering. But I am putting this out there as a step forward in the process.

Question to you, dear readers: what are some ways having a dog has affected your health or fitness? Have there been changes? I’d love to hear from you.

fitness · running

Two new marathon records, two different sets of staffing requirements

This weekend, marathon fans were treated to not one but two new world records. One is official– Brigid Kosgei of Kenya broke the existing women’s marathon world record, clocking 2:14:04 in the Chicago Marathon. Paula Radcliffe of the UK held the previous world record of 2:15:25 since 2003.

Brigid Kosgei, new world record holder for women's marathon.
Brigid Kosgei, new world record holder for women’s marathon.

Just the day before, Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya also broke a record: he ran a marathon distance in less than two hours: 1:59:40. The sub-two-hour marathon has been the elusive white whale of running sports, and breaking that barrier is momentous news.

Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, crossing the line in Austria in 1:59:40.
Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, crossing the line in Austria in 1:59:40.

Important thing to know: Brigid Kosgei’s Chicago marathon time counts as a new world record, but Eliud Kipchoge’s marathon run doesn’t. Why not? Because Kosgei ran in race conditions (well, in an actual race), and Kipchoge’s run was not in race conditions. What do I mean by that?

Glad you asked.

Kipchoge’s run was set up to optimize on race course, weather, running conditions and nutrition so to maximize the chances of breaking the 2-hour marathon mark. Here are some of the features of the setup, as detailed by an article in the Atlantic:

The organizers scouted out a six-mile circuit along the Danube River that was flat, straight, and close to sea level. Parts of the road were marked with the fastest possible route, and a car guided the runners by projecting its own disco-like laser in front of them to show the correct pace. The pacesetters, a murderers’ row of Olympians and other distance stars, ran seven-at-a-time in a wind-blocking formation devised by an expert of aerodynamics.

Here are pictures of Kipchoge and his ominipresent rotating phalanx of world-class runners, all there with him to optimize his run time.

Kipchoge himself came equipped with an updated, still-unreleased version of Nike’s controversial Vaporfly shoes, which, research appears to confirm, lower marathoners’ times. He had unfettered access to his favorite carbohydrate-rich drink, courtesy of a cyclist who rode alongside the group. And the event’s start time was scheduled within an eight-day window to ensure the best possible weather. 

Brigid Kosgei also had pace runners with her for at least the first half of the marathon. Here’s more about how that works from the Chicago Tribune:

Because Kosgei runs so fast — and because she planned to go out for a women’s world record if conditions cooperated — those pacers were hard to find, according to a marathon spokesperson. Race commentators questioned whether they had gone out too fast and abandoned pre-race strategy.

There are two pacers who work for the elite women’s pack and four for the men’s pack — all accomplished runners themselves. They stay with runners up to the 35 kilometer mark.

Kenyans Geoffrey Pyego, who mainly works as a marathon pacer, and Daniel Limo, who has competed in marathons since 2006, led the way for Kosgei. Limo holds personal bests of 1:01:30 in a half-marathon and 2:08:39 in a marathon, winning the 2015 Los Angeles Marathon in 2:10:36.

They planned with Kosgei on Saturday night to get through the half-marathon mark at 1:08. She passed 13.1 miles at 1:06:59, which was also on pace to break the course record pace of 2:17:18.

Here’s Brigid Kosgei, on the course with a pace runner, and winning the Chicago marathon on her own.

I love watching marathons– I live in Boston and always try to watch the Boston Marathon either in person or on TV. It seems an impossible task to run that far that fast, and I am always in awe of the world class runners (while also admiring the thousands of non-professional athletes who do this as well).

I think it is super-tremendously awe-inspiring that Eliud Kipchoge ran a sub-2-hour marathon course. But, this two-day/two-records-sort-of brings two questions to mind for me.

Question one: I wonder how much faster Brigid Kosgei could run a marathon course if she had 1) her own rotating phalanx of world-class runners; 2) a pace car equipped with lasers to point out the best route on the course; and 3) a personal bike-riding specialized nutrition delivery person?

Question two: how much faster or stronger or better at their sports would women be if their training was at the level of men’s training? What would girls be like as athletes if we trained them and funded them and equipped them and surrounded them with a rotating phalanx of praise and support and encouragement?

