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.
I feel like I spend way too much time in uncertainty, wondering if I actually grasped the instructions and trying to figure out if I am actually doing the exercise properly. (Yes, this a whole other thing, I’ll get into that in another post.)
My challenges with instructions stem from a variety of things.
Often, I think that I understand what I’m supposed to do but when I actually go to do it it turns out I haven’t made all the connections and I actually have no idea where to start.
Other times, my ADHD brain spins out into so many possible interpretations of the instructions that I’m not sure which one was meant.
In some cases, my brain understands what to do but I can’t quite translate it into action.
And, of course, sometimes the instructions are not completely clear.
So, I am always intrigued, interested, and grateful to receive instructions that my brain and body instantly understand.
The first time I heard a yoga instructor (in a video) tell me to ‘hinge at the hips’ it was like a light bulb came on in my brain. I had heard all kinds of instructions about what not to do with my lower back and I had battled my way through those the best way I could but I still wasn’t feeling the benefits of the seated forward fold. Being told to hinge at the hips made all the difference.
When I was struggling with the choreography for a certain kick for my 3rd degree black belt test, I was grateful for all the advice I received about how to improve but it was only when Mr. Dyer told me to ‘throw my right hip toward the wall’ at one point in the kicking process that I could put it all together properly.
Even though it happens fairly regularly, receiving clear, specific instructions like that is a huge relief to me and I thoroughly enjoy the small blast of mastery they bring.
My most recent example of blissfully clear instructions came from this video about neck mobility from Mark Wildman.
At one point, he advises the viewer to point their ear at the ceiling for a given stretch. It was so clear and so useful. And it eliminated the aforementioned perpetual fear that I wasn’t doing a given exercise ‘right.’ (By the way, that fear is about not about perfectionism, it’s about my concern with accidentally wasting time.)
The fact that the stretch felt great and really helped was practically just a bonus at that point.
I know that I am not alone in enjoying clear instructions, so let’s gather some more examples.
What exercise instructions have you received that have really hit the nail on the head for you?
*Anyone who knows me well it’s probably snickering right now thinking that I just object to being told what to do. That’s not untrue, but this post is about something different.
Here in Canada, most of us had a long weekend and we’re starting our week on Tuesday instead of Monday.
We had an unusual Monday and now we are heading into a short work week.
How many of us have adjusted our schedules and expectations accordingly?
It’s a trap I fall into on the regular – my schedule or capacity* is altered in some way and yet I still try to do as much work/keep the same routine/fit AllOfTheThings in despite having less time or less energy.
This happens to me most often when I’m not paying close attention, when I forget to take stock of how much I am trying to fit into my schedule. During short weeks like this, I’m especially prone to it.
Trying to cram the same amount of stuff into a smaller container is a direct route to extra stress and frustration, and to a persistent feeling of ‘not measuring up.’
And it doesn’t matter if the ‘stuff’ you are trying to cram in is work-related, fitness-related, or personal. The issue is that we have set expectations that are way too high for us to meet.
In this case, it’s about time and about routines, but a mismatch of expectations and capacity about any goals or plans that we have set for ourselves can lead to those same feelings.
So, Team, whether you are heading into a short week, or an ordinary one, and whether your expectations are around your work, your workouts, or about anything else, I’m inviting you to pause for a moment and think about whether they match your capacity.
If there’s a mismatch, please don’t be hard on yourself.
We all fall into that trap sometimes.
Instead, why not reevaluate your time and your expectations and adjust accordingly?
Your brain will thank you.
As always, I’d like to offer your gold star for your efforts. In fact, here’s a whole bunch of gold stars – adjusting your expectations will take a lot of little efforts over and over so it makes sense to offer you a lot of little gold stars in recognition of those efforts.
*For example, if I’m feeling sick or if I have slept poorly.
I think I am developing a new Sunday habit – a walking chat.
Or maybe a chatting walk?
Either way, I’m having a great time catching up with friends while we walk along various trails in my community (and near by.)
In the Before Times, I probably would have just waited until we could swing a time to sit down together in someone’s house or a cafe and we’d catch up on each other’s lives while we snacked and drank tea.
I’m still strongly pro-snack (and pro-tea) but here in the During Times I don’t find it as relaxing to be in cafes or even in other people’s homes. I’ve met a few people for tea – sometimes on patios and sometimes inside – but I’ve also missed seeing a lot of people who I would normally catch up with in person every few months.
