fitness

The Year of Tiny Pleasures

A friend has a daily goal of 15 minutes of movement, so I thought she might enjoy tracking her efforts as part of the Facebook group 222 workouts in 2022. She wrote back that she didn’t think it would be a good fit because people who do 10k hikes and own Peloton bikes would not be interested in her 15 minutes of stretching or struggles with a 20 minute dance routine of warmups and isolation exercises.

My response to her original post this was to share this cartoon, and the comments below it.

Sam also shared this cartoon, but it is too good not to use again.

“If you read all the posts, there are plenty who are doing 30 minutes of yoga (I am doing that series and it is a lot of just sitting and breathing). But many of them won’t finish the 30 day series. I know I didn’t finish until about May last year. Late last year there were a lot of “I took my elderly dog for a slow shuffle” posts, and through most of the year many of us posted #slmsmph (stupid little walk for my stupid mental and physical health). The thing is, it doesn’t matter what you do, except to you. The rest of us are just there to be cheerleaders. There are weight training, indoor cycling and gymnastics workout posts that are irrelevant to my interests and abilities. But I like to look at the pictures, especially when people go outside to do a walk or bike ride. Having it pop up in my feed every day helps me remember I want to move, even if it is just to walk to the park and back (takes me about 20 minutes).”

She wasn’t convinced, but that’s okay. The year of tiny pleasures is also about doing what works for you.

My tiny pleasures right now are all things that don’t require me to leave the house because it is too cold. I am focusing on my on-line ballet classes, with some yoga offered by a work colleague, and the occasional gentle movement class with a local studio. I have abandoned that 30 day yoga challenge already.

As soon as it gets a little warmer, I look forward to getting outside with friends. A short walk with some duck watching, as I did with my buddy April recently, was a joyous hour of connecting with someone I haven’t seen in too long. That shared time was more precious than the thing we did (though 5km on a frosty day was nothing to sneeze at).

Diane in a brown furry coat and red hat, with April in a black coat, green hat and black balaclava

I am holding these two images close to my heart for 2022. The first reminds me that not every fitness activity needs to be exciting or a big challenge. The second reminds me that the best part about being active that I get to spend time with friends.

2022 isn’t shaping up to be a great year on the global scale, but I intend to make it as pleasurable as possible at my tiny scale. I will make opportunities to connect in person for walks or outdoor swims. I will continue to draw inspiration from my virtual friends at 222 workouts. And I will garden (good workout, good for the planet, good way to spend time with friends and neighbours). Mostly I will grow food, but I will also plant some flowers.

fitness

Winter Swimming and Risk in COVID Times

It is winter swimming time again, and I’m thinking about the rules. Sometimes they seem silly and arbitrary.

Sometimes they actually might be wise, depending on distance to populated areas or water conditions.

Back when the pandemic first started, my friends and I did a lot of debating about whether we should continue to swim outdoors. Pools were closed, of course, but it was too early in the season for lifeguarded beaches (not that we swim there anyway).

How far did we need to stand or swim apart to prevent transmission? Would we put an unreasonable burden on the health care system if someone got into trouble? Were we setting a bad example for inexperienced swimmers who might try to copy what we were doing? Most importantly, were we being really honest about our biases, and assessing the risks to ourselves and others accurately?

Eventually, we found solutions we were comfortable with, and continued to swim through 2020 and 2021. Open water swimming and cold water dipping experienced a huge surge in interest during that period.

This surge did push some communities to block off access to local water holes. The fenced-off area above was blocked this week, shortly after we dipped in water that wasn’t even waist deep. The ice was several inches thick and someone had needed considerable force to break it.

Diane wearing a silly hat and bathing suit, with an ice-covered pond in the background.

With the resurgence of COVID, I am once again rethinking whether and how I can swim or dip safely. Although my friends and I model safe behaviour, provide advice and some have even offered video seminars, I keep reading about people wanting to dip or swim by walking over ice to get in the water. This is dangerous.

The ice can cut you and you won’t even feel it; you could fall through a thin spot; you could have difficulties getting back out of the water; you could slip under the ice if the water is deep enough and there is a current.

