Feminist reflections on fitness, sport, and health
Author: Christine Hennebury
I'm a writer/storyteller/director/creativity & lifestory coach with a black belt in ITF Taekwon-do. I read voraciously and I write like my fingers are on fire.
I'm the founder and Chair of the Association for the Arts in Mount Pearl and I'm a former president of the St. John's Storytelling Festival.
I bake a mean chocolate chip cookie.
Usually I set up a playlist of YouTube videos to watch while I zip back and forth on the rowing machine but one day last week I forgot and just clicked a single video.
The resulting rabbithole of videos brought me to this useful video about deep squats.
I haven’t given much thought to squats because I’m pretty good at them. I usually only overthink exercises that I struggle with (Ha!) and I wouldn’t have searched for a video on squatting.
So, except for YouTube’s algorithm I wouldn’t have seen this video and then I would have missed out on some intriguing advice.
Taro Iwamoto has solid incremental progressions for getting into a deep squat which are useful but the real gem for me here was his advice about when to use squats.
He says not to think about squats as an exercise but to think about how to make them part of your daily routine. In particular, he suggests reading or watching TV or eating a meal while squatting, starting with short periods and increasing when you’re ready.
I have often thought about my fitness in a functional sort of way, considering how my efforts could help make my daily activities easier. But I don’t think I have connected my exercises and my activities the way he is suggesting.
I’ve already started squatting for a few minutes while reading (and I’ve written part of this post while squatting on my yoga mat) and I am intrigued by the idea of incorporating more stretching/strength training type movements into other parts of my day.
I’m not thinking of this in a multitasking sort of fashion and I’m not trying to ‘sneak in’ some extra exercise.
It’s more like exploring what ELSE I could be doing instead of sitting or standing in one spot for routine tasks.
I think it will be interesting for both my body and for my busy brain.
So, if you drop by my place and I’m reading a novel while in downward dog or I am washing dishes while standing on one foot, you’ll know what’s up…or down, I guess. 😉
What aspects of your exercise routine could you incorporate into the rest of your daily life?
I’ve always owned a bike and I’ve always enjoyed riding my bike but most of my extensive riding was when I was a kid.
Since then, I’ve never really done enough cycling to build skill, strength, or any sort of endurance.
I think the issue started when I graduated to a bike with gears. I could never quite grasp how to use them properly. The knowledge that the gears were supposed to be useful but I couldn’t use them well was frustrating and I got out of the habit of going any real distance.
This is an ADHD-related issue for me – this kind of thinking crops up for me again and again. I have to keep reminding myself of the issue that Geraint Evans describes so succinctly below.
If I add the frustration with gears to the effort required to get out on my bike and then add those things to my ADHD-fuelled notions that a) I needed long rides in order to get good at cycling and b) that once I had the skills I would have to either head out on steep bumpy trails or head out into traffic (neither of which is a burning desire for me), you can see why my desire to ride didn’t add up to much actual riding.
You can, of course, see the flaws in my (previously unexamined) thinking. But I didn’t even realize that I was working from those assumptions and frustrations until recently when my husband has gotten back into cycling.
I really admire the way that Steve gets into new (or renewed) fitness things. He does enough research to ensure some base knowledge and his safety and then he just gets started.
He doesn’t have to make a big plan, he doesn’t generally have a clearly defined end goal. He just gets started and works in small sessions until he feels an improvement and then he increases the challenge in some way.
This is a stark contrast to the way my brain wants to approach any fitness plan. I want a clear plan with fixed time intervals and incremental milestones…
…and then I probably won’t follow it because it is too rigid and doesn’t allow for the way my life works.
So, as Steve has been getting back into cycling, he has been heading out for short jaunts on the side roads and paved trails near our house. Sometimes he is gone for 10 minutes, sometimes it is half an hour or more, depending on his capacity that day.
I’ve decided to copy his approach.
And I’ve decided that I never have to go on a busy road or a bumpy trail if I don’t feel inclined to.*
Taking those possible end points out of consideration made things a lot easier for me.
The other night Steve and I dragged my bike out of the shed, checked it over, and then I took a little spin around the cul-de-sac. Since I only had a few minutes right then, I would have normally just put the bike back in the shed until I had time for a ride.
But because I am employing the Steve method, I went out for a few minutes. Obviously, not a skill-building ride but it was fun to spend even that little bit of time on my bike.
And while I was riding I had a lightbulb moment.