Recently, my friend Elaine wanted to bounce a few ideas off of me and I was about to suggest that we meet on Zoom on Sunday morning when I impulsively suggested that we meet for a walk instead.
As I was starting out on my ideas walk with Elaine that Sunday, my cousin Sheri, who I haven’t seen in ages, texted me about walking with her later that day. I jumped at the chance for two walks and two chats and I really had a relaxing, connected-feeling Sunday as a result.
This past week, my friend Sandy and I realized that we had gone too long without a chat and decided that this Sunday, we would take our conversation on the road. (Ok, so it was actually a path but it had the same effect.)
We did an hour’s walk and crammed in about 3 hours of conversation. I suspect that anyone overhearing us thought we were on fast- forward 😉
And, once again, my Sunday found me feeling relaxed and connected.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’d still love to cozy into a chair with my hands wrapped around a cup of tea and have in-depth conversation but right now those conversations aren’t as relaxing as they once were. I get distracted by the ambient anxiety of living in our Covid-world.
And Zoom chats are good but they can’t fully replace being in someone’s comforting and invigorating presence.
Walking to catch up is the perfect solution for me. I get to have a bit more movement in my day, I get to actually SEE my friends and, we get to have the sort of wandering and satisfying conversations you can really only have in-person.
I’m definitely making plans to do this regularly and catch up with everyone I have been missing.
It’s all been helping a bit and I can definitely feel the progress but it has been slow, slow, slow.
And it doesn’t help that my brain keeps telling me that the slow progress is because I am not working hard enough at my stretches. That may or may not be true (it’s hard to tell) but my brain doesn’t have to be a jerk about it.
In my first post about this, I mentioned getting on my own nerves by having to learn the same lesson over and over again and I am finding myself at that same annoying spot of relearning something I already know.
So, I have been been pretty consistent with my stretches and with rolling the ball under my foot. I was trusting in the process even as I was watching the clock. (Gold star for me – )
But in my frustration with my slow progress, I forgot that there are many different exercises that will accomplish the same thing. So, since my progress was slow, it might be time to think about the problem in a different way.*
Since the ball rolling didn’t seem to be loosening my feet very much and I couldn’t stand to press any harder, maybe I needed to stretch my feet just as much as I needed to stretch my calves.
So, I did a quick search and found this marvelous video from Yoga with Cassandra. Not only are the stretches good but the video is short – a definite bonus in my books.
I’ve done the stretches in this video every day for a week now and the difference in my heels is astounding.
I think that the ball rolling was even less effective (for me) than I had realized and these stretches mean that I am finally addressing the whole issue instead of just a part of it.
I am finally seeing measurable progress and I am so relieved.
PS – I’m really tempted to make a list of ‘Lessons I’ve Already Learned’ so I can give them a quick read every so often to see if any of them apply to any current circumstances.
*It’s funny that divergent thinking is one of the creative strengths of the ADHD brain…but I forgot to use that tool for this issue!
I love doing yoga outside at any time but especially at night in the summer. I bring out some soft lights, set up my mat on the patio, and pop in one earphone so I can follow along with a Youtube practice. *
So, right now you are probably thinking ‘Christine, that sounds great but it’s not summer any more.’
And that’s true, it’s definitely fall and I usually stop doing nighttime yoga by now. Luckily, though, I had an errand to run and I realized that it was pretty warm night for September so patio yoga was totally feasible.
And it was great.
Sure, there was a chill in the air but it kind of nice actually.
And the company was pretty swell, too.
Now that I have turned evening patio yoga into a fall activity, and since I am the owner of very many sweaters and several pairs of non-slip socks, I’m wondering just how far into the season I can get away with practicing outdoors.
Further bulletins as events warrant.
*I don’t usually watch the practice, the bright screen would kind of ruin the mood but I do listen so I can stop my mind from galloping off into thoughts of what pose to do next.
Yesterday, Sam reminded us of the benefits of Failing Small – making sure that we are keeping perspective when things go wrong.
I’d like to build on that and remind us all that even the smallest positive efforts count.
So, maybe you can’t do the full workout you had planned but you *can* do a few pushups and squats.
Perhaps your plan for a home yoga session fell through because you’re tired and all you can do is lie on your mat for a few minutes.
Or if you are trying to get to bed early, drink more water, or build a meditation practice and you do anything that inches you forward towards those goals.
That all counts.
