Feminist reflections on fitness, sport, and health
Author: Tracy I
Writer, feminist, vegan, runner, philosopher, yogi, knitter, co-founder of Fit Is a Feminist Issue, co-author of Fit at Mid-Life: A Feminist Fitness Journey (Greystone Books, 2018). Current project: a work-in-progress book on imperfect veganism.
I’m pretty late to the Yoga with Adriene party. After years of hearing about her from lots of different friends, I finally checked out her YouTube channel, replete with hundreds if not more practices of various lengths and various themes and focuses. January 2019 was the first time I did one of her 30-day “yoga journeys,” where she posts new content every day for thirty days. I loved it and am a convert. What a great way to start the year. I have found that the commitment really keeps me grounded in January. Adriene’s attitude is always welcoming and makes me feel good even on not great days. And both times I’ve done it I have found the final session, towards which the month builds, to be an emotionally powerful experience.
Yesterday (January 2) was Day One of the 2022 version: MOVE. It isn’t too late to jump in. If you’d like to do so, you can sign up here. The videos all stream on YouTube, so they are really easy to access.
And if you’d like to see the schedule, here you go!
I started today and I loved the “HERE” practice for Day One. If you decide to join this year, I wish you all the best with it.
Here are the rest of our words of the year, some with a little context about why we chose them.
In 2021 my word was “mindfulness” and it helped me stay aware and present. For 2022 I have chosen the word “focus” because despite aiming for mindfulness, I have been feeling scattered, distracted, and overextended. I think “focus” will help me feel more grounded in one thing at a time and more aware of when I am taking on too many things that distract me from the things I would like to focus on. I am not an effective multi-tasker, and the idea of making a conscious effort to focus makes me feel lighter already. It will also remind me to take out my camera more often, since photography is one of the things that gives me joy.
My word is “better”. Not in the sense of improving my skills, or doing longer or more frequent workouts, though I would be happy if those things also happened. I struggle with inertia and decision paralysis when there is no crisis or element of “new, shiny” to focus on. This year I want to focus on remembering that doing something is better than doing nothing. And then do something, even if it is just for a few minutes.
My word is “blossom”.In the year when I turn 50, I would like to encourage myself to blossom not settle or become stagnant. Whether it’s improving my speed when running or trying new strength exercises or finding things in my career that inspire a sense of blossoming.
My word for the year is ‘integrity.’ I’m not sure that’s exactly what I want though. I was torn between that and ‘authenticity.’ I do know that in a world that’s increasingly turbulent I feel the need to anchor in my own values and centre my way of being in the world. It’s the idea of being ‘rooted’ in the things that matter. Obviously I’m still thinking about the exact word but ‘integrity’ works for now.
My WOTY for 2021 was awake. And I have been. Awake to where I am in the moment, fretting slightly less over possible futures and past events. It’s been work, staying awake. But I’m here. For 2022, my WOTY is creativity. I’m looking forward to exploring the less analytical parts of myself, especially through writing, but also through movement. What does creativity in movement look like? I don’t know yet. I believe it will include more dancing, wild swimming, nature exploring on foot and bike, taking time out from my usual goal-oriented self. Stay tuned…
I took a beginners soccer clinic a few years ago. To introduce our first passing exercise, the coach asked us, “Do you know what is the first thing you do when you receive the ball?” I was expecting him to give an answer about footwork mechanics, but instead he said, “You smile. Because you have possession, and that’s why you are here. To play, be part of the game, and have fun. So no matter what, when you first touch the ball, smile.”It can be challenging to start or continue with new activities when you aren’t really good at them or feel you could be better. So in the new year, as I continue to explore new sports and exercises, instead of thinking negatively and being hard on myself I will instead remember to smile.
I made a vision board this year and hadn’t settled on a word per se as I was still letting things bubble. When I looked at the images, they reflected creative pursuits, physical adventures, risk taking, and embracing change. I realized all of these things were about space: My word is space: Taking space, making space, holding space. I’m taking space back for things that matter. I’m making space to grow, to reclaim and to explore. I’m holding space for me — to see where I want to go in this next decade.
My word for 2021 was consistency and that worked pretty well. I wasn’t necessarily consistent in that I always did things every day or over and over in the way I had originally intended, but I did achieve a sense of consistency overall. I was quicker to come back to the things that I intended to do, they didn’t just drift away until I was reminded of them again. And I’ve also put a lot of systems in place to support consistency and make things easier for me overall.For 2022, my theme is spaciousness. After writing a month of blog posts about making space, I have a richer sense of the sort of space I need in my life on a day-to-day basis. The fact that this knowledge is coming at the same time as my best level of medication yet and at the same time that I have finished homeschooling my youngest child seems fortuitous. Because of a combination of ADHD and personality I have felt rushed and out of control of my time for a lot of my life. I’ve done a lot of work in the last few years to unpack that feeling and figure out which aspects I can change and which ones I have to accept or reframe.Seeking spaciousness for the next year will help me to continue that work and create space in my mind, in my projects, in my home, and in my schedule.
Last year was “rest” and it really helped me relax into what I could and couldn’t do in 2021. But like a muscle that has been retracted or coiled up I’m choosing 2022 to “stretch” my body, my talents and my ways of thinking. All that rest and inward focus has put me in a rut and I need to stretch out into new spaces and places to grow.
