Melissa Bruntlett and Chris Bruntlett’s new book Curbing Traffic: The Human Case for Fewer Cars in our Lives is coming out this summer. Curbing Traffic argues for an end to auto-dependency and supremacy, through the lenses of equity, well-being, resilience, and social cohesion.
It’s also part of their case for a low car city that a low car city is a feminist city. It‘s better for our mental health, it fosters social trust, and it enables people of all ages and abilities to travel in an independent, safe and comfortable way.
I first saw the story on Twitter–Nike unveils first hands free trainers that don’t require you to bend down–clicked through and read, “Nike has unveiled its first hands-free shoe, meaning that it can be easily put on and taken off without the assistance of one’s hands. It is one of the first times that the sportswear giant has created a footwear product suitable for people with a range of physical abilities. Although the trainers have been designed with adaptive athletes in mind, and the campaign is being fronted by Paralympian champion fencer Bebe Vio, Nike says the style will also be useful for everyone from students or parents in a rush.”
A friend commented on Facebook, “A great example of how accessibility can benefit everyone. I’m sure so many moms (and dads) would find great help from this!”
I thought about my recent purchase of crocs, one of the virtues of which is the ability to kick them on and off easily for quick runs to the hot tub, or to the curb with our recycling. Bonus: They’re leopard print! Did I mention that?
And then I started read the comments. There was lots of talk about lazy people, and fat people and how the world is ending now that shoe manufactures are pandering to people who don’t want to bend over and tie their own laces. So much judgement.
These look terrific for all sorts of reasons, for all sorts of people. Yes, the elderly and people with disabilities and those carrying babies. But also the busy runner of errands and the teenager who likes to kick off their shoes. You do you.
There’s a very moving ad making the rounds about a grandfather strength training for Christmas so that he can lift his granddaughter up to put a star on top of the tree. I got teary watching it and likely you will too. You’ve been warned.
I love his grit and determination. I also love his smiles.
It’s called Take Care of Yourself and it’s the Doc Morris Christmas Advert for 2020.
I also love its message of functional fitness and strength training as we age for all sorts of very practical reasons.
I share a lot of ‘keep strength training as you age’ motivational material on the blog’s Twitter and Facebook page.
“A small 2013 study of people between the ages of 88 and 96 years old found that those who performed strength-training exercises for two days a week over a 12-week period showed improvements in balance and a lower incidence of falls when compared to those who didn’t exercise. “It’s safe and important for older people to include strength training,” Jackson says. “Even simple bodyweight exercises like squats, push-ups, and dips can help with strength and muscle building.”
Answer, “As people age, they often focus on cardio. They shouldn’t forget strength training.”
I’m not here to criticize the beautiful and moving strength training grandad commercial. Don’t worry. But I do worry that the focus on strength training for independent living buys into the message that physical dependence is a necessarily a bad thing. I hope to put off the time when I need assistance with everyday household tasks and personal care as long as possible. But I also hope when I need help that I and others can accept it without thinking I ought to have done more kettlebell swings or that it was a moral failing of mine to not care enough about my own health and strength.
I worry that our affection for the weightlifting grandfather is connected to a kind of ableism that celebrates movement and blames those who move less, even when we have no choice. In my own case I’ve talked about that in the context of becoming a non-runner and slower walker.
Regular long time readers will know that it’s hard to hold these two thoughts in balance. You’ll know that it’s something I struggle with.
Thought 1 is that older people are encouraged to slow down. It used to be that when people retired we bought them reclining chairs and told them to ‘relax.’ After all, they’d worked hard their whole lives. Not so much now as times are changing but it’s still true that gyms and fitness culture generally are geared towards young, fit, able bodied people. Older women worry they’ll look foolish exercising. If all of our fitness culture is geared towards aesthetics and maintaining beautiful youthful bodies, no wonder older people feel like they don’t belong.
We see this in the ad above when his neighbour looks to be judgemental of his fitness efforts. She seems puzzled about what he’s doing and why.
And yet, there is a huge cost in losing muscle, losing mobility, and increasing our risk of falling if we don’t continue to exercise–including weight training–as we age.
Older people have far more at stake than the young. The young can get away with a lot. They recover quickly if they are injured. And they bounce back from time off fitness efforts pretty speedily too. All of this gets more difficult as we get older. Indeed, if gyms should be there for anyone, it’s for the elderly.