Breaking holes in the ice can be dangerous for others, too. Dogs, skiers, walkers and snowmobilers also go on the ice. They could easily go through an unmarked, partly frozen swimming hole. If there is no open water you can reach easily and safely, consider joining the folks who enjoy winter sports.

The Memphramagog Winter Swimming Society’s event is still scheduled to go ahead in late February, and several of my friends are planning to attend, if the borders are open. That means they need to practice. So for now, I will keep going into the water, even though if feels really really cold since we can’t go as often as we would like. Last week, it was all we could do to swim ten strokes.

Diane in her silly shark hat and a big smile because she isn’t in the water yet. Aimee, in the background, is standing in the water and is looking very cold.

But maybe not. With COVID numbers rising, I am increasingly uncomfortable sharing a car. We are all vaccinated and boosted and we can wear masks or drive separately, but the open water is an hour’s drive away. That’s a lot for five or ten minutes in the water.

What about you? How are the latest COVID numbers affecting your risk tolerance for fitness activities?

Diane Harper lives and swims in Ottawa. She is looking forward to strapping on her skates or skis over the next few weeks.

fitness

On balancing and juggling, making space and setting goals

Christine’s post from yesterday hit me at just the right time. My son and his girlfriend had just left after a week-long visit. During that visit, I did little except cook or sit on the couch and knit while chatting. My vacation is officially over, but I have two statutory holidays before returning to work. There have been multiple discussions about setting goals and how to achieve them. A favourite app for tracking walks disappeared when I upgraded my phone recently and I haven’t decided what to replace it with, if anything. Today was very much a “between time” and I started working on what comes next.

I have mixed feelings about New Year’s resolutions but I enjoy setting goals and tracking them. I will definitely be in on 222 workouts in 2022. I did well on that this year, and gave myself permission to count the movements that were little more than mental health breaks to get myself out of the house. Learning to acknowledge success in smaller chunks was huge for me, because I sometimes allow myself to be overwhelmed by big challenges.

The loss of my Walking to Mordor app made me sad, but it really wasn’t much more than a distance listing with excerpts from The Lord of the Rings trilogy to mark stops along the way. I had gotten about 1/4 of the way (somewhere over 700 km), so this year’s goal will be to re-read the books, and go on social walks or to do errands as often as possible (ideally at least once a week, but I may choose to cycle instead). I am not going to bother with another tracking app beyond what is already on my phone, or to push myself to do anything as physically demanding as the women in this picture.

The legs of three women in black leggings and brightly coloured sneakers walking up a rocky path. Photo by Greg Rosenke on Unsplash

I am resolutely refusing to set any sort of goal around riding, as Miss Fancy and I have not been getting along well lately. She resists being caught, and it has been so long since I have ridden that I worry my technique is what is making her cranky. I don’t want to set myself up for something I will hate doing. My daughter bought me a couple of lessons for Christmas, so maybe that will help once I schedule them for March or April.

Circling back to Christine’s original post about making space, I have decided to read one magazine a week. I have a weakness for magazines that pile up beside my bed. If I read one each week, that gives me quiet time and (eventually) a little physical space. It’s not quite meditation, but it will do.

Part of the large stack of elderly magazines I plan to read this year as my form of meditation.

It is not in my nature to stay in the reflective mood of this “between time”. Even as I wrote this piece, I found myself considering what I could more or differently, despite having spent much of the last year trying to accept that I am getting older, I can say no to things I no longer enjoy, and I don’t have to say yes to every new idea or challenge. Thank you Christine for having spent an entire month encouraging me to make space for myself. I didn’t try a single one of your exercises or quick meditations. In fact, I didn’t think I needed that space. I was wrong – I just needed to figure out what it meant for me. I am going to hang onto that reflective feeling for as long as possible, and give myself a gold star for my efforts.

Hand holding a gold star.
Photo by Hikarinoshita Hikari on Unsplash

Diane Harper lives in Ottawa, where she is slowly learning that balance is more important than juggling all the things.

fitness

Healthy Diets for a Healthy Planet

The Guardian recently ran an article titled “Men’s meat-heavy diets cause 40% more climate emissions than women’s, study finds” so of course I had to go down the research rabbit hole. Two main articles were cited.