I’m a big fan of intuitive eating and try to practice it in my daily life. I have blogged about it often, making commitments and recommitments to it over the life of the blog. It’s an approach to eating, championed by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, originally in the book Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach, first published in 1995 and now in its fourth edition. They also have a great website that outlines the main principles of this approach and provides basic information about it through a blog, links to the books, and an active online community that people can join.
I had to smile when Sam sent me this “intuitive eater’s holiday bill of rights,” by Evelyn Tribole, self-described as “The Original Intuitive Eating Pro.” The festive season is upon us, and with it many holiday events with food, glorious food, as a focal point. I for one love the seasonal favourites, from sugar cookies to Christmas cakes jammed with dried fruits, nuts, and bursting with flavour. I love vegan cheese boards and special hors d’oeuvres that no one much takes the time to make at other times of year. And I’m a big fan of cozying up with a mug of hot cider made extra yummy with cinnamon and cloves.
Last year most of us had many fewer gatherings, if we gathered at all (I didn’t). So we have the added bonus this year of being in a COVID lull (I won’t say we’re on the other side of COVID quite yet because I don’t want to tempt the heavens) that enables us to gather with friends and family, not just in homes, but also at restaurants.
So…there will be food and people. And where these two come together, so do the mixed messages, the pronouncements from people about how “they really shouldn’t,” the pressure to eat this once-a-year thing that [insert rarely seen member of the family] made just for you because you’ve loved it since you were a kid, a table abundant with choice and more than you can possible comfortably eat, and maybe even food police who ask “should you be eating that?” It challenges even the most skilled intuitive eaters among us. The Bill of Rights will come in handy.
You have the right to savour your meal without cajoling or judgment, without discussion of calories eaten or the amount of exercise needed to burn off said calories.
This, like all the items on the Bill of Rights, would seem to go without saying. After all, we are adults. And adults get to choose their food, their portions, and the speed with which they eat it. If I want to savour a thing, I savour it. That is the whole point of festive foods! To be enjoyed. Enjoy!
2. You have the right to enjoy second servings without an apology.
No worries there in my family. We are big on second servings at family dinners all year round and I’m thankful for that. As an intuitive eater, knowing that a second portion awaits if I want it translates into taking a moderate first portion that allows me to check in with how I’m feeling and making an informed decision about whether I want more and what I want more of.
3. You have the right to honor your fullness, even if that means saying “no thank you” to dessert or a second helping of food.
You know that feeling of having had enough (or too much) and not having room for dessert. When the food is as delicious as it is this time of year, that can happen. Sometimes we deal with this in my family by making a group decision to have dessert later, when we are likely to enjoy it more because we have space. But regardless of what others are doing, I know that’s always an option for me. And though it is sometimes are to put off for later what everyone else is enjoying right now, it is really hard to truly enjoy, savour, and taste something when I’m already at 9/10 or 10/10 or 11/10 on the “fullness scale.” I would rather disappoint a “food pusher” (thankfully I don’t have any in my immediate family or circle) than stuff myself beyond what is comfortable.
4. It is not your responsibility to make someone happy by overeating, even if it took hours to prepare a special holiday dish.
We are all adults here. Food is a lot of people’s “love language,” but that doesn’t mean we have to eat when we don’t feel like it.
5. You have the right to say “no thank you,” without an explanation, when offered more food.
I see a recurring theme here — “no thank you” is good enough. Indeed, given how many people explain their “no thank you” by food-shaming themselves or moralizing their decision or literally talking about their weight or their diet, I wish more people would say “no thank you” without an explanation.
6. You have the right to stick to your original answer of “no” even if you are asked multiple times. Just repeat “No, thank you, really.”
Really! Usually I meant it the first time and I do not appreciate being cajoled.
7. You have the right to eat pumpkin pie for breakfast.
Or whenever. Or whatever.
What I like about this is that it dispels some myths about intuitive eating, which is that if we release ourselves from the “diet mentality food rules” we will eat all the time, and always be reaching for desserts. That hasn’t been the case for me, and it’s not the way it goes for most people who find that intuitive eating works for them (it’s not for everyone, and Sam has blogged about some of its shortcomings). It’s as much about knowing when to say “no,” based on what you feel like eating and your own inner fullness meter, as it is about knowing when to say “yes,” also based on what you feel like eating and your own inner fullness meter.
Another issue that comes up for me during the holidays, also related to intuitive eating, is that eating isn’t an act of defiance. If I approach the holiday spread with an “I’ll show you!” attitude, I am once again being motivated by external forces rather than internal guidance. Chances are, I will eat more than I want and will not pay any attention to what I actually feel like doing. I may also shame others who are holding back, not respecting their decisions (again, when others get into the calorie/diet/food moralizing explanations for their own choices it’s hard, but I try not to engage).
Since embracing intuitive eating, I approach the holidays with confidence, eager anticipation, and sincere gratitude for the privilege of abundance in my life — not just food, but also friends and family and opportunities to gather. But that doesn’t mean some of these situations aren’t fraught. The Intuitive Eating Bill of Rights is a great set of principles for navigating some of that fraught-ness.