Not only can I ride in small bursts of time but I have the perfect practice spot nearby.
There are two empty-for-the-summer schools just minutes from my house. One of them even has a significant slope down from the road so I can get better at hills (a necessity in this province!) It won’t be an exciting place ride but it will be a safe and useful one.
So, you may never see me on a road with traffic and I may never go on a bumpy trail, but this will be the summer that I finally use my bike as much as I would like to.
Thanks for inspiring me to rethink things, Steve! 💚
* The bumpy trails may become a possibility, the busy roads are extremely unlikely. My particular manifestation of ADHD makes riding very complex, adding traffic into the mix means waaaaaaay too many things to pay attention to at once. Perhaps that will change as my skills with the bike improve but it’s not even on the table as of now.
I’m writing this while sitting on my patio and wondering if I want to take my laptop outside for the rest of the afternoon.
I mean, if you were sitting here, would you want to make yourself go work inside?
Yet, as someone with ADHD who does freelance work from home, I already have to put a lot of effort into reminding myself that there is a time for work and a time to relax/be at home. I generally try to limit where I work so I have environmental reminders to keep me on track.
So, if I start working in my relaxation space, am I going to blur that line I have worked hard to draw?
On the other hand, I have done lots of work outside in the past. I don’t really remember if it made it more challenging to keep that boundary or not.
And while I have enjoyed my deck in previous years, I hadn’t put as much effort into creating a restful backyard before. My new deck and an increase in my planning capacity (thanks to an increased dose of ADHD meds last fall) has helped me plan and create a much more enjoyable space this summer.
I don’t know if I should draw stronger boundaries around this restful space or if my environment would help me work with more ease. If I could work with more ease, maybe it would be easier to draw a line under my tasks for the day and move on to my hobbies and relaxation.
In the past, while writing or doing other office work outdoors, I have managed to create a good rhythm for my day – working in short sessions and then breaking for yoga, other exercises, drawing or reading. That’s probably a healthier way to work than trying to force myself to focus for long periods. There would be less sitting and more movement, which is always good for me.
But, maybe I could make my workday shorter if I told myself to stay inside for X amount of time and then go outside to exercise and/or relax?
Am I overthinking this? Almost definitely.
Does it have to be all one or all the other? Probably not.
I still think it is worth asking myself all of these questions though.
I am trying to be more conscious of the choices I am making and of the patterns I am following. I want those choices and patterns to contribute to my overall fitness, my health, my happiness, and my peace of mind.
I’ll probably try working outside in small amounts and see how it affects my sense of relaxation the rest of the time.
In the worst case scenario, it won’t work out and I’ll have to redraw my boundaries. I can always use more practice at that.
PS – Yes, I am aware of the irony of being outside while composing a post wondering about whether I should work outside but writing for this blog is in a grey area between work-work and recreation so really it’s kind of fitting that I am writing it on my phone while outside.
One of my goals this summer is to increase my core strength.
I’m sure you already know the usual benefits of a strong core so I’m not going to drag you through that info.
As a martial artist, however, I have extra reasons to seek a stronger core. Strengthening those muscles will help me have balance for stronger kicks and they will help with the twisting motion that adds power to TKD movements.
I find a lot of core work to be really annoying and I struggle to keep good form. (There’s a whole host of reasons for that, too, but I am really trying to stick to my point!)
However, I have found one core exercise that actually enjoy. It’s detailed enough to hold my attention without being too intricate and it doesn’t cause me any strain in my upper back or neck.*
So, I’m making friends with dead bugs this summer.
(Not literally of course. That just seems counterproductive – the poor bugs wouldn’t even know you had befriended them. Ha ha!)
This exercise, which is demonstrated in the video below, involves raising and lowering your left arm and right leg and then your right arm and left leg. So, it’s got an extra element of brain-twistiness that helps me stay engaged with the process.
Plus, I always end up laughing when I mess up which limb to move when. Laughing during core work definitely has appeal, doesn’t it?
If you’re thinking ‘I’d like to try this but I’d have to work up to it.’ you can find progressive adaptations here.
What kind of core exercises do you do?
Do you include Dead Bugs?
Do you enjoy them?
*I know part of that strain in other exercises comes from poor form, it’s not the specific exercise itself. Still, it’s a deterrent and an extra bit of fussiness.
Maybe *your* mental image of an athlete is someone famous but *my* mental image of an athlete is my cousin, Kathy Noseworthy.
