The big health and fitness headline this past week concerned the release of results of two studies of senior citizen cyclists. For those of us preaching the health benefits of exercise, it was amazing news.
The NYT piece begins by noting that our understanding of aging might be radically mistaken because so few older adults get any exercise at all.
“Exercise among middle-aged and older adults in the Western world is rare. By most estimates, only about 10 percent of people past the age of 65 work out regularly. So, our expectations about what is normal during aging are based on how growing older affects sedentary people.”
Again from the NYT story: “The two sets of scientists then dove into their data and both concluded that older cyclists are not like most of the rest of us. They are healthier. They are, biologically, younger. Their muscles generally retained their size, fiber composition and other markers of good health across the decades, with those riders who covered the most mileage each month displaying the healthiest muscles, whatever their age.”
I’ve had lots of thoughts about these studies and about the good health of these elderly riders.
My first thought was that I’m really happy that I love to ride my bike.
Second thought, should people who don’t like cycling take it up? Should I be urging friends and family whose health I care about to get on their bikes? That’s not so clear. These aren’t studies that took people and assigned them to one of two groups, those who ride a lot and those who sit at home. Instead, it’s a study of those older adults who choose to ride. They’re a special group who chose not to stop riding big distances. Did their good health make their riding possible or did their riding cause their good health? We don’t know which direction the causation goes–maybe it’s a bit of both, a kind of virtuous circle, where one supports the other– but the results are pretty remarkable regardless.
Third thought, this is so not a moderate message. These cyclists were averaging 100 miles a week. That’s a lot of riding. At my best I aim for 5000 km a year. They’re averaging 5200 miles! Further, the benefits depended on dose. The riders who covered the most mileage each month displayed the healthiest muscles. You see them setting out for a 5 1/2 hour ride in the video above. This isn’t like the health messaging that says to go for a walk everyday. These guys are working super hard for hours at a time. They’re riding big distances year round.
Aged just 64, Jim Woods, is a comparative youngster in the group. He averages 100 miles a week on his bike, with more during the summer. He said: “I cycle for a sense of wellbeing and to enjoy our wonderful countryside.”
Fourth thought, we don’t know if this holds true for other forms of exercise. Maybe it’s riding bikes that’s magic and nothing else matters? Seems unlikely. It’s true though that cycling is something you can keep doing as you get older. Lots of older adults move from running to cycling at a certain point.
So lots of questions, but still, remarkable good news. The Fit is a Feminist Issue cyclists–hi Susan, Catherine, Cate, Kim, Nat!–should start planning riding trips for the big birthdays, 60, 70, 80, 90 etc. And maybe we should move somewhere warm for the winters. A fit feminist roving commune with lots and lots of bike riding. I’m in!
But, yay! The new study looked at the experiences of more than three thousand women and found only good news. Here’s this snippet from the Bicycling magazine story.
Two months after the biggest study to date assured men that, contrary to decades of misinformation, cycling won’t kill their erections, women can welcome some good news of their own. The largest study of its kind just reported that cycling had no negative impact on the sexual and urinary function of even the most active women riders. What’s more, women who clocked the highest mileage showed better sexual function than their non-cycling peers.
“Turns out the women who biked more frequently tended to report better experiences in the bedroom. “We found that lifetime miles ridden was associated with better sexual function, as measured by a common, validated questionnaire,” researcher Thomas W. Gaither, a UCSF medical student, said in a press release.
Good news for women who ride.
One question for Bicycling magazine: Why this image? First, not exactly an image of woman who rides her bikes a lot. Second, it looks like she hopped off her bike to pleasure herself in the field. Am I the only person this thought occurred to? (I actually know that’s not true since a Guelph faculty member and friend came up to me in a meeting and said that she hasn’t stopped laughing since she saw the photo with the story. She says she’s going to look at women laying bedside their bikes differently from now on.)
Also, also, the caption: “Women who ride bikes tend to have better experiences riding, well, other things.”