I bought an Apple Watch right before the last major lockdown started back in February (or was it March? The entire pandemic has become a big blur). I loved it so much and wrote about the way it motivated me again here. Closing the rings was an actual motivator that didn’t feel oppressive to me. There was something about it that felt more like a carrot than a stick. I never felt shamed by the watch for not closing the rings and always felt sort of encouraged.
We have all had our struggles with gadgets and trackers. Elan wrote about her tracker ring just the other day. Overall, I think I have done better with the watch than I would have without it. That is, I have gotten in a bit more activity than I otherwise would. But whereas I used to feel almost fully positive about it, the honeymoon is definitely over. What happened to that beautiful time when the watch seemed like my new best friend, all supportive and helpful?
Well, a few things, mostly having to do with not giving credit where credit is due. Back at the beginning, my Apple Watch used to sense when we were outside walking and ask me if I wanted it to start tracking our walk as an activity. Somewhere along the way it stopped doing that.
A friend with an Apple Watch was visiting me a couple of weeks ago and her watch always asked her if she was going for an outside walk. So at the end of a day of being out and about together, she’d tracked many minutes of activity just “by the by,” whereas I only tracked the minutes that I consciously and explicitly asked my watch to track.
But lest you think that my Apple Watch gives me credit for every walking minute I ask it to, I can assure you that it does not. I will routinely walk to work, which takes anywhere from 45-50 minutes. Despite tracking a 50-minute outdoor walk, the Apple Watch will “log” only 28 minutes of “activity.” My daily activity goal is 45 minutes. Granted, I will hit that 45 on my way home, since having walked to work I need to walk home again. But still. Back to this same friend — we would track the same walk and her watch would give her full credit, whereas mine would discount my walking minutes.
My watch is similarly stingy with the “move” tracking. Again with my friend, we were moving exactly the same amount at the same pace. And yet her watch would credit her a way larger percentage of move points (it’s actually measured in calories burned) for the exact same activity than mine would credit me.
And finally, there are the mysterious Stand points. That is, the watch tracks the number of hours in a day you stand for at least one minute. This is a good one for those of us with sedentary jobs. I do not resent the little reminder at ten minutes to the hour if I haven’t stood. What I do resent are the times I get that reminder when I am already standing or when I have stood quite a bit during the previous 50 minutes. Really, the watch doesn’t track “standing.” It tracks standing and moving.
I don’t doubt that standing and moving is superior to standing in some overall health sense. But it can be frustrating to be reminded to stand when it seems as if you have been standing a good portion of the preceding hour already. And then to have to stand up and march in place or do the floss or something (I actually do that a lot!) can sometimes be awkward (I did the floss outside during a break from my graduate seminar the other day to get my “stand” credit and my students were amused).
And then there was the time when my watch stopped giving me the fireworks animation when I closed all three rings. That was a dark period that I don’t want to revisit. I mean, the added carrot of the fireworks animation actually gets me going sometimes.
What’s the upshot? I’m still liking the watch. I still wear it every day and check it from time to time. My Intervals Pro running app is still incredibly user-friendly that I cannot believe that I was loathe to switch from my very old Garmin Forerunner for fear that whatever I replaced it with wouldn’t do run intervals as well. There is no comparison. The Apple Watch plus the Intervals Pro app is a fabulous combo.
I have not activated the call to compete with either of my two fitness friends and I never will. I like that we cheer each other on instead of feel like rivals. And one of the fitness friends and I like to send each other the cheesy messages the watch gives as options for when one of us finishes a workout or closes their rings. Things like: “Incredible” or “Rockstar” or “You really know how to hit those pedals” or the more chiding “is that all you’ve got?”
I still find closing the rings motivating, but I am also really comfortable saying out loud to the Watch “I don’t care!” and then going to bed. More likely is that I will throw on a short dance workout to close the deal for the day. I don’t feel that that watch shames me into action. I have to say, I do like the positive messaging. Instead of reminding me of what I failed to accomplish, the watch rewards me for what I have accomplished. There are little monthly challenges, for example, and if you hit them great! If not, there is no rubbing your face in it or anything like that. So it’s a kind of tracking that I don’t experience as oppressive. Does that mean my views about tracking have changed since I compared it to the panopticon? Maybe a little bit but it really depends on the manner in which it motivates. Tracking can still be oppressive if it motivates as a stick not a carrot.
Upshot: the honeymoon is over but I’m still satisfied with my relationship with the Apple Watch even though it occasionally lets me down.
I started running just before Sam and I launched the blog about nine years ago. I figure over that time I’ve had to reboot my running at least once or twice a year (more so lately), so even though 17 is kind of arbitrary, it’s probably about right. This time I called my former running coach, Linda, to see if she’d be willing to train me again.
We made a plan to meet up and go for a walk and chat, but by the time that happened I had already decided I wasn’t ready to commit to working with a coach again. For one thing, I really don’t have goals other than the goal of getting out the door three times a week. It seems kind of extravagant to work with a trainer if that’s my only goal.
But we met a couple of days ago in the park, on a beautiful afternoon, and had a wonderful catch-up. The pandemic has been long and relentless for everyone, and both of us (and we are not alone in this of course) experienced a shrinking of our social world. So it felt good to connect, and to hear about the changes of late as each of us has emerged into something like what life used to be like. Except where running is concerned. I said, “you probably have never had a time where your running fell to the side.” But she has, and like me she’s trying to get a rhythm going again.
