fitness

Guilt-free heart health for women

By MarthaFitat55

February is Heart Month and there are lots of messages across multiple platforms on how to be heart healthy. In the past two decades, we’ve seen a lot of attention being paid to heart health and its links to obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol.

The messages fall into three camps: what to eat, how to exercise, and why it all matters. There are multiple diets focusing on optimal cardiac health, an almost equally dizzying array of guidelines on exercise, and tonnes of research on the risks and genetic factors present in 21-century populations.

In more recent years, there’s been significant work looking at women and heart health. We are often misdiagnosed, we don’t get the right treatments, and we are less likely to have the better outcomes. In its landmark report in 2018,  aptly named Ms. Understood, the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation said the following:

  • Heart disease is the leading cause of premature death for women in Canada (dying before reaching their expected lifespan).
  • Early heart attack signs were missed in 78% of women.
  • Every 20 minutes a woman in Canada dies from heart disease.
  • Five times as many women die from heart disease as breast cancer.
  • Two-thirds of heart disease clinical research focuses on men.
  • Women who have a heart attack are more likely to die or suffer a second heart attack compared to men.

Why this matters became even more critical this year when the the Foundation released a new piece of research demonstrating the link between heart disease and increased rates of dementia. The report (found here as a PDF) says its research “mapped the connections between heart, brain and mind diseases and conditions for the first time and found even stronger links and a much greater impact than anticipated. People managing these conditions are overwhelmed and the system is overloaded. This is a crisis and it is not sustainable. We need to find solutions now.”

So we know what’s happening, and we know what we are supposed to do. But are we actually doing the work we need to prevent and reduce the risks? Well, there is another piece of research, this time at the University of Alberta, which challenges some of our assumptions on the messages we use in promoting heart health.  Says one of the co authors, Tami Oliphant: “Women are told they need to exercise more, they need to lose weight, they need to be social and all these heart-healthy activities, but we found that these messages made the women feel guilty, like they had caused their heart disease,”

We know we should reduce the stress we feel, but hey, women deal with a lot of stress. Reducing it isn’t necessarily an easy option. Many of us can’t afford some of the more common stress reducers recommended to women. And then there is the social pressures women face in keeping family and community together, let alone taking time for themselves.

While I am a big fan of the concept behind putting my own mask on first so I can help others, it’s a bit of a juggle and for some, a bit of a fight. Not being able to meet those recommended guidelines can pile on guilt which leads to more stress, etc etc etc.

The research at the U of A suggests we tailor our health messages to the needs of different audiences. That means creating different messages for women compared to men.The symptoms for heart attack in women are different, so the messages building awareness have to differentiate between male and female experiences of cardiac disease to be effective.

It also means letting women know what the alternatives can be for reducing risk. As one of the researchers noted, if you hate running and you can’t find something else in the “sports” field to get your 150 minutes of cardio in a week, what else is there? Ordinary activity for one. Vacuuming is a form of activity and while it may not help you run marathons, it does keep you moving.

The most positive aspect of this focus on women’s experience of heart disease is the empowerment of women. For quite a long time, we have not had control of many aspecs of our health, especially reproductive health. Researcher Oliphant said: “Women’s bodies are perceived as problematic, post-menopausal, whereas when you’re treating men for heart disease it’s about efficiency and getting them back up to speed. So women are diagnosed later, they delay treatment, they can be disbelieved and sometimes they’re even discouraged from seeing a health-care practitioner.”

There is some work on understanding the experience different groups of women will have with heart disease. What else can we be doing to support heart health in women beyond the healthy weight, be active, live smoke-free messages?

 

 

Image: A red heart on a square yellow sheet of paper clothespinned to a strong and hanging on a white wall.

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash
addiction · advertising · alcohol · fitness · food · inclusiveness · Martha's Musings

Canada’s New Food Guide

By MarthaFitat55

Health Canada released its long awaited update to its food guide this week and the response has been swift. Overall I quite like it, and I wrote about it here in my bi-weekly column. The old food guide was prescriptive (eat something from these four food groups and here’s how much). The new food guide is much more aspirational and as I wrote, it reflects diversity in food choice and food culture.

I thought I would pull together a bunch of responses to the guide in this post. The Globe and Mail has several pieces I liked, with the first from one from Andre Picard, the Globe’s health reporter, in which he looks at food insecurity and the food guide’s recommendations. Leslie Beck, the Globe’s dietitian commentator, offers up her thanks for Health Canada’s building a guide on science while Ann Hui also of the Globe and Mail, provides a good overview of the key changes here.