I think really that most of us aspire to eat intuitively, to have an uncomplicated relationship with food. You know the basic ideas, if you’ve been reading this blog for awhile: eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full, no foods are off limits, listen to your body, and follow “gentle” nutrition. I admit it sounds heavenly. Me too. Me too. And I think it’s terrific for people who have a broken relationship with their body’s signals , people who eat what a diet says, when it says, ignoring all the cues our bodies give us. Getting in touch with hunger–which many of us have the privilege to not experience very often–can be super useful.
But I have so many worries about intuitive eating as a social phenomenon.
So I am going to try to sort out my concerns in a numbered list, like philosophers are in the habit of doing.
First, I worry that it’s often a disguised diet where “working” as in “does intuitive eating work for you?” is measured, in part, in terms of your weight. If there were more fat people, at stable weights, not obsessed with diets or food, held up as intuitive eating success stories, I’d be happier.
Second, I worry that it’s connected to another way of judging fat people. You’re supposed to only eat because you’re hungry. Intuitive eating, done right, is supposed to land you at the right weight for your size (see above). Therefore, larger people must be eating for reasons besides hunger. You’re supposed to be vigilant about emotional eating. So often there’s judgments about mental and emotional health of fat people, as if we can read your emotional well-being off the number on the scale. It assumes that if you take care of your mental and emotional health your weight will fix itself. And that you can tell that people–and here pretty much we mean women–are emotionally unstable, because they’re fat. Just no.
I’ve written in defense of food as comfort and emotional eating here.
There are many amazing photos of food on Unsplash. This is a tray of cinnamon buns. Photo by Otto Norin on Unsplash.
Okay, but these two worries are about intuitive eating as a thing, as a social phenomenon, about the way we think about it and talk about it. We could stop all that. We could hold up some fat people as successful intuitive eaters. We could stop assuming that fat people aren’t eating for hunger. We could do it right.
Third, I have worries about the actual practice of intuitive eating. I worry that hunger is not exactly the most reliable bodily signal in town. My own experiences in this area are pretty wild and they have to do with thyroid levels. I’ve had thyroid cancer and as a result take a synthetic version of thyroid hormones called synthroid. There’s a lot of juggling in getting your thyroid levels right. Lots of things can throw it off and the thing I notice is the most is how this affects hunger. I can go from raging hunger all day, like waking up during the night hungry, to not caring at all about food. It’s really striking.
The study involved 50 overweight or obese adults, with a BMI of between 27 and 40, and an average weight of 95kg, who enrolled in a 10-week weight loss program using a very low energy diet. Levels of appetite-regulating hormones were measured at baseline, at the end of the program and one year after initial weight loss.
Results showed that following initial weight loss of about 13 kgs, the levels of hormones that influence hunger changed in a way which would be expected to increase appetite. These changes were sustained for at least one year. Participants regained around 5kgs during the one-year period of study.
Professor Joseph Proietto from the University of Melbourne and Austin Health said the study revealed the important roles that hormones play in regulating body weight, making dietary and behavioral change less likely to work in the long-term.
“Our study has provided clues as to why obese people who have lost weight often relapse. The relapse has a strong physiological basis and is not simply the result of the voluntary resumption of old habits,” he said.”
Why does it matter? What’s this got to do with intuitive eating? My worry here is that intuitive eating assumes that our bodies are right about various things, that the signals they send us are correct. But if the formerly obese person eats when hungry, they’ll be eating a lot more often than is consistent with maintaining their weight. Still thinking about this? Want more information? Here’s two articles from Precision Nutrition that do a pretty good job of explaining the hormones that regulate hunger: Leptin, ghrelin, and weight loss and Weight loss & hunger hormones. It’s pretty complicated.
If your hunger cues are reliable, great. If you’re not a formerly obese person or someone who struggles getting their thyroid levels right, enjoy! But recognize that as a privilege and don’t assume that it will work for others.