Instead of deciding to work with her as a coach, which was more than either of us really felt like doing, we made a mutual decision to sign up for an online training challenge that starts on November 1 and continues to the end of December, and includes training plans and five virtual 5Ks for $49. I’m not naming the program here because, to my dismay, when I visited the website I noticed that one of the slogans is “gain fitness, not pounds.” Ugh ugh ugh. That almost made me bail, but I’m hoping that the training plans will not have weight “issues” woven into their narrative much, if at all. I hope very much that the messaging of that slogan is anomalous. I guess we’ll see.
I’ve already blogged about how virtual races don’t really grab me. But I do like the idea of having someone lay out a series of training plans for me from November 1 to the end of December, and I can let my motivation be what it is (which is to get myself back into a rhythm with my running).
Leading up to the pandemic I was just coming out of a long injury (my achilles) that took me out of my regular training for about a year. Because that injury, I stopped running with my group. Then, by the time I had built back up to some regular training, the combination of the early days of the pandemic (when we didn’t know a whole lot about COVID and I was still nervous about running close to other people) and my regression during my injury kept me running alone. Running alone means you’re not really accountable to anyone — I confess that it has been harder and harder to get myself out the door. By this summer, I was down to a couple of times a week, and lately I’m lucky if I get out for one run a week. That’s almost worse than not going at all because it’s not enough to develop any kind of conditioning.
Hence my desire and need for this reboot. I like that the main distance for this training challenge is 5K because it seems likely that if I can get a running habit going that fixes on 5K, I am more likely to carve out the time to do it. I will check in about it again in about a month, once I’m three weeks into the challenge. And Linda and I are going to check in with each other from time to time too, each of us reporting to the other how it’s going.
If you have any suggestions for how to lift yourself out of a slump and reboot your running routine, please share!
Last week Sam tagged me on something I wish I didn’t have to know because it was so incredibly disappointing. It’s a site called Ontariobad.ca and it’s a place where businesses who intend not to follow the province’s COVID restrictions proudly announce their intention under the misguided banner “Businesses against Discrimination.”
I call the banner misguided because discrimination goes against someone’s human rights, and requiring proof of vaccination does not. This is an important point because who could not be on the side of “businesses against discrimination”? But if they are confused about what constitutes “discrimination,” well that’s a whole separate issue.
Because so many people who I like and thought were smart and reasonable have turned out during the pandemic to have views that have shocked me, I have tried to see “the other side.” But Zoe Whittal’s tweet really resonates:
So back to my yoga studio. I missed hot yoga terribly during the various lockdowns and restrictions. Before the pandemic I had spent $1000 on a one-year unlimited pass that I didn’t get to use because of lockdowns. Not wanting to leave the studio with a financial hit when I had the privilege of continuing to work and be paid, I didn’t ask for a suspension or any sort of compensation. The year came and went. The pass expired.
I was ready to go back to the studio in late-August after an 18-month absence. I bought a ten-class pass to start, not sure how it would feel. After ten classes I felt ready to commit to a monthly membership (instead of shelling out all at once for another annual pass) that had an initial contractual commitment for four months.
Not quite a month into my commitment, government regulations to quell the spread of the delta variant kicked in, requiring fitness facilities and various other businesses to ask for proof of vaccination. My studio refused. And advertised their refusal on the OntarioBAD website.
Zoe Wittal’s tweet resonates because let’s remember what we are trying to prevent here: not just death from COVID (which seems not to be motivation enough for some) but the collapse of the health care system. Alberta is on the brink of that right now, where ICUs are dominated by unvaccinated COVID patients. COVID doesn’t eliminate other emergencies. So if you need an ICU bed for another reason, you may be out of luck. You may be sent to another province (if they can accommodate). You may die or worsen before you can receive adequate care.
When people frame this as an issue of freedom, choice, and discrimination, they are ignoring the provision in the first clause of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms where it says that the rights and freedoms are guaranteed “subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” Have the people who make the freedom and discrimination argument ever looked at the Charter? That “reasonable limits” part is key. That’s why we can have laws that limit people’s exposure to second-hand smoke. That’s why we can have speed limits. That’s why we can limit people’s freedom to do other things that harm others, like murder, assault, and stealing. These things don’t infringe on our rights because they are reasonable limits that can be demonstrably justified.
And such is the case with COVID restrictions that are “demonstrably justified” by the current science. Is it perfect? No. Does it change? Yes. But is it more or less on track and getting better all the time? Yes.
Remember at the beginning of the pandemic when they said wearing a mask was doing your part to protect others? Vaccines are similar (and when we see who is filling the ICUs right now we can see it also protects the vaccinated). So when a yoga studio, which purports to care about health and “wellness” flouts the legal provisions which are in place, based on the current science, to limit outbreaks that could result in death and the collapse of the health care system, they are terribly misguided. They are putting their clientele at risk. And they are not doing their part as citizens.
My studio took this position without any communication whatsoever with its members. They simply stayed silent, offering no statement about how they would handle the proof of vaccination legislation one way or the other. I learned of their stance when someone outside of the community sent me a link to OntarioBAD. This too does a huge disservice to the members, not allowing them to make an informed decision about supporting a business that will now attract unvaccinated people who have fewer places they may frequent at present. This in turn increases risk of exposure to the highly contagious Delta variant.