Thought 2 worries that some of our dislike of old age is a tangled mess of ageism and ableism.
The thought here is that we engage in blame about the failure to age successfully when lots of people encounter the kinds of illness and injury in old age that can’t be overcome with kettlebells and powerwalking. In my post about what 74 looks like I talked about my very fit and physically active mother-in-law who used a wheelchair for mobility in the time after her diagnosis with ALS.
See Valuing Old Age Without Leveraging Ableism by Clara W. Berridge and Marty Martinson. They argue that our medical model of “successful aging” without disability sets up the majority of the population, especially women, for failure. Berridge and Martinson write, “Phrases such as “70 is the new 50” reflect a “positive aging” discourse, which suggests that the preferred way of being old is to not be old at all, but rather to maintain some image of middle-age functionality and appearance.”
We want to encourage ourselves to keep moving and to stay strong. At the same time we need respect and compassion for those who can’t move and lift in the same way. It’s a battle I feel personally as I struggle to accept my physical limits without self-blame and still push myself in those areas of physical fitness where I can push. Wish me luck!
I’d appreciate your thoughts about keeping these two thoughts in balance, the push to stay fit and strong and mobile, on the one hand, and the understanding and acceptance when it’s not.
One thing I would say, going back to the video that began this post, is that I wish he wasn’t lifting alone. I wanted a community centre for him to go too. I wanted peers for him to lift with and walk with and drink tea after. We need to do better as fitness communities making inclusive spaces for those who are aging, those who move in different ways, and those for whom both these things are true.
“So give me your poor, your tired, your weak of spine and crumbling of bone. Give me your mushy of muscle and burbly of digestion and bored of treadmill-hamstering.
Give me your old and young and everything between early bipedalism and death. And while you’re at it give me your non-bipedal: your limps and gimps and wimps and wheeled and caned and casted and bandaged. Untangle your sweaty hospital sheets and IV tubes and tentacles of fear and shame and move whatever isn’t strapped down. A finger, a leg, an eyelid. Whatever you can move, keep moving it. Next week, add some weight to that.
Give me your saggy, your baggy, your faggy, your haggy. Give me your freaks and geeks; steers and queers; sportos, motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, preppies, jocks, stoners, poindexters, punkers, rockers, hicks, drama dorks, superstars, homebodies, farmers, New Wavers and socs.
Give me your bodies wracked with life’s whims; your hormonally challenged; your rattling bottles of pills like morbid maracas; your diseases of disuse. Your old knee injury from when you tried drunken trampolining.
Give me your your shit-talkers and funk-walkers; the voices in your head who sing the Rocky training montage; your sniveling inner toddler who stamps and says “No!”. Leave your inner critic at the door, or do five pushups every time you speak to yourself seriously in her voice.
Give me your clueless big-eyed newbies and grizzled gray-prickly veterans. Give me your squashy and scrawny. Give me your chickenshits; you people hunting for your fighting spirit and tending the tiny flame of Yes we can inside your ribcage.
It doesn’t matter who kicked the sand in your face. Spit it out and let’s get to work.”
There’s more…go read it. And I love how it ends, “Wherever you are in your journey of strength, you are welcome here. This place is for you.”
This post brings together two common themes here at Fit is a Feminist Issue.
Theme one is making our way through COVID winter. Winter isn’t easy for some of us at the best of times but this year hiding out indoors until it passes isn’t really an option. You can cozy it up, sure, hygge style, but you might be lonely. Possibly also depressed. Maybe both.
So along with hygge, people are recommending that we adopt the attitude of friluftsliv. Read about the latter concept here.
“Friluftsliv is a word used by Swedes, Danes and Norwegians. It translates literally as ‘fresh-air life’, and is all about embracing the great outdoors whatever the weather, being active, and immersing yourself in nature.
Scandinavians spend time outdoors no matter what season it is. For Kim Lindqvist, a volunteer with the Swedish Outdoor Association, Friluftsliv means “to be outdoors and in the air, and just enjoy it in nature. To listen to the leaves, or watch the clouds”.
Friluftsliv sounds like a good fit for the FIFI blog community. We like to spend time outdoors. We’re active. And we all want to enjoy the company of friends through the pandemic winter.