She has always been the fittest person that I know and most of my memories of her involve her being in motion.
I can remember being around 3 or so and she would come to dinner at our family’s apartment before going to practice on the field behind our house. I remember being impressed by all the sports awards she won (I still am!) And I have a clear image of me and my Mom looking after one of Kathy’s baby daughters so she could go out for a run. It was the first time I realized that having a baby didn’t mean that everything in your life had to be all about the baby (an important lesson for a young teenager.)
Kathy turned sixty last year and her Facebook posts are as action-oriented as ever. Her activities have changed but the way that fitness shapes her life has not. (And she’s every bit as inspiring to me now as she has been all along.)
Kathy is a retired Physical Education teacher who teaches yoga at Modo Yoga St. John’s and I was delighted when she agreed to chat with me about fitness, exercise, and the changes she has made so her body keeps feeling good about her activities.
My questions/comments are in bold.
Tell me a bit about yoga – your teaching and your personal practice.
Right now I’m just teaching yoga virtually, and I’m about to take July and August off. I’m going into my sixth year teaching yoga so this is a much needed break.
I’ll do my own practice. I’ll usually do yin, that’s what my body needs mostly. Because I get the yang part of my fitness in my other activities. I need to do yin yoga to keep up my flexibility, my agility, and you know, all of that stuff. And yin does that for me at this stage in my life. That feels the best in my body.
I love that as a measure, what feels best.
To me, that’s the piece that people miss, no matter what they’re doing. They’re so goal-oriented or just like, “I’m just going to do it, it doesn’t feel good but I’ve just got to do it. I know I got to do it.” And I’m like, “Well, if it doesn’t feel good, you’re not going to keep doing it.”
So aside from yoga, what are your other activities?
Well, I do a fair bit of biking. I run but not as much as I used to, because that no longer feels good in my body. So, on a good week, if I run three times when that would be it. But I’d say, on average, maybe twice a week. The distance would depend on how I’m feeling, I never have a set distance in mind.
I generally don’t go less than five but I rarely go more than eight anymore. That’s where I am with that and that feels ok.
The thing I am probably most adamant about these days are weights because of my age (60 and I don’t want to lose my muscle mass. Even though that’s kind of inevitable but not if you want to work hard enough at it. I just lift weights to retain what I have, I’m not really that interested in becoming super strong, I just want to be functionally strong.
So, I lift weights and again, my goal is three times a week.
I walk, I do a lot of walking.
The new thing I’m doing now is pickleball. That’s a cross between badminton and tennis, I guess. It’s a great sport, a paddle sport that you play with a wiffleball. I’ve been playing since last fall and I love it.
Oh, and paddleboard. For me, that’s just a leisurely activity out on the water. It’s so nice, so relaxing.
So, how have your activities changed over time? You don’t play frisbee any more, right?
No, not anymore.
Now, I’m more concerned with maintaining a healthy body. Because I don’t think I would be a very nice person if I ended up getting injured and couldn’t do the things I want to do.
I’m very particular. I gauge the activity in terms of whether it’s going to be worth it to me, and what’s the cost if I get injured?
So, I stay away from things that I can’t control. Team sports, I don’t play team sports anymore because you don’t have control over everybody on the field so I tend to stay away from that.
I’ve definitely shifted from team sports, which is, a total shift because that’s all I ever did. The traditional sports: basketball, volleyball, soccer, even frisbee. I used to really enjoy it but now I’m just a bit more of a loner in terms of what I do.
That’s how I’ve shifted and that’s more toward protecting my body. It’s not that I wouldn’t enjoy the sports, it’s just about what makes sense at this point in my life.
What about what about non physical benefits from your exercise? How do you think it helps your mental health, for example?
Oh, that’s so huge. I rarely take a day off but when I do try to take a day off, by mid-afternoon, I need to do something. It’s a mental thing.
That just might be a walk. I don’t consider that something that I couldn’t do on a day off.
I don’t know where I would be if I didn’t have activity as my outlet.
I almost don’t know how to answer this question because I have never not exercised. It’s almost like something that just happens to me naturally. It’s not something I have to force or motivate myself.
I mean, sometimes I have to motivate myself to go to the gym or go for a run. But, generally speaking, if I’m feeling like I don’t want to do anything, that’s when I need to do something because once I move, that inspires me to move more.
But if I sit on my butt all day and do nothing, it just doesn’t put me in a good place.
Once I start moving, I’m like, “Ok!” And I want to move more.