My studio agreed to release me from my contract. I was very sad to have to go because I have been part of the community for over a decade. I don’t wish them ill and I acknowledge that this is not an easy time for fitness outlets. Many have closed their doors permanently. The studio has managed to keep its doors open under difficult circumstances. And that made many people grateful, including me. But at a certain point in these challenging times we need to stand on principle and science or lose integrity.
I don’t know if I will ever be able to go back or if they would have me back.
But my answer to the question “what do you do if your yoga studio breaks the COVID laws with righteous ignorance?” is: Cancel your membership.
So I turned 57 yesterday, and though I didn’t much feel like celebrating (because it’s hardly any sort of milestone birthday), I did. I took the day off and did only things I enjoy, starting with a 6 am workout with Alex and a hot yoga class a little bit later. I had lunch with a friend at my new favourite lunch spot (The Tea Lounge) and we each bought some of the art that was hanging on the restaurant wall. My parents drove in to spend the weekend with me, which is a celebration in itself that makes up for many missed visits during the pandemic. We went out for dinner to a fancy place (fancy at my mother’s request and it was amazing) and my mother baked two cakes for this afternoon. And we are getting take-out tonight (also at my mother’s request: “why should we cook?” she said. Why should we, indeed?!).
Birthdays always make me take stock, reflecting on what the year has brought, where I am “in life,” what’s working and what might need to change.
What has the year brought? The past year has brought a sense of monotony that I have not known before. At times, during pandemic stay-at-home orders, I felt as if I was living one long day. Yes, it was punctuated by sleep and meals, zoom sessions for this and zoom sessions for that, but oh the sameness of it all. Some days it took real effort, I have to say. Thank heavens for the kittens!
And yet, I developed routines, like regular workouts with Cate’s trainer Alex’s virtual training sessions, running, walks (sometimes with a neighbour in my building) and at-home yoga (mostly with Adriene). Despite the joy of being able to get out again, I am resenting having to revise these routines (so I can get out the door to get to work in the morning now that I’m not longer working at home).
The virtual world also opened up some new rituals with friends and family out of town. Movie night on Friday and Monday night dinner (all on Zoom) with my friend and former grad-school housemate Diane who lives in Iowa. Regular family zooms on Sundays with my brothers and parents, everyone joining from a different part of the province. Daily check-ins with my friend Steph, who lives in London but during lockdown (especially through the winter) we couldn’t see each other in person much. Fairly regular Wednesday evening fireside gatherings with a great group of women (even through last winter). Another Sunday call with my friend Manon who lives in Guelph. And periodic check-ins and occasional visits from a few other reliables, including Sam (but I guess we’ve been doing that since she moved away a few years back) and my step-daughter Ashley who lives in Vancouver.
Looking back then, I would say this year brought: monotony, consistency, and a focus on valued relationships.
Where am I “in life”? I think even writing this post indicates that I am in a sort of existential moment. Maybe that’s another thing the pandemic brought. Let’s just say I’m not where I expected to be as I turned 57. I’m on my own again, for the first time in a couple of decades, and not feeling super-motivated to change that. Though I do sometimes miss having a steady companion, I appreciate my solitude more. I’ve got a few more years of career ahead of me before I retire, and am trying to decide whether to ramp up or start winding down. If ramping up (the likely choice), ramping up in which area? Research and teaching? Administration? Still mulling.
Work is not life, of course, so where am I with other things? I’m reading more. Doing less photography. Doing more yoga, less running. Sleeping more, travelling less. More attention to family and close friends, less spreading myself thin across too many commitments.
A consistent theme for me of late, and I think it has come with age, is that I feel less “beholden” to others. I’m at a place in life where I really do feel tired of being so concerned with what others think of my choices. It’s exhausting to wonder whether I “measure up” to some external standard(s) that I may or may not embrace. I’ve had a lot of time through the pandemic to consider what I value. Experiencing more quietude and solitude has brought me in touch with my inner compass, with less of the magnetic pull of noise and busy-ness and the opinions of others to interfere with where it’s pointing me.
That can make me feel strangely and paradoxically untethered sometimes, but radically free and unburdened at other times. That’s where aging has a certain liberatory power. I have wondered at what age will I stop being so motivated by the prospect of approving others. It may be this age: 57.
What’s working? Hey, you might be saying: isn’t this a fitness blog? Well one thing that is working lately is my approach to fitness. And that’s partly because more and more it is guided by what I feel like doing. I realize that some people will say they can’t do fitness that way because they don’t usually feel like doing anything. In fact, I myself have said in the past (2013) that “intuitive fitness” doesn’t work for me. But I came to change my mind about that (2019).
My word of the year, “mindfulness,” is working. I’ve had a lot of time to pay attention and cultivate awareness in ways that make me feel more and more grounded. If I feel “off,” which has happened a lot during the pandemic, my commitment to mindfulness has helped me uncover what is going on with me rather than distract myself from it. Over time, this has been a great practice that always keeps me hopeful.
Doing less, which has been a theme of mine throughout the life of the blog, is definitely working for me these days in the rest of my life. I am not one of those people who idealize the pandemic for the way it made us all hit “pause,” but I have to concede that I like having more unscheduled time, more quiet evenings at home, and fewer social commitments (despite that it sometimes felt monotonous). I plan not to return to the old, overfull schedule.