Cassandra Lszklarski from the Canadian Press focuses on the guide’s position on alcohol. Health Canada has stepped away from recommending milk as the preferred beverage and tells us to drink more water. At the same time, it is also came out strongly against alcohol consumption (non drinkers shouldn’t start for example). Previous guides highlighted the sugar and calories in alcohol, but this version talks about the links between alcohol and obesity, cancer, and addiction.

Yoni Freedhoff looks at the implications for institutional change. On Weighty Matters, Freedhoff’s blog, he wrote how the new food guide is a radical departure from previous more modest iterations:

“Whether it was consequent to past criticisms, or the insulation of the revision process from the food industry, or a change in leadership, or some combination of those and more factors, the 2019 Food Guide is incredibly different from all of its predecessors. Gone is dairy as its own food group (that doesn’t mean the guide is recommending against dairy consumption), gone is wishy-washy language that excused refined grains, gone are explicit recommendations to consume 2 glasses of milk and 2-3 tablespoons of vegetable oils daily, gone is overarching fat-phobia, gone is juice being a fruit and vegetable equivalent, gone is the notion that sugar-sweetened milk is a health food, and gone is an antiquated nutrient-focused approach.”

Freedhoff also talks about what to do next, now that the food guide is out without its dependence on food-based marketing recommendations. In this post, he looks at what needs to change for good healthy food policy to happen. Freedhoff describes them as hills but they include removal of fast food from schools, a national school food policy, a ban on food marketing to children, implementation of a soda tax, removal of front of package claims, and an overhaul of supplement regulation.

The food insecurity issue is one that I will be looking at in the future, but in the meantime, I am excited by the new food guide and what it means for reflecting diversity and health on my plate.

What do you think? How important has the food guide been in managing your nutritional needs? What do you like or dislike about Health Canada’s guide?

— Martha Muzychka is a writer living in St. John’s who swims, lifts and walks as much as she can.

fitness · gear · Martha's Musings · Tools

Tools to help ease cranky muscles

By MarthaFitat55

I love a good massage for my muscles bothered by cranky hip joints and uncompliant vertebrae. But I needed to find some useful and affordable alternatives that would provide some relief in between appointments and training sessions.

In the last five years, I have collected and learned how to use some pretty nifty tools and I thought I would talk about how I use them and some possible options for cheaper alternatives.

When I first experienced problems with my back, my massage therapist recommended a theraband, which looked like a giant plastic sash. I usually wrap my hands around each end then flip it over my head to stretch out my back. You can also use it to strengthen arms. Put one end under your foot on the floor and then wrap it around your hand, tuck your elbow into your body and raise your hand to your shoulder or mid-chest.

The advantage of the theraband is that it can also fold up pretty small so it’s the size of a small wallet. That makes it very handy for toting on travels. I often see them at Winners (or TJ Maxx for our American readers) for cheap. A yoga belt can also work well, although I find for the back stretches, there isn’t the same give as what you get with the Theraband. If you think of it during spring time, one of those springy bubblegum pink skipping ropes will work as well and they have that flex you need.

When my hip joint decided to get all fussy on me, I had some pretty miserable muscle cramps. What gave relief was a rolling pin. I had an extra one that I didn’t use but if you don’t have a pin, a sturdy long-necked bottle from wine or vinegar will do as well. I just rolled my calf muscles whenever they felt twitchy.

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The Tigertail, a portable massage stick

If you have some ready cash, you can buy something similar called a tigertail. The company that makes them calls them a portable massage stick. It comes with a small index-card sized guide with nifty exercises and you can travel with it pretty easily. It’s thinner and longer than a rolling pin so you can get in more hard to reach places. There are different types with smooth rollers or bumpy ones. I prefer the smooth roller but you may find the ridged one better for your needs.

I travel for my work a fair bit so I started putting together a small kit I could pack. Along with the Theraband, I added a couple of portable handwarmers, my travel size tube of Voltaren, a topical pain relief gel, and a lacrosse ball. You can use a tennis ball but that’s squishier than a lacrosse ball. This bright orange-coloured ball, which is also about the same size as an orange, is very firm. As such, it does a good job getting rid of muscle knots. You can also relax your feet by rolling it with the ball of your foot, and you can also have fun trying to pick it up with your toes.

Most recently, I have acquired a Swiss ball and a textured foam roller. I borrowed the ball from my trainer after she showed me some exercises I could do at home to provide some relief for tension in my lower back. I loved it so much I ordered one for myself. They cost around $15 so not really a huge cost. They are slightly bigger than a softball and they are my new favourite way to use a wall or a floor to work out the knots. I usually put the ball just above the glute muscles and then shimmy back and forth against the wall. I will be honest: it’s not the most pleasant sensation when you start. However, about an hour after you stop, you will notice you can move so much more easily.