Answer to question one: Not sure, but definitely faster. Right?

Answer to question two: Definitely faster. stronger. better at sport. happier. More fulfilled. Right?

Okay, final question to you, dear readers: Which would you prefer, if you could pick one:

  • a rotating phalanx of experts around you all the time?
  • A pace car with lasers to point you in the best direction in life?
  • A personalized-for-you special nutrition delivery person (bike optional)?

I’d like to hear from you…

fitness · walking

Walk faster to outrun the grim reaper? No.

On Friday a new study came out that found associations between how fast we walk in midlife (gait speed) and our overall brain and body health. In case you were wondering, here’s the title, from JAMA: Association of Neurocognitive and Physical Functioning with Gait Speed in Midlife.

Popular news outlets sprinted to the scene, putting out headlines urging us to go faster. See this one from Runner’s World:

Caption reads: Slow walkers might age faster than people who pick up the pace. Smaller print: the quicker you stroll, the more likely you are to keep accelerated brain-and-body aging at bay, a new study suggests.
Caption reads: Slow walkers might age faster than people who pick up the pace. Smaller print: the quicker you stroll, the more likely you are to keep accelerated brain-and-body aging at bay, a new study suggests.

This article sounds less sensational but the idea is the same:

Faster walkers at 45 have younger brains, bodies: study
Faster walkers at 45 have younger brains, bodies: study

You may want to know now: is it true? Do we really need to run for our lives?

No. Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash.
No. Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash.

Our bloggers have written about claims connecting walking speed to health and mortality risk for a while now. Martha blogged about an earlier study linking walking speed to good health: Walk your way to long life. And Sam recently blogged about being a slow walker in the midst of this scientific flurry of praise of fast walking: Now Sam’s a slow walker will she die earlier than the rest of you?

Okay. But what did this study actually show? In short, it showed that, in a cohort of 904 people who were followed regularly from age 3 through and past age 45, that the adults in the lowest quintile (20%) of gait speed also had poorer physical health (as assessed by 19 different markers like blood pressure, BMI, cholesterol level, etc.), cognitive function, and accelerated rates of aging, compared with adults with normal gait speed (according to some chart somewhere). Because the study also had early childhood medical information (from age 3), they found that the lowest quintile group also was more likely to have manifested early signs of poorer cognitive health.

Do the researchers (or anyone who doesn’t write for a popular news outlet) think that one’s gait speed contributes to poorer physical and brain health and accelerated aging ? NO

Do the researchers think that walking faster will reduce cognitive decline, accelerated aging and poorer biomarkers of physical health? NO.

All health care providers recommend physical activity for health, but walking fast is not the moral of this story. Or any story, for that matter.

There is one good takeaway for clinicians here: including checks of people’s gaits intermittently through life may provide information to help detect conditions, or prevent advancement of conditions, or to treat them. This is still pretty speculative, as the nature of the association and the causal picture are still very unclear.

In an invited commentary on this article, Dr. Stephanie Sudinsky offers a really clear and important message for public health experts and also those of us who care about health through the lifespan:

The human brain is dynamic; it is constantly reorganizing itself according to exposures and experience. It is affected as an end organ by many other organ systems. Perhaps in this sense, brain health, reflected in brain structure, cognition, and gait speed, is not necessarily a first cause, but rather may be a consequence or mediator of lifelong opportunities and insults.

What this means to me is that it’s important to focus on ways to address early childhood cognitive functioning problems right away, through a variety of means. These means include better nutrition, safer physical environments for play and exercise, stimulation through early education and interventions, etc.

For adults, it means that we should consider expanding our notion of health risks to include those “lifelong mediators of opportunities and insults” like access to food, health care, safe living spaces, accessible opportunities for movement, safer workplaces, etc.

None of us can outrun our own mortality. Walking faster won’t whisk us away from our own aging. Walking more slowly won’t send us into cognitive decline or poorer health.

We know roughly what to do for our own health. If you’re looking for tips, I suggest dancing. At your own speed. That’s what these people in Mozambique did to celebrate World Disability Day in 2017.