I completely agree that spending time outside is key to enjoying winter. I’ve been recommending winter biking, here and here. But the thing about friluftsliv is you’ve got to dress for it.
OK, on to the second theme that we talk about lots on the blog. Theme two is about finding gear that fits all bodies, in particular plus sized bodies. It’s not always easy. See our post about finding plus sized cycling and hiking gear.
It’s not a far away problem. It’s an issue for some of the fit feminists who blog here, me included. See Catherine’s post and my post about the challenge of finding winter coats that fit. We’re not even particularly large plus sized people, shopping in the L to XXL range. Also, we’re professors with reasonable salaries so we’ve got the option to buy new. It’s harder still if your income means you’re trying to find discount clothing or used gear.
This matters because of the message we send about which bodies belong outside in the winter. It’s symbolic and meaningful and all that. It’s also practical. Winter (in Canada at least) means we worry about frostbite and getting cold. Spending time outside–even just walking the dog–sometimes requires snow pants, parkas, hats, mitts, scarves, and good boots.
This year, more than ever, we’re all going to have get outside and spend time with friends and family during the winter. My kids are talking about winter camping in backyard so we can all spend Christmas holidays together!
So I was thinking about these themes–getting outside and enjoying Canadian pandemic winter–and the necessity of finding the right gear, when along came these guys Plus Snow.
“What she wants to see is more of the joy that her customers share when they can finally play in the snow with their kids.
Balon said she is looking for people to model the clothes she sells. She currently uses #curvystoke to raise awareness and celebrate people who wear plus sizes playing in the snow.”
What I didn’t expect when I shared the story on our Facebook page was thanks from Mon Balon herself,
“Omgosh you guys!!! Thanks so so much for sharing this article about my business and my launch in North America! It’s not a perfect model (you have to wait about 2 weeks to get your gear) yet but I do have lots of CHOICE and lots of measuring charts and our help and customer service is unparalleled (I think anyway!) Shop Your Shape is our brilliant feature which helps you find the perfect fit if you need it https://plussnow.com/shop-your-shape/“
I also didn’t expect the flurry of readers with their own issues finding plus sized snow gear. There were a lot of comments on that post.
One of the commentators was Richelle Olsen who owns outdoor wear she bought from Plus Snow.
Here’s Richelle modeling her gear.
I asked Richelle if I could share the photos and she said yes.
Here’s what else she had to say:
“I’m in Tasmania, an island off the south coast of Australia. I lead body positive adventure trips for Escaping Your Comfort Zone 2-3 times a year, and each time I go a few days early and just drive and see where I end up. This time I ended up in this prehistoric rainforest called the Tarkine, in the rain, camping amongst giants with no one else around.
I’m wearing the Raiski Fuchu R+ Women’s Longline jacket in size 22. I love it because it’s super long and covers my butt, its slightly stretchy and is reliably waterproof after days of constant rain in Tasmania. It’s from Plus Snow – Plus Sized Snow Gear 💚💚
Fun fact: The Tarkine Wilderness Area is one of the last undisturbed tracts of Gondwanan rainforest in the world, and one of the highest concentrations of Aboriginal archeology in the Southern Hemisphere. This place, which remains largely as it was when dinosaurs roamed the planet, is currently at the mercy of destructive logging and mining. There’s an amazing short film about this called “What if running could save a rainforest?” Featuring a good friend of mine, Nicole Anderson, who is a doctor, ultra runner and passionate rainforest protector”
Are you a plus sized snow loving person? Are you planning to get out this year? Where’d you buy your gear? What counts as essential for the snow loving activities you do?
FWIW, and in case you’re wondering, this is isn’t a promotional post. I didn’t know Richelle or Mon prior to sharing the story on our Facebook page.
They’re still not perfect if you prefer your capitalism with consistency, see here: ‘This is peak 2020’: Multi-billion dollar sportswear company Lululemon is ridiculed for promoting a ‘woke’ class on ‘resisting capitalism’ while selling its signature yoga pants for $128.
But they are lovely leggings and yoga pants and I’m glad they now go up to size 20.