Fourth, I worry about intuitive eating in an environment where some foods are designed to make us want them. Sugar + fat? Yum! Read here for how junk food is designed to both create cravings and convince your body that you’re not full and can keep eating more. From the article just cited, “Foods that rapidly vanish or “melt in your mouth” signal to your brain that you’re not eating as much as you actually are. In other words, these foods literally tell your brain that you’re not full, even though you’re eating a lot of calories. The result: you tend to overeat.”
We’re not all alike and if intuitive eating works for you, then great. But what do I mean by work? I don’t mean weight, that’s for sure. I mean if you eat this way are you, on reflection, happy with the food choices you’re making? Are you leading a life you enjoy? Are you meeting your own food goals around nutrition? Do you have energy to do the things you love? When I say it doesn’t work for me, I mean that sometimes I am hungry all of the time. I can be hungry 20 minutes after finishing a meal. Hungry again before bed. Hungry during the night. When I am like that I have to ignore hunger because I know I have eaten enough. At other times I am hardly hungry at all and I can skip meals without noticing. Then I have to make sure I still eat to fuel some of the activities I like, like riding my bike. So as long as this hunger fluctuation is part of my life there’s no strictly intuitive eating for me.
How about you? How well do your hunger cues track the need to eat? Do you listen to your body about what to eat? Are you happy with the choices you make?
This video came across my newsfeed recently. It’s a little girl kid (I’m not sure if they’re a boy or a girl–see the reader’s comment below) attempting and failing a box jump. The ponytail made me think girl. Watch til the end!
What’s striking about it is that their dad doesn’t stop them. Instead, he encourages the child to keep trying? How about you? What would you have done? I confess I fretted a bit. “Don’t hurt yourself!” Does it make a difference to you if it’s a boy or a girl jumping?
And then I got thinking about it in terms of my work on the “play gap” between boys and girls and between men and women.
Canadian kids don’t move a lot. Very few get enough daily movement.
The grim facts are that Canada’s children just got a D- in physical fitness for the third year in a row. Just 9% of Canada’s children between the ages of 9 and 15 meet the recommended guideline of one hour of activity per day. Experts are blaming the dismal showing on the so-called “protection paradox.” Parents try to keep children safe by not allowing them to move freely between home and school, or engage in active, outdoor play, but as a result our children are leading increasingly sedentary lives. See here.
But of course it’s not just that kids don’t get enough movement. It’s also the case that girls move less than boys. More on that in another post. I promise!
If the protection paradox is indeed part of the story about kids’ increasingly sedentary lives, we might wonder if the protection offered is gendered.
Do we stop girls but not boys from risky physical behavior? I bet we do. I’m still thinking about this and welcome your thoughts and ideas.
The study showed that midday sleepers had a 5% lower average 24-hour ambulatory systolic blood pressure compared to patients who did not nap at midday. Even though this might seem like a minor difference, the lead researcher Dr Manolis Kallistratos said at the conference that even this small decrease “can reduce the risk of cardiovascular events by up to 10%.” So a tiny drop is still of great significance.
Even better for the siesta snoozers, the study showed that a longer sleep was associated with a higher drop in blood pressure. One hour was found to be the time needed for the best results.
Kallistratos noted that there were a few limitations in the study that would be worth addressing for future research in the field. For starters, the study was only observational. It has to be assumed that it is the midday nap that is producing the positive effects in the patients, and not some other uncontrolled variable. Kallistratos is confident that this is the case since the blood pressure drop pattern seen at midday is similar to the drop people experience when they sleep at night.
The second is that the hypertension symptoms in the study participants were very well controlled, but that might not be the case for everyone. So in future it could be worthwhile including participants whose hypertension was not so well-controlled, as Kallistratos thinks they could experience an even more significant blood pressure drop with a daytime doze.
It must also be noted that a nap is superior to just resting. Kallistratos commented that the biggest drop in blood pressure kicked in just before the REM phase, which suggests actual sleep is required to lower blood pressure to the levels observed.
“Μidday sleep is a habit that nowadays is almost a privilege due to a nine to five working culture and intense daily routine,” said Kallistratos. However, given the potential benefits, making time for a midday nap might be an idea to sleep on.