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A round black ball and a bright turquoise tube rest on the floor with a pillow.

I haven’t had great relationships with foam rollers. I find it hard to balance on them for leg work, hence my preference for the tigertail or the swiss ball. If you are super flexible, you can sit on it and roll back and forth. I am not so I tend to use it right now just for my upperback.

I spend a lot of time sitting or standing over my laptop. This leads to hunched and very knotty shoulders. I put my foam roller on the floor and then I lie down on it so that it’s about three to four inches below the base of my neck. I roll back and forth gently and it really works out the kinks.

I lucked into my bright blue textured roller at Winners on deep discount. It’s also hollow inside, so if I wanted to take it with me on my travels, I could use the hollow space for my shoes or slippers, or a hoodie. But you can do similar exercises with the Swiss ball if you only want to invest and own one thing.

To keep the tools where I can see them (and thus remember to use them), I have a bascket in which I corral the works. As I like to learn and try new things, feel free to share in the comments what nifty gadgets you have found or used that can also work in a pinch for a massage.

 

fitness · Martha's Musings · planning · swimming · training · weight loss · yoga

Strategic planning for the fit feminist

By MarthaFitat55

I work as a strategic planner as well as a communications strategist and trainer/facilitator. In the last few years, I have jotted down a series of goals as an informal strategic plan for myself. This year I decided to take a couple of days to be more structured about how I plan as I want to achieve some specific things by 2020. (As a side note, there isn’t anything really special about that date for me lifewise, but I like round numbers and that one appeals to me.)

I have five categories in my plan: work, home, family, relationships, and fitness. This isn’t a priority listing. My plan is a series of circles, and these overlap and separate over time.

When I first began working on fitness as a goal to get me to 55, it was pretty simple: I wanted to show up. Five years later, I still show up, but I have refined my approach somewhat. In past years, I have added learning how to do pull ups, how to get up from and get down to the floor, and increasing the weight on the bar for deadlifts, squats and bench. I also wanted to mix things up so I added swimming and yoga to the mix. The past six months have been busier than I expected with work and family commitments, and more times than I liked, fitness fell by the wayside.

Thus the need for a more focused approach, because I know when my life gets busy, the time I set for fitness can get chewed up by other Imporant Things.

I decided to apply the questions I use when I help organizations develop their own strategic plans. I ask three questions to get started: why do you want to do this? what will you achieve? and how will you make it happen? I then ask two supplementary questions: when will this happen and where?

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Image shows a spiral-bound, lined notebook with a fountain pen resting on a blank page. Photo credit: Aaron Burden, Unsplash

My why is pretty clear: I want to be healthy and active for a long time. My what is also pretty straightforward: I want to be fit and active. The how is also known: I like weightlifting, I enjoy the flexibility of yoga, and swimming gives me a way to connect with my body differently than the weights or mat can offer. I’ll be identifying some key benchmarks in these objectives, because measurement is a way to keep me focused and accountable.

My biggest challenge is the “when” as there are many demands on my time. The drafting of a strategic life planning document gives me the opportunity to make certain promises to myself and those promises are getting plugged into my calendar so I have away to be accountable.

Over the coming months I’m going to track how my plan is working. What are you thinking about doing in 2019 to keep you on track with your fitness goals?

aging · fit at mid-life · fitness · Martha's Musings · menopause · walking · weight lifting

Menopause, memory and fitness

By MarthaFitAt55

 

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Picture shows a paved highway shrouded in fog. Photo credit: Katie Moum on Unsplash

Last week SamB shared an interesting article from the New York Times discussing the brain fog of menopause. I was mightily relieved to read the article. Like the subject of the article, I once enjoyed a wonderful memory, and in recent times, I was dismayed to discover it had left me.

 

To learn there is a link between brain fog and menopause offers me hope. Over the past five years I have been actively working on improving my fitness. I have found yoga to be quite useful in helping me loosen up my ligaments. I have found swimming to be excellent at working my hip joints. My trainer creates programs that are diverse, work different parts, and are usually fun to do.

The challenge has been remembering how the strength exercises work. Despite the fact I have been doing a hip abductor stretch for five years, I never remember which arm goes up with which knee. Or she’ll say let’s do (insert name of exercise I’ve done multiple times) and all I remember is “blah, blah arms” or “blah, blah glutes.” What I do with the arms or my glutes is a mystery and I wait expectantly for my trainer to fill in my all too frequent blanks.