Your fitness and wellness don’t just come from epic workouts or hour-long meditations. They are also created rep by rep and breath by breath.
Even your smallest efforts will add up.
Consistent small efforts create momentum.
Any wellness effort you make helps you to create room in your brain start thinking of yourself as ‘someone who exercises’ or as ‘someone who meditates.’ – a very valuable mindset for creating new habits.
So, while you are taking Sam’s advice to keep your mistakes in perspective, also give yourself some room to recognize the value of even the smallest success.
PS: Here’s a gold star for your efforts, big and small.
Ok, full disclosure: *I* was doing a walking meditation.
Khalee was just walking and sniffing everything and deciding where to pee…which is being really in the moment, I guess so she’s got this mindfulness thing sorted already.
I usually set out for my walk with one earphone in, using my walking time to hear some cool podcast stories that I would forget to make time to listen to otherwise.
Today, though, my mind was busy and I didn’t think I could focus on a story. So, I decided to try a new walking meditation that I bought last week.
I’ve tried to do walking meditation before, figuring that the movement would help me focus, but I found it was the opposite. Trying to make myself think about how my feet were landing, over and over, was enough to make my brain want to crawl out of my skull.
(Note: I have only tried two walking meditations before and they were both really foot-focused. Perhaps that was an unfortunate coincidence and most aren’t like that.)
Last week, thanks to a tweet from someone with ADHD requesting ideas for meditation, I came across a walking meditation from Anna Granta, an ADHD Coach from the UK.
I figured that a meditation from an ADHD coach would be a bit more tailored to someone with ADHD, and I was right!
For starters, she has a great voice. Lots of meditation leaders have voices that grate on my nerves but Granta’s is sensible, even, and friendly.
The meditation is short – less than 5 minutes from start to finish, including instructions.
And it’s very practical – leading the listener to tune into what they could see, hear, smell, and feel while they walked.
And once it was done, I kept my podcast off for the rest of my walk, noticing the sounds, smells, and the details of the sights around me.
It was a short practice but it was really refreshing. And it would be easy to do in the future.*
I returned from my walking feeling like I had untangled a knot in my brain.
Neurotypical people or those with an established meditation practice might find this practice too short or too quick but my ADHD brain loved it. It was short enough to feel doable, long enough to calm down a bit, and clear and inviting enough that I could keep practicing even after the audio finished.
I’ll definitely be using this meditation in the future. Not for every walk, because sometimes hearing a story is exactly what I need in a given moment, but I love having it close at hand for when my brain needs to smooth out a bit.
Khalee’s walking meditation was also successful. She left the house untroubled, returned the same way, and just walked when she was walking and sniffed while she was sniffing. She’s a mindfulness expert, really.
*Her instructions are clear and now that I have followed it once, easily done on my own even without the recording. I will still go back to it, though, to help me ease into the process.
I first ‘met’ Ann Douglas around 20 years ago when my information-seeking pregnant self picked up her Mother of all Pregnancy Books at Chapters. I loved her writing – she wasn’t the expert talking down to the novice, she was the experienced friend giving you some perspective on whatever you were dealing with right now.
We started chatting back and forth on blogs back in the day and I volunteered to be interviewed for some of her other parenting books, and, in the process, we’ve become good friends. I’ve only seen Ann once in person but we have stayed in touch with phone calls, Zoom chats, and email.
A few years ago, Ann took up the habit of long daily walks and it has been life-changing for her so I thought that Fit as a Feminist Issue readers might enjoy hearing about her routine and about her other projects and interests.
Ann Douglas is the author of numerous bestselling parenting books and she is currently writing a book for and about women at midlife. She lives on a lake in a rural area outside of Bancroft, Ontario.
What are some of your current projects (fitness-related or otherwise)?
I’m hard at work on a book for and about women at midlife, I’m doing a lot of volunteer work related to electoral reform, and I’m taking full advantage of the precious and time-limited gift that is a Canadian summer. For me, that means going for twice-daily walks on a rural road and paddling in my kayak a couple of times each week.
I know that walks are an important part of your daily life. Can you tell me when that started, some details about your routine, and what benefits you have found from incorporating walking into your routine? Does it help your peace of mind? Your feeling of well-being? Your writing?