What needs to change? I’ve had a lot of change over the past three or so years, and I’ve not quite settled yet. I called this post “the liberatory power of aging” because I really feel free to go in whatever direction I want. I’m less beholden to people, as I noted earlier, but that’s partly because I’m at an age where people aren’t expecting anything much. Rather than lament that, to me it’s a source of freedom. What that means to me is that although there are some things (within my power) I would like to change, like more photography, more writing (both scholarly and creative), more meditation, more knitting, and more consistent running, I’m still uncertain where this “transition” is going to land.
And I’m okay with that, and with this rambling blog post that may not be all that interesting but still felt good to write. Happy birthday to me.
Every year at this time I am astonished that we’ve been blogging for x years, where this year x=9! On August 30, 2012, Sam and I each wrote brief little introductory posts about ourselves called “A bit about Tracy” and “A bit about Samantha.” These inaugural posts show our inexperience at blogging — we didn’t even include our photos! Indeed, many of our initial posts didn’t include photos.
I mention the point about photos because the past nine years have been, for us, as much about learning to blog as about doing our feminist fitness thing. We really were trying to find our way both in the fitness challenge and in what we were hoping to achieve with the blog. As some of you may know but many more recent readers will not know, we didn’t set out still to be blogging nine years hence. We set out to become the fittest we’d ever been in our lives by the time we turned 50, and we had two years to figure out what our respective (and unique) challenges would look like. We didn’t think anyone other than friends and family would follow us.
As the blog caught on, we realized we were wrong about that. Friends and family did support our efforts, but our feminist approach to fitness, down-playing weight loss and highlighting performance and even enjoyment (who knew!?), resonated with lots of people we didn’t know. Soon a lively community had sprung up around the blog. Spin-offs like the Facebook page, Instagram, and Twitter got established. Our roster of guest bloggers kept expanding. Then we had some regulars, which has now expanded to an authors’ group that is a community unto itself.
Every year as late August rolls in I reflect on what we have accomplished, both where our fittest by 50 challenge is concerned (there’s a book!) and how the blog itself has blossomed. It’s definitely a team effort these days. That said, people need to know that the real energy behind the blog comes from Sam, whose leadership has kept it thriving even when most of the others of us (myself included) have gone through periods where we’ve had to reduce our commitment or even take a total break for awhile (often to resurface again at some point).
I was going to blog today asking people to think about what they’re proud of. But then I noticed that just a couple of days ago Christine posted a wonderful “Go Team: Find a Win and Celebrate It”. She does that so well that it made me think of the many wins, large and small, that I’ve celebrated through the life of this blog. So many fitness firsts: first 5K, 10K, triathlon, Olympic triathlon, half marathon, around the bay 30K, marathon, bike with clipless pedals, open water swim in a wetsuit, group run, group training in the pool, bike ride with a group, velodrome attempt. I feel good about the wins of pandemic fitness, where it sometimes has felt like an accomplishment just to get out of bed in the morning and make it to a virtual workout.
And I consistently come back to the blog itself and the community around it as a win. Even when I fall to the periphery of the blog team, as I have done in recent years, I count Fit Is a Feminist Issue among the major “wins” in my life and I feel it is worth celebrating every single year. Yay to Fit Is a Feminist Issue on our ninth anniversary, and wishing us many more!
Last year a few of us, myself included, discovered that the pandemic changed the shape of our workout life so much that we hit last year’s 220 workouts in 2020 by early summer. For me, working from home eliminated the everyday movement I had taken for granted before stay-at-home orders and lockdowns were a thing. The pandemic meant that most movement had to be deliberate or not happen at all. For me, anyway, that meant lots more deliberate workouts and a lot less incidental movement. And so by mid-June last year I’d hit 220 and I blogged, “220 in 2020: goal achieved, now what? Hint: Keep going.”
This year I got there about two weeks sooner. And I do plan to keep going with my workout routine. But I’m no longer tracking in the group. For those who aren’t sure what I’m talking about, workout tracking groups like “221 in 2021” are online groups where people share with the group when they’ve worked out, with the annual goal creeping a little upward each year. So in 2018 people aimed for 218 workouts and in 2019 it was 219, last year 220, this year 221. You get the idea. The groups are just the right combination of support and (for some perhaps) competition to motivate people to stick to their workout routines.
For me this change from last year’s attitude to this year’s attitude is really an example of needing different things at different times, and being mindful to consider why I am doing something. What did being a member of the group do for me last year that it’s not doing for me now?
When I posted about meeting the goal last year I said, “the goal of being able to record a new workout often did motivate me to get moving.” I also said that I would continue… “not to accumulate a higher number (though I will, if I keep reporting in the group), but because it’s now a thing I do that is a positive part of my life. And recognizing that, it makes no sense to stop.”
This year, I feel almost the same way, that is, I will continue. It is a positive part of my life.