One was a relatively small study examining “Variations in greenhouse gas emissions of individual diets: Associations between the greenhouse gas emissions and nutrient intake in the United Kingdom” and it found that that in the 212 participants who tracked their food intake for 1-3 days, the diets of men were associated with 41% higher greenhouse gas emissions, as they reported eating eat more meat and drinking more alcohol. It also noted that non-vegetarian diets produced 59% more greenhouse gases than vegetarian diets, and that vegetarians also had lower emissions associated with eating confectionary and baked goods, reflecting healthier diets more generally. There were no differences in emissions based on age or on body size. The study didn’t consider the impacts of various diets on water consumption, another important factor in environmental health.

The second study, “The global and regional costs of healthy and sustainable dietary patterns: a modelling study” was even more interesting to me. It used regionally comparable food prices for 150 countries and paired them with a variety of diets from a standard meat-eating diet through to vegan, included estimates of food waste, economic growth, health costs, and climate change costs, to calculate which diet might be best for the planet.

The conclusions were complicated. Generally, vegetarian diets are significantly less expensive in upper-middle-income and wealthy countries, but more expensive in lower-income countries, without other changes. This is partly explained by the need for those in poorer countries to increase their nutritional intake to meet minimum health standards.

However, by reducing food waste, getting more people out of poverty, and counting the diet-related costs of climate change and health care, vegetarians and diets became much more affordable even in the poorest countries. So much for the argument we sometimes hear about how a healthy plant-based diet is too expensive.

Turning back to the original gender-based headline, neither study considered the gendered role of food preparation, usually unpaid labour in most parts of the world. Eating out, packaged, and pre-prepared foods have been major contributors to food waste and environmental degradation, as well as to the ability of women to work outside the home.

My takeaway? I still eat meat, but I try to live by Michael Pollan’s famous adage for healthy eating: eat food, not too much, mostly plants. Since Pollan defines “food” as things that are minimally processed, that means I spend a lot of time growing foods and cooking them. I am fanatic about not wasting anything. Your mileage may vary.

Image: a plate half filled with colourful fruits and vegetables, with small portions of whole grain foods and various animal and vegetables proteins, plus a glass of water. Source: Canada’s Food Guide
fitness

How to tie a pouch

Rosalie was making a pouch recently and I asked her how she worked the strings to fasten it. Here is her answer, which is clear and beautifully illustrated. If you don’t already follow Rosalie, you should. You can also find her on Facebook at Rosalie’s Medieval Woman. And if you have ever been curious about the sex lives of medieval women (and who hasn’t) you may want to buy her book, as well. It was a fun read as well as informative. You can buy it here or at other fine book sellers, in kindle, paperback or audiobook formats.

One of Rosalie’s pouches, with a small inset image of a medieval pouch.
fitness

Donating my Vagina to Science (the Dubious Science of Winter Vagina)

Recently, the Toronto Star published this article on “winter vagina” and the general reaction from other FIFI bloggers was FFS(!). The author had a similar reaction, thankfully. But he did cite other articles about the “condition” so I had to Google.

It turns out lots of journalists think that winter vagina is – if not exactly a thing – an easy way to get published at the expense of some cheap laughs about yet another way to make women feel insecure about their bodies. I will not link to any of those posts because I can’t stand the idea of them making money off such clickbait.

Vaginal dryness is a real thing, but it is not a seasonal issue. The British National Health Service states the menopause, breastfeeding, childbirth, lack of arousal before sex, certain contraceptives and cancer treatments can all cause vaginal dryness. And another expert, Canada’s own Dr. Jen Gunter, points out that vaginas function quite well in all seasons. ‘The vagina maintains a steady temperature because it is inside your body and human body temperature only rises with the outside temperature when someone is suffering from heat stroke.’

Dr. Gunter has an entire hilarious blog post devoted to debunking winter vagina (and another on the related problem of summer vagina). She knows a lot about vaginas and winter: “I’m not a winter vagina expert because I am the Internet’s favorite gynecologist. We Canadian girls just really know how to take care of our snow forts, that’s why our national animal is the beaver.”

So if this is so thoroughly debunked, why do I want to contribute to the winter vagina “science”? For the shopping and swimming, and avoiding my overheated office, of course.