Walking is a key ingredient in the recipe for a happy, healthy me. I started walking back in 2013, after being completely sedentary for most of my life. And when I say “sedentary,” I mean sedentary. Even a 15-minute walk around the block triggered debilitating foot pain. (I was morbidly obese at the time and my feet were having difficulty dealing with the additional weight I was carrying.) The clock was ticking (I was about to turn 50) and I knew that I needed to find a way to be physically active on a regular basis if I wanted to reduce my risk of developing some of the serious health problems that tend to run in my family, including heart disease and diabetes.
When I started walking, I had physical health goals in mind. What I hadn’t counted on was the impact that regular physical activity would have on my mental health. My twice-daily walks not only help to put the brakes on my anxiety: they also help me to sleep better at night which, in turn, helps to control my anxiety and boost my mood. This has proven to be a complete gamechanger for me, in terms of my mood and my overall quality of life. (I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder 18 years ago.) Getting enough sleep and physical activity are the glue that holds everything together.
Walking has also helped me to manage another major health challenge. Four years ago, I was diagnosed with Meniere’s disease: a balance and dizziness disorder that, in my case, is characterized by really acute attacks of vertigo (the kind where you end up throwing up for a couple of hours straight). I quickly figured out that walking as soon as possible after a vertigo attack helps to reset my vestibular system; and that walking regularly helps to maintain the health of my vestibular system. Walking is a key strategy for minimizing the impact of my Meniere’s disease (along with getting enough sleep; minimizing my intake of salt and caffeine; and avoiding alcohol). I also try to minimize stress, but that can be a little hit and miss.
However, the walking helps with that, so even if I’m more stressed than I’d like to be, at least I have a strategy for dialing back the level of stress.
I’m really lucky that I live in a naturally spectacular part of Ontario, so walking automatically means spending time in nature, because I’m surrounded by nature the moment I step outside my front door. That’s a huge benefit: being able to nurture my life-long love affair with nature while I’m nurturing my body at the same time.
You were asking about the impact of walking on my writing. I deliberately take the first of my twice-daily walks at lunchtime, midway through my working day. It’s a way to recharge my mental batteries, just as they’re starting to lose their charge. And often when I’m out for my walk, a solution to a writing-related problem will pop into my head. (“Wait a minute: Chapter 4 should actually be Chapter 1!”) It’s pretty magical, how that works.
How do you feel about fitness as a key element in self-care?
It’s a huge deal for me. My younger self would be amazed to know that I grew up to be an adult who is an active living evangelist. I hated gym class when I was a kid. Like really hated it….
Being physically active on a regular basis has also given me some newfound body confidence. I’m willing to try new things that I simply wouldn’t have been willing to try before I became physically active. Two years ago, I bought myself a kayak and now I love kayaking. Younger me would have been convinced I wasn’t athletic or coordinated enough to go kayaking. Midlife me knows better!
You are writing a book about women at mid-life and the founders of this blog, Sam & Tracy, have written a book called ‘Fit at Mid-Life.’ I’m interested to know if fitness came up in your research as an important element for women at mid-life. If so, could you tell me a bit about that?
It definitely came up a lot—and a lot of these conversations were about guilt: the guilt women felt for not being able to be as physically active as they wanted to be. Midlife is crunch time for a lot of women—a time of life when they’re asked to juggle an impossible number of responsibilities and to live up to sky-high expectations of what it means to be living well at midlife. Sometimes important things fall off their to do lists, simply because there isn’t enough of them to go around. That isn’t something that they should be feeling guilty about. It’s something our culture should be feeling guilty about—for asking so much of women that they don’t always have the capacity to take good care of themselves.
As a parenting author, did you find that fitness was a concern for the parents you interviewed or who sought your advice? If so, could you share a bit about that, too?
This definitely came up in the research for my most recent parenting book, Happy Parents, Happy Kids. Once again, there was a lot of guilt as well as frustration with the very real barriers that can prevent parents from exercising as often as they’d like, and for some parents more than others. For example, if you don’t live in a safe and walkable neighbourhood, being active can be a huge challenge. Ditto if you’re a single parent who doesn’t have anyone else available to give you a break so that you can go for a walk by yourself. (Sure, you can walk with a child, but research shows that exercising with kids doesn’t necessarily reap the same fitness benefits as exercising on your own, as anyone who has ever tried to go for a walk with a toddler can attest. You’ll get to see a lot of dandelions, but you might not get a very robust workout.)
But back to the guilt—both guilt for not being able to take time for yourself so you can exercise and guilt for actually taking that time.