But I won’t keep counting or posting about it. While posting my “number” helped motivate me last year, this year it just felt tiresome. I have solidly internalized the habit of working out in some way daily, at least once, often more than once. I really don’t do it for anyone but myself. Perhaps that is selfish, in that it’s possible that for some people, seeing others “counting another workout” inspires them to workout too. But I have long been of the view that my workout life is one area where I do it for me and me alone. I’ve also long been of the view that tracking and counting isn’t something I love. It’s fine for a while, but (for me) it’s no way to live.
This could also be part of my more general orientation of late away from social media (FB specifically), where the tracking group was one of the only things that kept me going to FB on a daily basis. Sometimes I ask myself with respect to a thing that has become a habit, “what value is this bringing to my life?” I did this check-in with respect to FB not too long ago and the answer was “not much.” The community feeling that FB has always given me was great when it was a supplement to a full life of regular in-person connection, but its existence in my life as a poor copy for real connection has become clear to me during the pandemic. My real relationships do not take place on Facebook. My real sense of community doesn’t come from clicking into a virtual community. The relationships that give my life meaning these days come from one-on-ones with people who reach out or to whom I reach out. I realize this thought might be more existential than a post about why I don’t want to track my workouts to an online group anymore needs to be, but I’m sure it has contributed.
The long and short of it is that my enthusiasm for counting my workouts and posting them to the group has fizzled. I don’t care if anyone knows what number workout I’m on. And I myself no longer know (or care) what workout number I’m on. And while it’s great to see others feeling good about their activities, I don’t really need to know what number they’re on either. In keeping with my word-of-the-year, mindfulness, I know what I’m doing today. And today I’m working out in some form or other because that’s what I do now.
I understand that being a part of this type of group actually can and does add value for some people at some point in their lives. It can be motivating and supportive. It did so for me for two and a half years. And I know that if I decide that’s what I need again, the group will still be there (I haven’t quit; I’ve just stopped visiting).
Are you a member of a workout counting/check-in group and if so, what does it do for you?
The AARP got in touch with us recently with an awesome video of Quill Kukla talking about the way powerlifting and boxing, both of which they took up in their mid-forties, transformed them. I had the pleasure of connecting with Quill recently to talk about the short video, called “Tiny Teacher Transforms into Badass Boxer.” Before I get to our chat, here’s the video:
Don’t you absolutely love it? Quill has blogged for us before about their boxing career, about discovering that they excel at powerlifting, and also their running. Over the years, their posts reveal a common theme of being amazed at what their body can do and of doing activities that they feel good about. And that’s just the sort of message about movement that we promote, endorse, and celebrate here at Fit Is a Feminist Issue.
Here’s the interview, more or less verbatim with streamlining (but no misrepresenting!):
TI: I know you had some reservations about watching the video. How did you feel when you watched the video and saw yourself doing these amazing things?
Quill: It’s complicated because the pandemic has been a really rough time. I’ve continued training in both boxing and lifting throughout the pandemic. But it’s not the same kind of training that I was able to do or the same level of intensity that I was able to do before the pandemic. And because my background life has become so much more sedentary, even aside from my training I feel as if I’m not in the same fighting shape or competitive shape as I was a year and a half ago, and it’s daunting to think about getting that back, so it’s a little bit bittersweet to see myself at my peak. But at the same time, they did a fantastic job editing it. So I really do look awesome!
TI: You said when you first went to the gym you were “undermotivated.” Why did you feel undermotivated?
Quill: I think there are really two separate reasons. One is that very early in my life I was a serious ballet dancer. That was central to my identity. And when I quit dancing I really just quit the life of the body cold turkey. My way of separating myself from the dancing was just to say “okay, I’m not a person who does physical activity anymore.” I was never in bad shape. I always walked a lot and biked and walked my dog, so I had background fitness, but I wasn’t somebody who had structured exercise as part of my life. So it felt like a part of my identity that I had cut off from myself and put into my past.
But the more interesting reason is that when I first went to the gym I went because I felt like I had a responsibility to “get fit.” Fitness was just the goal. I wasn’t trying to learn any particular skill or get better at any particular activity or take anything as an artistic practice or techné. I was just trying to increase my fitness. And for me that’s a very boring goal. It was an amorphous goal that I resented and it didn’t have any shape for me. And so when I started lifting and boxing and not “trying to get fit” but trying to get good at lifting and good at boxing, then that was my motivation because I loved those activities and the fitness came along for free. Fitness in and of itself is not a good motivator for me. In fact I kind of find it depressing. When you find something that you inherently love. If you happen also to get fit, then fantastic. But you’re doing it because you love that thing.
Ti: You talk about the “empowering thrill” of boxing. Can you say a bit more about that?
Quill: Part of that is literally chemical or hormonal. There’s a jolt of hormones that goes through your body as you punch something full speed [here Quill punched their left fist into their right palm to demonstrate] or as you lift something really heavy and make that max effort. It’s invigorating and good for your brain to feel those hormones coursing through. But also, it does feel empowering. I don’t think of boxing as self-defence at all. If I ever ran into someone in a dark ally who wanted to hurt me and I were to say “okay, punch me between here and here” [gestures to forehead and torso] boxing is not a useful skill in that circumstance. Being able to run away is a much better skill than being able to box.
So it’s not empowering in the sense that I’m going to use it for self-defence. However, it is very empowering to know that my body can take a hit and be fine, and that my body can deliver force if necessary. There is something thrilling in that feeling that my body has force behind it; it is active, not passive. It can impact the world. And moreover, the world can impact me and I’ll be fine. Someone can hit me and I’ll be fine. My body is not fragile.