Dancers at a fair in Namialo, Mozambique.
Dancers at a fair in Namialo, Mozambique.
fitness · yoga

Yoga poses I simply can’t do, and what I do instead

Fellow blogger Christine started a Yoga is For September challenge (and created a FB group for it, as one does). I was psyched for the social support around everyday yoga. I found that morning yoga just didn’t happen very often– I’m not a morning person at all. Yoga before bed did work, even if it was the 7-minute yoga with Adriene bedtime video. I admit I often turned the video on my phone and did my own before-bed yoga while she happily did her thing.

We are keeping the everyday yoga love alive– in real life and on FB, with a new name: Octyogafest. This month Christine and I are sharing in the care and feeding of the group. I decided to add in another challenge element this month, courtesy of Bad Yogi. She is doing a 100 poses in 100 days yoga challenge, and I decided to sign up.

October 1 rolled around, and what should the first day bring but bow pose! Here it is.

Bad yogi doing bow pose. Her hands are holding her ankles behind her, with legs bent up and chest high.
Bad yogi doing bow pose.

Sigh. I can’t do this pose. At all. I’ve never been able to do this pose. I can’treach my legs with my hands. I think this is a combo of tight quads and super-tight shoulders, which is what my body is like. Yes, I’ve tried it with a yoga strap, looped around one foot or two feet. I then just feel trussed up and awkward. Sigh.

I looked around online to see what other options there are. Of course I found some. This article approaches bow pose backwards, with grabbing the ankles as the last step rather than the first. I tried it, and found I could get a nice chest opening stretch and also quad stretch without worrying about either straps or trying to grab my ankles. Whew.

This got me to thinking: there are a few yoga poses that my body just flat-out won’t do. Not now, not in the past, and certainly at no time in the future. I’m not even talking about extremely advanced poses, like these:

Of course some bodies are made so that these are easier to do, and other bodies have been able and interested in developing practices so to be able to do these. You go, such people!

But in the course of ordinary yoga classes, poses or stretches come up that we may find are totally impossible for us, while seeing other folks doing them easily. And vice versa. It’s one of the many things I like about yoga: I can find out more about my body– its strengths and vulnerabilities– on the mat in a room with other people. So here are a few other poses that I find my body just doesn’t do.

My hips are not flexible enough to do this pose– it’s called shoelace pose, and can be done seated or reclined.

But not by me. My hips are just too tight to even get close. Luckily, there are alternatives, like this one, called half-shoelace:

A woman sitting with right leg out front, left leg crossed and bent over right.
A woman sitting with right leg out front, left leg crossed and bent over right.

If that doesn’t work, I can just sit with legs crossed. Whew.

Then there’s Virasana, or Hero pose.

A woman sitting with her knees bent and legs tucked in at her sides.
A woman sitting with her knees bent and legs tucked in at her sides.

This is impossible for me to do– my quads and feet and ankles are not flexible enough to do this without pain. However, this is a yoga pose that lots of instructors turn to for seated meditation, so I’m often faced with having to do something else. Luckily there are loads of variations, some of which work for me. Here are some below:

I use two blocks, along with sometimes a rolled up blanket to ease stress on my feet and ankles. More height helps my quads, and as I do it more often, I can occasionally use one block for a little while. Whew.

Then there are the poses requiring shoulder flexibility, like these two:

My shoulders have always been super tight, ever since I was a child. So there is no way I’ll ever come close to the pose on the right. The pose on the left I can do a bit with the help of a strap. Like so:

A woman bending her right arm behind her back, holding a towel; the left arm bends below and behind, clutching the bottom of the towel.
A woman bending her right arm behind her back, holding a towel; the left arm bends below and behind, clutching the bottom of the towel.

As a develop my yoga practice, I am more aware of what my body likes to do, what it doesn’t like to do, and what it absolutely refuses to do. Good yoga instructors offer lots of modifications, substitute poses, and gentle reminders that paying attention to how our bodies feel should always determine what we do that day.

Back to my shoulders: Yeah, I’ll do some modifications in yoga class, and I do work on strengthening (in plank, downward dog, other poses). I really like eagle pose as a shoulder stretch. Also thread the needle. And then there’s this face-down pose that stretches the shoulders– it’s shown done with one arm, but you can combine it with both arms– kind of a shoulder shoelace.

I tend to work on poses that improve my quad flexibility (and strength). This helps me in other activities (like cycling). I also do foot and ankle exercises almost every day to maintain and improve flexibility, which reduces pain in my everyday life.