I think the best way to deal with that guilt is to simply ask yourself, “What’s reasonable and sustainable for me right now?” and to look for a way to start with something. It doesn’t have to be a big commitment. It doesn’t have to happen every day. And maybe you can mentally frame it a way that actually feels good: as a nice thing you’re doing for yourself as opposed to yet another obligation to add to an already too long to do list. (“I get to go for a 10-minute walk around the block” as opposed to “I have to….”)
The name of this blog is Fit is a Feminist Issue. Does the connection between feminism and fitness resonate with you? If so, how?
Yes, and on so many levels! First of all, in terms of body love and self-acceptance. Being physically active on a regular basis has allowed me to feel good about my body in ways that I didn’t even think were possible, given the toxic cultural messages women are given about their bodies. A lot of the women I’ve interviewed for my book have been quite explicit about the need to break up with the patriarchy—how that is a path to liberation for them, both personally and politically—and I couldn’t agree more. Gender roles as prescribed by our patriarchal culture make it more challenging for women to find the time or to have the other resources necessary to take good care of themselves. And, of course, those challenges are intersectional, with some women being impacted so much more than others. My rage about these issues intensifies as I grow older. I just want things to be better, and not just for women like me (a cis, heterosexual, white middle class woman). I want things to be better for all women. Because we deserve nothing less.
Is there anything you would like to talk about that arose from other questions but that I didn’t directly ask about?
I guess I’d just add a quick note about self-compassion. There’s a lot of research to show that women who treat themselves with self-compassion are more likely to recover from an exercise setback (for example, an injury, a family emergency, or something else that disrupts their plans to be physically active). Instead of beating themselves up for having to put their workouts on hold, they simply treat themselves with the same kindness as they would show to a friend who was facing a similar challenge. Instead of feeling like giving up, they feel like they can re-engage with their exercise goal. Learning about self-compassion was life-changing for me, which is why I’m always talking about it.
I have been receiving the Action for Happiness newsletter for years. I usually read it at the beginning of the month, glance at the included calendar, and occasionally I refer back to it a few times over the following weeks.
Here’s the ‘Self-Care September’ calendar:
This month, though, something made me give it a closer look and I finally noticed that Action for Happiness is on Instagram and that they have an app.
And even though I usually avoid letting apps send me notifications, I impulsively agreed to let them interrupt me. And I am really glad I did.
I am now on my third day of being bossed around by this app and I LOVE it.
It’s such a cool thing to get a reminder of one simple way to be kinder to myself today (I mean, that’s my kind (ha!) of thing anyway but it’s fun to get a prompt that I didn’t come up with.)
For example, here’s yesterday’s prompt:
When I got that on Thursday morning, I actually took a moment to think about the fact that I’m good at remembering everyone’s schedule and that I was happy with the drawing I had made the night before. Without the prompt, I still would have known those things but I probably wouldn’t have taken the moment to consider them and I would have missed out on that feeling of satisfaction.
I’m looking forward to a whole month of being bossed into moments of happiness.
I think it will be really good for my brain and that has to be good for the rest of me too, right?
I’ve done Nia lots of times since and I’m still a pretty goofy dancer but I have a grand time thanks to the atmosphere that Elaine creates.
Since I trust Elaine to ease me into new things to be gloriously awful at, last week, I checked out her drop-in class for a program called Ageless Grace.
I had no idea how hard it is to draw a circle with your left pinkie while drawing a triangle with your right big toe.
And how relaxing it is to pretend to be pulling taffy, in all directions, in time to some music.
And I wasn’t alone in this fun. My Mom, my sister Denise, and 27 other people joined Elaine and grinned, laughed, and sang our way through a series of exercises designed to encourage neuroplasticity and fitness.
And while I can’t exactly judge if it did those things for us, I can definitely tell you that it encouraged fun.
The target demographic for the class is seniors but it’s useful for anyone who is interested in challenging their brain. (My almost-48-year-old-ADHD-brain loved it.)*
All of the exercises are designed to be done in a chair so the participants can focus on the movements instead of worrying about falls.
Denise and I stood for the whole thing because we both have body quirks that are exacerbated by sitting. It was tricky but trying to keep our balance while doing dexterity/mind-body exercises meant we got to laugh at ourselves a little more than everyone else. (Pretty sure our Mom got in an extra snicker or two at our expense, too.)
So, the long and the short of it, is that I am just as gloriously awful at the Ageless Grace exercises as I am at Nia dancing. And I had just as much fun making mistakes**the whole time.