You can buy winter vagina leggings here or a winter vagina backpack here. Both are made by Mounds of Venus, which specializes in nipple and vagina art. Or wool underwear like this:

According to Health.com, underwear like these from Smartwool.ca will help you winterize your vagina because “wool doesn’t hold on to moisture, so it can dry quickly and has a temperature-regulating effect. These panties are perfect for keeping your nether regions toasty warm while wicking away the crotch sweat you produce in your overheated office building.”

Apparently long hot baths are bad for our winter vaginas, but there is no info on what happens with a cold dip. So far my vagina hasn’t suffered any ill effects, but I’ll keep you posted if that changes.

Diane walking into the St. Lawrence River as snow falls, trying to get her vagina ready for a swim.
fitness

400!

Almost two years ago, I joined in the 220 workouts in 2020 challenge that fellow bloggers were doing on Facebook. I liked it because I could set my own rules for what counted as a workout. But it was also a real challenge because I had decided that my usual commute to the office didn’t count, and I was a bit of a weekend warrior except for that daily bike ride or walk.

Because of the COVID lockdowns, even that weekday commute was gone, while my dance studio, the swimming pool, and the stable where I board my horse were all closed. For several months, I had to improvise.

I started to go for walks and ride my bicycle to do errands (they had to be longer than my usual work commute to count). I found that I could sometimes sneak in a quick swim at the nearby pond at lunchtime. I discovered Yoga with Adriene and other Facebook Live or Zoom classes.

By the end of 2020, I had developed enough of a routine that I achieved those 220 workouts. A big part of that was checking in daily to see what everyone else was doing. I liked seeing a little bit of the lives of a diverse group of women – their dogs, watching them take on weightlifting or gymnastics challenges I would never dream of, sympathizing on the days when getting out of the house for a stupid little walk was a big deal.

Grumpy looking bald eagle stomping through the water, on his stupid little walk for his stupid mental and physical health.

In June of this year, Tracy said she was done with counting. Not me. I am a list maker and a tracker of many things. That daily accountability check has encouraged me to take advantage of yoga sessions a colleague offers twice a week, to schedule walks with friends, and to try new activities so that I move almost every day.

Now, after almost two years, the habit has become sufficiently ingrained that I get twitchy if I am inactive for too long. Unlike Tracy, I am not confident I could keep it up without some sort of tracking. If that fitness group were to disappear, I would keep on tracking, even if it is just a list in my phone.

This week, I celebrated completing 400 workouts. They weren’t all great workouts and I don’t think I look more fit. It feels good to have achieved that number. I am stronger, both physically and in my mental ability to keep doing things regularly. My sister says my swimming selfies are boring because I have so many and they are all basically the same. That’s a sign of a successful routine.

Me in a blue swim cap and goggles, with a pond and trees in the background.

Diane Harper lives and swims in Ottawa.

fitness

Can You Be Too Flexible?

Flexibility is something that most athletes aspire to, but until recently I never thought about there being a problem with it. After all, I spend a fair bit of time stretching and trying to increase my mobility; most of my athletic friends do the same.

My daughter, however, struggles with hyper-mobility. According to the Hypermobility Syndromes Association, hypermobility is most common in childhood and adolescence, in females, and Asian and Afro-Caribbean races. It tends to lessen with age. In many people joint hypermobility is of no medical consequence and commonly does not give rise to symptoms. Hypermobility can even be considered an advantage, for example athletes, gymnasts, dancers and musicians might specifically be selected because of their extra range of movement.

That describes my daughter pretty well. She is Asian and aspired to be a dancer. When she was learning to dance en pointe at 12, she took a good year longer than her classmates to master the skill. That was because she needed time to develop foot muscles strong enough to compensate for her loose ligaments.

Young woman with black hair, wearing a black leotard and white tutu, standing en pointe with one leg above her head

Still, that mobility looked pretty cool on stage. She could move effortlessly into the splits, then side splits, them touch the floor with her head from that position.

Now that she is no longer dancing for hours every day, she struggles with joint pain. Despite being very fit by most standards, she needs to do even more exercise to strengthen her muscles since her ligaments don’t do their job properly. So far, the promise of symptoms lessening with age has not materialized, so she will be getting advice from her physiotherapist on a home gym set-up so that she can do weight training in the basement.