Sort of a shoulder shoelace pose. Lie face down and thread one arm underneath and through. bend other arm and lie with head resting on it.
Sort of a shoulder shoelace pose.
Thread the needle pose. from hands and knees, bend over, laying one arm on the mat, threading it to the other side. Use your other arm for support or move it behind your back.
Thread the needle pose.
Seated eagle pose-- arms are crossed in front of your chest, intertwined with palms together.
Seated eagle pose.

Yoga, for me, isn’t about my ambitions to maximize my flexibility, strength, balance, serenity, or supply of cool leggings. It calms me, challenges me, gives me a wake up call about my vulnerabilities, and offers ways through or around or with those vulnerabilities. Yes, there are loads of poses I can’t do. And there are loads of poses I do instead. Thanks, yoga.

What about you, yoga-practicing readers? What regular non-advanced poses does your body balk at? What do you do about it? I’d love to hear from you.

p.s. If all yoga poses are easy for you, try the Destroyer of the Universe pose. No I didn’t make it up. If you try it, also let us know. But be careful– you don’t want to accidentally hurt yourself or annihilate all sentient beings.

p.p.s. If you and a friend want to try some partner poses, some of which look impossible, others of which look fun, check them out here.

bras · fitness

So I’m wearing the wrong bra size? It’s not me, it’s you

How many times have we seen articles about how 70% of women are wearing THE WRONG BRA? Answer: A LOT. If you haven’t, you can start here and here and here and here. One brand decided to up the percentage for maximum stern effect:

Bra, with obligatory stern comment about how 85% of women wear the wrong bra size. Argh.
Bra, with obligatory stern comment about how 85% of women wear the wrong bra size. Argh.

How can this be? Let’s break this down.

  • Women want bras that feel supportive and comfortable and look the way they want them to.
  • Women spend time and money and effort shopping for bras, which come in a variety of non-standard sizes, shapes, materials and structures.
  • But 70–80-85% of them get it wrong. They’re walking around in the wrong bra size.

Yeah, that’s about it. We’re wrong. Our bras are wrong. Our bra sizes are wrong.

Maybe wearing the wrong size bra is even bad for our health:

Please don't worry. The people who wrote the article saying that there are dangerous health effects of wearing the wrong bra totally made this up.
Please don’t worry. The people who wrote this article totally made it up. I’m not linking to it, as it’s irresponsible and wrong. More than 80% wrong, even.

So where did this myth about women not understanding/appreciating/accessing the correct bra come from?

This New York Times article hunted down the source:

One man, the plastic surgeon Edward Pechter, gets credit for it.

Dr. Pechter first published the statistic in small 1998 study, writing in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery that 70 percent of women or more were wearing the incorrect bra size. The article outlined a new method for measuring breasts, with which he hoped to standardize sizing for augmentation and reduction surgeries.

But Dr. Pechter didn’t reach his estimate through surveying a large and diverse sample. Instead he used anecdotal evidence from publications like Good Housekeeping, Ladies’ Home Journal and the Playtex Fit Guide. (He also studied only women who reported wearing cup sizes AA through DDD. Today you can find bras in sizes up to an O cup.)

But it is true that good-fitting and comfortable and supportive bras are hard to find. Ask many women (me, for example) and they will tell you about spending loads of money on expensive bras that were uncomfortable, unsupportive and just not wearable. The NY Times article identifies several problems:

  • There aren’t any industry size standards for bras
  • Women’s breast sizes fluctuate over time and cyclically, during pregnancy, etc.
  • Women whose breast sizes are outside the standard cookie-cutter sizes have more trouble because of variations in bra design
  • Maintaining a steady supply of well-fitting bras requires advanced tape measure proficiency and twice-annually reassessment, followed by more bra shopping

Women do have more buying options now. We are being deluged with ads from newer bra companies on social media. But once again, women are being told they have to shoulder the burden of more labor just to be able to go out the door in decent chest shape and comfort and appearance. More shopping. More returning. More trying on. More outlay of money. More attention and fuss to manage a part of us that is not weird or troublesome or surprising to anyone– it’s just our breasts.

Okay. I’ll check out loads of bra types, research and calculate my sister sizes and carry a tape measure in my bag, always at the ready should my breast sizes change suddenly.