I’ve been enjoying my exchanges with David Isaac on Twitter. Like me, he’s got both the word “philosophy” and the word “cyclist” in his bio. We’re also both interested in the issues facing women cyclists. I’m just on the edge of the cycling advocacy community here in Guelph but David is quite involved in bike advocacy in London, Ontario, the city he calls home.
Here’s our recent chat about women and bike safety.
Hey, welcome to Fit is a Feminist Issue! Maybe we can start by you telling us a bit about your background as a cycling infrastructure advocate and also as a cyclist.
David: I have always been a cyclist – I’ve been riding a bike to work and school for over a decade in Kitchener-Waterloo and London. It’s only in the past few years that I’ve started to get more involved as an advocate. I’m a personal injury lawyer, and in my line of work it’s not uncommon to see cyclists who are hurt in collisions with drivers. As I started looking into why these collisions were so frequent, it became clear that infrastructure played a big role. Where proper bike infrastructure is in place, more people ride bikes, but collisions are less frequent. As I came to understand this better, I started advocating for proper infrastructure. A lot of that advocacy is just on Twitter, but I’ve also given a few talks and interviews about cycling.
What’s the connection, do you think, between good safe cycling infrastructure and the goal of getting more women on bikes?
David: Research shows that where safe cycling infrastructure is built, more women will ride their bikes. “Safe infrastructure” generally means bike lanes that physically separate the cyclist from vehicles – the old joke is that “paint isn’t infrastructure”. It’s important to note that the research does not show that this correlation is due to a sort of evo-psych explanation about women being inherently risk-averse. Each person’s risk tolerance is different, and this of course intersects with race, class, sexual orientation, physical ability, etc.
Léa Ravensbergen, a PhD student at the University of Toronto, has done some excellent research into the differences between what women and men use bikes for. She uses a great term “vélomobilities of care” to describe the ways people meet their and others’ household needs using bicycles – for instance, by taking kids to school or running errands. She notes that because women take on a disproportionate amount of this work, the types of activities women use cycling for are often different for women than for men. So the location of infrastructure matters. If it only serves commuters, but doesn’t connect to a daycare or a grocery store, it will mostly benefit male cyclists. Protected bike lanes are the go-to example of safe infrastructure, but it isn’t the only thing that matters in getting women on bikes. Bike parking that is well-lit and safe is also important.
Cycling has a reputation of being a male-dominated activity, and the discourse around cycling infrastructure suffers from this same problem. This can lead to issues in determining where cycling infrastructure is built. If cities only listen to advice about bike lanes from white men, they will end up building bike lanes that are primarily useful to white men. Viewing infrastructure through a feminist lens means building cycling infrastructure in places that benefit women, and making sure cyclists are protected from gendered violence. Again, it goes without saying that other identities play a large role in this. Bike lanes in wealthy neighbourhoods will only increase cycling among wealthy women.
I’ve heard it said that women are the “indicator species” for safe happy community cycling. Countries with a big number of cyclists also have lots of women out on bikes–commuting, recreationally riding, etc. Why is that, do you think?
David: I think there are probably two main factors at play here. The first is that those countries generally have a large network of bike lanes, which are more likely to connect to places that women are more likely to cycle to. The other is if you are a woman who wants to ride, and there are lots of people riding, it’s easier to find other people to help you get started. Ravensbergen noted that trips that are considered difficult by bike (such as a grocery shop or taking children to school) can be made easier if you have mentorship opportunities to teach you how to make those trips more easily.
Why is safe cycling a feminist issue?
David: People who cycle regularly have significantly improved health outcomes compared to non-cyclists. This applies to both mental and physical health. Cycling can save you money and is better for the environment. Plus, it’s fun! It’s important that these benefits are available to everyone, not just men.
Safe cycling is also key to creating healthier, more interconnected communities. If people live in disconnected places, they can’t access things they need like social connection, fresh food, healthcare, or child care. Safe cycling infrastructure can make cities more equitable.
David Isaac is a personal injury lawyer and cycling advocate in London, Ontario. He specializes in helping pedestrians and cyclists who are injured. He tweets about cycling, law and philosophy at @DIsaac8.
In most ways, this year, the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, has been for me a year of doing less. I’m riding my bike outside now but no big distances. There’s (obviously) no big summer travel. Normally my summers involve academic conference travel, usually in Europe, with vacation tacked on to the beginning or end. Not this year. In 2020 my holidays have been low-key, close to home.