How do you feel about the idea of fitness as a feminist issue, as part of women feeling empowered?
It’s funny that you asked that because I was saying to my friend last week, just as it pertains to lifting weights, when you feel strong physically, you feel strong mentally. I think the benefits there, I wish more women could take that on more.
I think some women are like “I don’t want to have muscles, I don’t want to get big.” but they don’t understand how hard you would have to work to get big. But knowing that when you touch your arm, you feel the muscle, you feel strong, that translates to you mentally. It’s hard not to feel empowered when you have that strength.
Lifting weights empowers women.
I didn’t always feel that way, I didn’t even think about it, really.
But now, I see women at the gym, lifting weights, and they are just so confident, the way they carry themselves, they just like how they are.
I was at my chiropractor last week about a problem I’m having with my heels.
I already had a working theory that my sore heels were a result of overly tight calves (I was half right) so I had been doing all kinds of different calf stretches to try and find some relief.
One of the most useful sets of stretches I found was in this short yoga video.
Her exercises helped my calves…and my heels, at least temporarily, but there was one problem.
I really hate that ‘front fold with your fingers tucked under your toes’ stretch.
I mean, I HATE IT.
I know, I know! Why don’t I tell you how I really feel.
Let’s see if this helps clarify things:
I forced myself to do it though because the rest of the video was so helpful (I was wary of the bouncing but I didn’t hate it) but I found myself dreading it and putting it off, and even the promised relief for my heels didn’t help.
So, anyway, I’m mentioning all of this to Ken, my chiropractor (and my cousin!) and he, clever soul that he is, sensibly said ‘You won’t stick with a stretch you hate, do something else instead.’
How many times do I have to learn this lesson?
How often will I have to be reminded that the best exercise is the one I’ll do?
Why can’t I remember that hating an exercise can be a good reason not to do it?
Now, I get that sometimes there are exercises that must be done in order to heal specific things and how much you hate it may not be a factor in that case.
But, for me, it keeps happening for exercises that can easily be switched out for something else.
I need to start letting ‘I hate it!’ be a signal to find an equivalent exercises that I like instead of a signal to dig in my heels and (try to) force myself to keep doing something that feels awful.
(Besides, digging in my heels is definitely not going to help right now. 😉 )
Do you have exercise lessons that you have to learn again and again?
That’s a lot of ‘Re’ for one title, but let’s forge ahead.
Here we are in June, well into year two of ‘Everything is just a bit strange, isn’t it?’ and I’m hoping you’ll pause, take a breath, and reconsider your fitness/wellness plans and goals for the year. (There was another ‘re’ in that sentence, there is no escape from them!)
Maybe everything is going exactly as you planned, things are humming along, and you are wondering why I am even suggesting this.
If that’s the case for you, keep rocking it and here are some gold stars for your hard work: ⭐️🌟⭐️🌟⭐️🌟⭐️
But, if you are like me and this year has been all fits and starts with your fitness/wellness goals, let’s get into all of those ‘Re’ words above.
When you started the year you imagined things were going to go a certain way. You combined that imagined future with the facts you had and made plans based on that.
Now that we are part way through June, you have more information about your schedule, your preferences, and your capacity.
Use that information to reevaluate the goals and plans you made in January.
Consciously decide whether you are going to continue or if you are going to choose a different path. (Sometimes, I will hold on to an old plan for ages, even though I am doing nothing with it, because I keep thinking I will get back to it. Consciously choosing NOT to do it is always a relief.)
Your plans for fitness and wellness are for YOU, not for anyone else. And only you can decide if something is working for you.
You don’t have to follow the plan exactly as you set it out at the first part of the year. You can choose to revise it at any time to meet your current needs.
If the big ideas you had in January, whatever they were, still suit you but the details didn’t work out, change the details.
If the big ideas no longer suit you, ditch them and try something else.
One of the tricky things about making goals and plans is that we can be very hard on ourselves if they don’t work out the way that we hoped they would.
That brings us to our third Re: reframe.
Please, please, please, do not frame your efforts over the past months in terms of failure.
For most of us, that will not be a valuable approach.
I’m not suggesting that you pretend everything is perfect nor am I suggesting a falsely positive approach.
Instead, I invite you to acknowledge that your initial plan wasn’t possible and then reframe your results in terms of effort or knowledge instead of failure to meet a plan.