I’ve been blogging about napping for while. My first post about it was five years ago. It was long enough ago that my hair is still brown (!) and the dog I’m napping with is my dearly departed Olivia (miss you so much!), not Cheddar.
But I’m also interested, as a philosopher who writes about children, in our cultural ideas about children and food. I’m interested in our romantic ideas of children as “natural eaters,” on the one hand, and as out of control eaters, wantons, on the other. Think Cookie Monster! We project a lot of our ideas about childhood onto child aged eaters.
In the context of food and dieting, our fear of childhood obesity makes us want to control childhood eating because of this idea children have no willpower and at the same time there’s this popular parenting idea that if we left children alone to graze, they’d make nutritious choices and never eat too much. Both ideas, I argued, in the talk I gave at Vermont are mistaken.
As usual the truth is somewhere in between. As is often the case popular views about children aren’t really about children. They’re about adult preoccupations and fears that we project onto children. We either idealize them or make them int our worst fears. Nowhere are contemporary parenting debates more fraught than in arguments about what and when to feed children. My kids mostly missed the great juice box wars but I don’t envy today’s parents.
Children aren’t that different from adults. It’s not that we corrupt them and that they start out as natural intuitive eaters. Children prefer sugar, fat, salt when given healthy and unhealthy choices to choose from, and will not choose healthy foods automatically. Given healthy food choices they are pretty good at moderating amounts.
Many people swear by Ellyn Satler’s moderate advice to parents which involves a division of responsibility between parents and children. Parents are responsible for choosing what foods to offer and children choose how much and whether to eat.
On her view, the parents are responsible for providing regular (healthy) meals and snacks, cooking and preparing the food for young children, serving it to children, and making the family eating experience pleasant. Children are responsible for deciding WHAT they want to eat on their plates, HOW MUCH they eat, and WHETHER THEY EAT at all.
My worst time as a parent worrying about food was when I had one child who was significantly underweight and another who was significantly overweight. I actually had a family doctor suggest that I prepare the kids different meals. You know, skim milk for one kid and whole milk for the other. He even suggested that I send the overweight child to bed early and offer the underweight child cookies and ice cream while watching videos. I looked at him asked, do you even have children?
Instead, I continued (mostly) preparing family meals and letting the kids choose what they ate. In their teens one pursued ballet and modern dance, the other rugby and football. You can guess which one did which. Today, in their early twenties they are both of normal weight though at the opposite end of the range. But even if one did end up “too thin” and one “too fat,” I hope I’d have the peace of mind and commonsense to recognize that bodies come in lots of different shapes and sizes. They’re my children after all.
I want to tell my friends with young children to relax. Children aren’t perfectly pure creatures that you need to worry about spoiling but neither are they monsters who you have to control.
Are you a parent of young children? What’s your approach to feeding children? Do you worry about their food choices?
One thing I am learning about this job is that I am “on” a lot more. I need 8 hours sleep a night to do it well. Usually I get that much on the weekend and then manage 6-7 hours a night during the week. It’s not enough.
These days I arrive at work to a fully scheduled day. There are no breaks unless a meeting ends early or if I arrive somewhere before the “travel time” between meetings allotted in my schedule is over.
There are two challenges: One is being with people all day. I say I’m a well disguised introvert. But this schedule taxes my disguise. The other is the issue of finding time to prepare for meetings or do the follow up after.
So easy, right? Get enough sleep.
Part of the problem is that I am not yet living in Guelph 7 days a week. Instead, my weekends are spent helping the family with house renos and packing up all the London stuff to get the house ready to go on the market. There’s driving between cities and they’re busy weekends with lots of physical work in them for everyone. I arrive back in Guelph late, late Sunday night and get up early Monday morning, not exactly ready for my busy weeks.
I’m going to commit to a weekday 10 pm bedtime for awhile since my weekend catch-up plan is no longer working.
Yawn! Hoping to avoid being like this kitten in meetings today.