For awhile there, I was feeling quite stupid about not being able to remember an exercise from one week to another. Or I could remember someting I learned more than two decades earlier, but couldn’t recall a simple piece of information several hours after learning it.

Brain fog, or more properly termed “menopause-related cognitive impairment,” in women is disconcerting. We are responsible for many things: appointments, processes at home and at work, information, data. When you are used to being able to manage all the little bits in life without much effort, it can become worrisome when you lose that facility.

Luckily severe cases of brain fog can be managed with a short course of hormone therapy. However, if that’s not suitable, here something that can help: more exercise!

According to a report published last spring by Harvard Health, regular exercise can rewire your brain and help improve your cognitive skills and your recall. Plus regular exercise can help you sleep better, which also helps maintain your cognitive abilities and keep your mood elevated.

The good news is that cardio exerise really helps; the bad news is that strength training does not. However that doesn’t mean you need to ditch the weights. Variety in exercise offers you benefits in different areas and you don’t get bored doing the same thing over and over.

Right now I’m going to keep focused on my workout plan, I am not going to stress myself out over the need for repetition in instruction, and I will add in a couple of extra walks to keep the blood flowing to my brain as well as my feet. I will also celebrate the small wins like remembring when it is my turn to post!

— Martha is a powerlifter who lives and writes in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador.

 

 

 

 

fitness

Food rudeness during the holidays

By MarthaFitAt55

I came across a hashtag on Instagram while seeking holiday baking inspiration. It annoyed me no end, and it also made me sad. Titled #MakeEveryoneElseFat, the photos feature treats of various kinds.

I don’t understand the hashtag. I don’t make treats to undermine anyone’s diet. I bake treats at Christmas because I enjoy it and I want people to enjoy a simple pleasure during the holidays.

This year I want to say to people I am not the food police. Eat or don’t eat. I do not need to know why you don’t want to partake in dessert or any other food for that matter, unless you are at risk of an unpleasant, life threatening allergic response.

I’m sure people feel they are being polite when they want to explain it’s not you, it’s them. But as I taught my child, just say “thank you, I’m full,” or “I’ve had plenty, thanks” or “I don’t really care for X but I will try Y.”

No one will give you a medal if you resist the call of the cookie, and no one will judge you if you don’t. At least not in my house. All I want is for you to have a good time, to chill, and not feel any guilt about anything.

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diets · eating · fitness · food · holiday fitness · holidays · Martha's Musings · nutrition · season transitions

T’is the season to detox yourself from cleanses, diets and weird wellness claims

By MarthaFitat55

It’s not even December 1 and I have been seeing a non-stop stream of ads, posts and recommended links on all manner of cleanses. Some are short, some are long, some are liquid, and some are minimal. All are useless.

Timothey Caulfield at the University of Alberta debunks the latest holiday cleanses in this article. Caulfield writes:

The idea that we need to cleanse and detoxify our bodies seems to have become a culturally accepted fact. This feels especially true around the holidays which are associated with heavy foods and even heavier shame about what that turkey and gravy and wine might be doing to our insides. After a weekend of indulgence, wellness gurus cry, your body is begging for a detox. But is it?

 While there is something to be said for countering a week (or two) of indulgence with lighter fare, unless you were born liver-less or you lost your liver along the way, the human body has its own detox system right inside you: the aforementioned liver and kidneys.

 There’s a huge market out there and if you build it, make it, sell it, they will come. The promises are endless but the long and short of it is simple: today’s cleanses and detox programs are primarily designed to relieve you of your money.

The sellers of these cleanses rely on fear and vanity, and also on society’s preoccupation on thinness. The messages are often wrapped upin social beliefs about health and wellness.

 We empower people to take charge of their health, especially women who are often responsible for managing their well being along with those of their families. Who wants to be known as someone who does not care about their health? Not me.

While the social imperative to diet, to cleanse, to eat clean is present year-round, there seems to be special pressure in December to do any number of things to ensure we have the perfect body.

 All the ads I have seen lead me to believe that we must cleanse the body the same way we cleanse our homes for special occasions this time of year. In January, when the new year has begun and we barely have had time to vacuum the pine needles and expunge the last piece of glitter from our homes, we get a different chorus but still with the same tune.

I suggest, if we are to cleanse anything, it is these sorts of unhelpful and unhealthy approaches to wellness.

So if you are confused and challenged by all that you see, remember this: everything in moderation. Your body will do what it needs to do. Fuel it appropriately.  Move lots (preferably outside if it isn’t blowing a gale). Get lots of sleep. Drink lots of water. Have fun.

MarthaFitat55 lives and writes in St. John’s.