So, instead of some self-defeating statement about failing to do daily yoga, say something like: “I couldn’t do yoga daily the way I planned instead I got on the mat once a week and really enjoyed it.”
Or, instead of being harsh about your running progress, try something like: “I’m not ready to run in a race and that’s ok, I have learned a lot about how to pace myself with my training and I can run with more ease than I could in January.”
Looking at your efforts in this way will keep you from feeling defeated and help you take a realistic view of where you are with your fitness plans.
So, as we move into the second half of the year, I hope you are being kind to yourself about your efforts, your capacity, and your plans.
You can take the goals you set in January and re-evaluate, revise, and reframe them until your plan for the rest of the year serves you best.
Fitness isn’t all or nothing, it’s a process. We need to acknowledge and celebrate our efforts and be kind to ourselves in the process.
PS – Here’s your gold star for your hard work, no matter what form that work is taking for you right now.
I’m about a year or so away from my 4th degree black belt test in ITF TKD.
I feel good about my ability to sharpen my skills to testable levels but I really want to do some serious work on my mental game.
I want to be as confident as a possibly can when I go into that test next year.
Part of that confidence will come naturally as I practice and study in preparation for the test.
But I want to do some specific mental practice, too.
I want to be more comfortable with the intensity of preparation. I want to be less stressed in the days preceding the the test. And I want to improve my ability to visualize my actions during the test itself.
To that end, I have been watching some videos and reading articles* to figure out what practices and techniques might work for me.
One thing I’ve noticed (of course) is that a lot of the sports psychology videos I’ve found are by male athletes and coaches. Their advice has been interesting and some of it has been valuable but I would like to have a broader perspective on the subject.
Can you recommend any videos or books about sports psychology/mental game/visualization that are more gender-diverse?
*And I am attending a TKD Sports Psychology online seminar in a few weeks.
After years of planning to buy a rowing machine, I finally got one a couple of months back and I am thoroughly enjoying using it.
I love that I don’t have to put much thought into the how and the what of exercising with the rowing machine. I can use it at any time without having to put on specific clothes and I can choose to have a harder workout or an easier one without having to make a specific plan.
It’s a kind of automatic exercise for me which is really good for my ADHD brain – there are few, if any, choices to make in advance and that means there are very few potential obstacles between me and my workout.
Plus, I like the very nature of the movement back and forth, the repetition has a soothing element to it.
And, I like that I can do a very specific type of multi-tasking – watching YouTube videos – while I row.
I enjoy learning by video but I don’t often make time to do so. Combining my exercise with videos is a win-win situation – I am doing two enjoyable things at once and my brain and body are both busy so I don’t get any of my usual feeling that I should probably be doing something else.
I even pick out my videos the night before so there is little between my pyjama-clad self and my exercise session in the mornings. I can get up, let the dog out (and back in!), grab some water, take my meds, and then head to the basement to row. It’s all part of my waking up routine and it really feels great.
Speaking of feeling great, my rowing has brought me an unexpected positive side-effect – my hips have loosened up considerably.
Because of long-ago sessions at the gym, I knew that my arms, back, and legs were going to benefit from using the machine but I hadn’t really thought about how the set of movements required to row would help my hips, too.
I sort of have a ‘trick’ hip. It’s mostly fine but every now and then I’ll do something that will wonk it out and it will take me a few days to get it to calm down again.
Practicing kicks at taekwon-do has often triggered my hip in that way but I only realize it *after* I have done it. I’ve done a variety of things to work on it (with various degrees of consistency – I’m still me after all) but nothing has been especially helpful. Until now.
About three weeks after starting regular rowing sessions, our Thursday night TKD class was all about practicing sidekicks and angle kicks. Normally, with a night full of those kicks, my hip would wonk out at some point during the evening and I’d either have to reduce my movements or do something else entirely.
This time, however, I was tired but my hip was completely fine. I was puzzled at first but as I was pulling my leg up and back into position for one of the kicks, I realized that the motion was familiar. It’s not exactly like the position of my leg as I pull all the way forward on the machine but it’s similar.
I didn’t have any trouble with my hips that night. And, more importantly, I didn’t wake up stiff or in pain the next morning. In fact, I rowed for a bit longer than I had the day before.
It turns out that my rowing was setting me up for new success with taekwon-do.
That’s a pretty good side-effect for an activity I was enjoying already.
Have you ever had one type of exercise ‘accidentally’ help you in another like that?
Tell me about it in the comments! (Pretty please.)