Plus it’s just really fun punching things [smiles, then laughs, and then tells me they’ll show me how to punch some day].
TI: In the video you express the intention of continuing with powerlifting and boxing for many years to come. How has the pandemic changed affected your training? How (if at all) has it affected how you think about yourself as a powerlifter and boxer?
Quill: At the beginning of the pandemic, when we were in lockdown I couldn’t lift at all for months when gyms were closed. Even at the worst of the pandemic, except for a couple of weeks I have continued my boxing training, meeting people outside. I am back to both now. But taking months off of my lifting at my age was a huge hit to my ability. I lost a lot and even though I have been back lifting for months I’m still not lifting as much as I was before the pandemic. And so part of me wonders if the pandemic just did me in in terms of competition. But I’ll still keep lifting because I like having a strong body.
With respect to boxing, I’m not in the same fighting shape as I was before the pandemic, even though I’ve been training. But that I feel I can get back more easily because I’ve kept my skills up. I do intend to go back to competing in boxing as soon as possible. But my plan is to have a fight in six months or so and to keep going for as long as I can. I’ve watched people fight in their eighties. In fact, I watched a fight between an 88 year-old man and a 91 year-old man — an actual sanctioned amateur fight — and they went through to the end and they were really doing it. And so I have no intention of stopping at any point really [laughs again].
TI: Both powerlifting and boxing are really intimidating prospects for lots of people. What advice would you give to someone who wants to give it a try later in life?
Quill: For lifting–the great thing is the frustrating thing: when you start doing it you make gains unbelievably fast. Your numbers will shoot up really fast in terms of how much you can lift and your body will change almost immediately. There’s almost nothing else you can do where you’ll see such quick changes. The sad part is that that plateaus out fairly quickly. When you start you think “wow I’m lifting 20 more pounds each time I go to the gym! In no time I’ll be lifting thousands of pounds!” Everybody has that feeling. If you can even go once or twice or three times that will be enough that you will see enormous gains. All the intimidation will be gone. So my advice for lifting is “just start.” And it’s one of the absolute best sports for older people to do. There’s nothing blocking older people from excelling at it and it’s also incredibly good for your joints and your bone density. It’s a gift to yourself to do it. Do it a few times and you’ll be amazed at how fast you start getting strong.
Boxing is not like that at all. When you start boxing you’re terrible and it takes a very long time to be anything other than terrible. But people are intimidated by it because their vision of boxing is being in the ring fighting. But there are so many stages between doing nothing and actually fighting. And you can get off and stop at any stage you want.
There’s going to the gym and learning how to punch properly, and punching the bags, working on the bags to get a good workout. Some people just do that forever and that’s what boxing is for them. Past that, you can start doing partner work and partner drills, where you’re not actually fighting with anybody but you’re working with a partner and trading punches. That’s a little more intense than working on the bags, but only one step. So you can do that and stop there. Then some people go from there to sparring, and that’s where you’re actually in real time trying to land punches on a person and avoid getting punched. That’s a whole other level of intense than partner drills, but most of the people who spar never actually fight. And then there’s fighting. So you don’t have to have a vision of yourself as on a trajectory from nothing to fighting. At each stage you can decide if it’s enough for you. That makes it feel less intimidating.
TI: What about just the idea of going into a boxing gym as, in my case, a 56 year-old woman?
Quill: You do have to find the right gym. There are a lot of inclusive wonderful gyms. There are also a lot of toxic crappy gyms. Trial and error could be traumatic, but using word of mouth to find out which gyms are supportive and inclusive is important. But you’d be surprised at how many boxing gyms really are super inclusive and supportive environments.
Boxing tends to be a very intellectual sport that requires a lot of critical thinking, so people who are boxers tend to be very thoughtful. They sort of have to be. Compared to a lot of other sports I find that boxing gyms tend to be very thoughtful spaces. In 2021 most of them have had to think at some point about what it means to welcome older people into the gym, to welcome queer people into the gym, to welcome non-binary people into the gym.
We all learned about boxing gym culture from watching Rocky but the reality of boxing gym culture tends to be pretty different from that. Again, it varies. There are certainly gyms that are nothing but young, toxicly masculine men, but there is a lot of variety, including a lot that have a minority of men as members. It’s a popular sport among women, so most gyms have a lot of women.
Just in the years that I’ve been doing it it’s gone from a male-dominated sport to a not-at-all male-dominated sport. I’ve been boxing with eight women and five men, and I think that’s typical for boxing gyms.
TI: That’s encouraging!Anything else you’d like to add?
Quill: I’m a high-energy, high-emotion, high-intensity person and the difference that boxing made for me in terms of my ability to productively channel and regulate all of that energy and those emotions was absolutely transformative. I’m a calmer person. A lot of people might not realize the mental health benefits as well as the physical health benefits that you can get from doing a sport like this. That might not be true for everyone, but I think it’s not just me.
TI: That’s so great. Thank you!
I’m sure we will hear from Quill again, especially when they get back into the ring. Meanwhile, thanks, Quill! Congratulations on an amazing video. You absolutely do look awesome and fierce. Thanks for the chat and best wishes getting back into fighting form!