While she does that, I will be reflecting on different bodies and how they work. This blog has often commented on the common stereotypes of fat/unhealthy and thin/fit, and how both can lead to poor health outcomes for people. I knew that there are injury risks with almost every sport, and stretching before and after exercise is one way to minimize those risks. Until my daughter started suffering, I had no idea that it was possible to be in pain because your body is naturally so stretchy.

Lesson learned. I’ll add this to my growing list of gender analysis considerations, my list of ways that something can affect different people in different ways – some good, some neutral, and some bad, depending on the individual and their circumstances. It has been a good reminder on the importance of checking my biases, and not making assumptions about anyone else’s health or fitness.

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Fitness Buddies

This week, someone asked for suggestions on keeping motivated to do fitness activities. There plenty of good suggestions about scheduling workouts into your day so they become a priority, finding activities that work for you, setting goals such as competing in a race, etc.

My best hint is to have fitness buddies. Over the years, I have gravitated to activities I can do with friends. As an introvert who is highly susceptible to peer pressure, it’s perfect.

I can get some social time but don’t actually have to be too social; mostly we are doing our own thing, and there is a time limit. Since most of my fitness buddies are extroverts, they are really good at setting up times to meet; I will happily join them whenever possible.

The social aspect is really good for mental health too. I have friends associated with each activity. In most cases, we met at ballet, or a swim club, or at the barn, but many of those friendships go well beyond that specific sport. One example is my ballet buddy who morphed into a walkng buddy, and now we are simply friends (who still do classes and walk and swim together). I don’t have a lot of friends from work, and my family is small, so I really value these social connections.

My newest fitness buddy is also one of my oldest. I took up adult ballet when my daughter was an enthusiastic young dancer. I learned to ride a horse because it was warmer than sitting in an unheated arena during her lessons. We took lessons together until she was in her teens and I bought Fancy for her.

We have shared Fancy for seven years now, which has meant only one of us could ride at a time. Priority went to my daughter, and I got out of the habit of going more than once a week. That got even worse when the pandemic hit and my weekly lessons ended. But now she is riding another horse for a friend, so I have taken to joining her for morning rides. I am really enjoying the time with her. Secretly, I hope she buys Mickey so we can keep riding together.

My daughter in an outdoor arena under a bright blue sky, riding Mickey, a brown horse, with the shadow from my horse and me in the foreground.

Diane Harper lives in Ottawa.

fitness

Thoughts about returning to the pool

Today was my first day back since the lockdown last winter, and only about the fourth since the start of the pandemic. Swimming is a time of contemplation for me, so here is the list of things I was thinking about today.

  1. It’s great to see everyone! I have missed my pool buddies, and I really enjoyed catching up on work and life news as we changed after practice.
  2. I have forgotten how to do this. The flippers, pull buoy and flutter board are all in the cupboard at home. I nearly went into the water wearing my glasses. When do I take off my mask? I completely missed the rest after that set. Again. Oops.
  3. There are so many people! I don’t know them all. Ack! also, I am really bad at introducing myself to new people, and it’s nice to know that the club is at maximum membership. It will help our little non-profit stay afloat financially. Plus it is a welcome option for people who were struggling to find suitable lane swim times at the city pools.
  4. Swimming with four people in a lane is hard. We aren’t all the same speed and I need to figure out how to work with that again. On the plus side, it is way easier to track my distance, even without a swim watch.
  5. My arm hurts. I really should have mentioned that to the coach before starting. On the other hand, taking it easy in the pool means I can swim five strokes or more without breathing – yay!. But I am a worse kicker than ever because I barely use my legs in open water – boo!
  6. It’s really noisy in here. Enclosed space, 20 swimmers, music on the speaker system… I miss the pond or the river, where I rarely hear anything except the wind and in the waves while swimming.
  7. Pachelbel’s Canon is perfect for swimming, at least at my pace today. Air on a G String works pretty well too. I haven’t felt like singing songs in my head in ages. It was pretty sweet.
  8. I forgot to ask E about how the arm she broke last winter has healed. Obviously it’s better since she doesn’t have the cast, but is she back to all the running and so on? Thank goodness there is another practice next week!
Image: an almost empty indoor swimming pool.

Diane Harper lives and swims with the Ottawa Centre Masters in Ottawa.