But stop telling me it’s my fault. It’s not me, it’s you, bra industry.

Readers, any good bra/bad bra stories you want to share with us? We’d love to hear from you.

fitness

My new scale doesn’t tell me what I weigh, and I like it that way

CW: discussion of scales, weight, worries about weight change.

Since I bought my fancy shapa scale in 2017, I’ve put it away, brought it back out, and so on a couple of times. I took it back out a month ago. Turns out, I still fear what it will tell me. And I resent its power over me. But I haven’t yet found a way out of that often-unhappy collaboration.

One update about the scale software: the company has smoothed out the messages it sends. It doesn’t say things like “good” anymore. Instead it uses colors and slightly more subtle messaging. But I get their message–less weight is better, and more weight is worse.

So check out this post, and I’ll be following up in more detail later.

-catherine

FIT IS A FEMINIST ISSUE

I really hate scales.  I think I’m not alone here.  There are loads of comic strips with scale jokes, but I will spare you because they all seem to presuppose that the scale is an authoritative judge and we are the irrational defendants whose weight is a crime.

And with respect to this scale hatred narrative, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.  If you weigh yourself, then you’re generally appalled or ashamed or enraged or depressed.  If you don’t weigh yourself, then you’re avoiding your responsibility, which is to confront the reality which is the numerical judgment of your total worth.

Okay, maybe that sounds a bit dramatic, but this is the story that whispers in our ears from time to time.

I went to a conference in the Netherlands in June, and the keynote speaker was a behavioral economist named Dan Ariely.  He works…

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fitness · gear

What a difference a lighted helmet makes… Maybe. I hope.

I just got the coolest new bike helmet. It’s by Lumos, and has lights on the front, lights on the back, and lights on the side.

The lights on the side aren’t on in these photos, but they are amber lights and work as turn signals. You operate them from a remote you strap onto your handlebars. That is so cool…

A Lumos bike helmet from back, with red triangle light in center, and V-lights in amber on left side. Remote is below, with L button lit.

So why did I buy this shiny new toy, uh, new safety device for cycling?

Well, there are two answers. In philosophy, we used to (and I suppose some still do) distinguish between what people call “the context of discovery” and “the context of justification. Yeah, I know– it sounds super-stodgy. I can’t take full responsibility for this– I just work there (that is, in philosophy…)

Anyway, the distinction is meant to show the difference between a story of how something came to say, believe or do something, and what justifies us in believing for doing that thing.

First, the discovery part: my friend Rachel (avid cyclist of all sorts and sometime guest blogger here) texted me to ask if I wanted to ride to meet some folks for dinner Saturday night. I had been planning on going, but it honestly hadn’t occurred to me to ride my bike there, even though it was a scant 2.4 miles/3.8 km one way. Of course I said yes, and then got out my lights. Rachel rolled up to my house, wearing one of these beauteous helmets– hers was a lovely shade of blue.

Blue Lumos helmet, with lights on front, side and back.
Blue Lumos helmet, with lights on front, side and back.

I was impressed, the more so on the way home. She showed me how the turn signals worked, which was soooo cooool! We both used lights on front and back of our bikes, but her helmet made her much more visible to everyone on the road.

Rachel is a year-long distance bike commuter, using a bike to ride 22–24 miles home from her job most days. She knows from good lights and helmets. I quickly decided I needed one, too for night riding. Easy peasy– order and it arrives a few days later.

Now to the justification part: I so enjoyed riding to and from the restaurant with Rachel on Saturday night. I love love love riding at night when the weather is warm or even a bit fresh and cool. But I don’t do it that often. I’m just not in the habit, and sometimes I worry about being visible enough.

Enter the lighted helmet. I am firmly convinced (don’t try to persuade me otherwise! 🙂 that having this helmet will put me in mind to figure out ways to ride at night more. For instance, this Sunday evening, a bunch of friends are going to dinner and the movies (Downton Abbey– don’t judge us). It is 3.5 miles/5.6 km each way, which is an easy ride. And I’m doing it, thanks to my new lighted helmet.

Now the trick is to keep this going. I’ll report back in a few months to see if the new helmet is luring me outside on my bike in the evenings more. Here’s hoping…

Readers, do you get inspired or motivated by new active gear or clothing? Let me know.