The year of doing less has had one notable exception: Our big Algonquin canoe tripping adventure. I love Algonquin Park. It’s so beautiful and so close to home for me. Yet, in busier years I’ve only had time to go for long weekends. This year is the opportunity to do more.
Since my canoe came into my life in 2015 (thanks Jeff!) what I’ve done are back country canoe trips where you paddle to a place, make camp, stay there for a few days, and paddle around some minus all the gear. Lots of us here at the blog do this kind of adventuring. You can read all the canoe stories here.
Susan has done some longer trips. Sarah too. They’ve done the kind of trips where you start out a place and keep moving to a new campsite each day, eventually ending back up where you started. That’s a new adventure for me.
But I wasn’t sure I could, physically speaking. I was worried about my knee. I was worried about carrying stuff through long portages.
Two things made it possible. First, Sarah’s careful planning (see below). Second, her acquisition last year, when we were talking about hiking and camping, of ultralight weight camping gear. Thanks Sarah!
Here’s what we did:
In our usual fashion where work never seems to end or stop, we worked until the last possible second on Monday, piled everything into the car, zoomed north, and arrived at the park office in a bit of a rush. Friends who know us will laugh at this bit of the story. We even stopped several times on the access road to Lake Magnetawan for the final few bars of cell phone signal.
And then we parked, unloaded the car, and loaded up the canoe.
We paddled through Magnetawan then Hambone, and then made camp on Ralph Bice.
We paddled and portaged our way from Ralph Bice to Little Trout and Queer Lake where we stayed for the night.
This was the first big day, with long portages. 1330 m isn’t that long but it is when you are carrying a lot of stuff! Also, it feels long when there are big hills, ankle deep mud, and narrow paths. But paddling on the Tim River was fun. I got to learn about steering in a downstream current. Less fun was arriving on Shah, our stopping point just as a storm was brewing. We had a bumpy trip across the lake and rejected the first campsite as too grown over. Luckily we got the tarp up fast and stayed dry through dinner.
We paddled from Shah to Misty to Little Misty, where we were the only campsite on the lake.
We paddled from Little Misty to Daisy via the Petawawa River with portages to bypass rapids. There was also some scrambling over beaver dams with the canoe.
No photos because my phone ran out of charge but we paddled from Daisy to Hambone to Magnetawan. We were very happy to have left clean clothes in the car for the trip home.
What did I learn on this trip? Here’s six things.
That even with my miserable, painful, stiff knee I can do trips like this and enjoy myself. I babied my knee. I took ibuprofen. I stretched. I walked carefully and slowly on the portages. Some mornings I’d wake up and think, “wow, this is it, they’re going to have to air ambulance me out of here” and then I’d stretch and walk around a bit. And then I was fine. Deep breaths, Samantha, you’ve got this. And I did.
2. Paddling on the river–which requires active involvement of the person in the bow–takes skill but it’s fun. I like learning new things. Even when things go wrong–like when we landed in the shrubbery on the side of the river–the worse thing that happened is we got covered in yellow furry caterpillars. Navigating the beaver dams also took skill and effort but in the end it was all pretty low stakes. When I messed up one beaver dam the current just took us back and we tried again.
3. Lightweight camping gear–if you can afford it–is an amazing thing. I was shocked at how little the tent and the sleeping bag etc weighed. We had very lightweight gear even down to the titanium spork!
4. The weather spanned from too hot to brrrr! (at night) and I should have brought a warmer layer and possibly even (no joke) gloves. I always forget that about camping in Algonquin.
5. I was concerned about food and about carrying six days of food but we did well. I learned that a warm meal at night goes a long way and that even mac and cheese over the camp stove tasted pretty good.
6. If I were doing it again, I’d book a day off in the middle, a rest day, where we’d stay on one campsite two nights and maybe even bring a book!
Next up? I’m looking at route maps and planning for next year. Now I know we can do this I’m going to do it again. In light of the great squirrel attack on our food bag on the last night, I’m considering more secure food storage and a good pack for me to carry it all in.
This year’s planning was made more challenging by the fact that Algonquin was as busy as I’ve ever seen it. Lots of folks spending summer vacations in a tent instead of a cottage. When selecting a route between the few available sites, I used a few rules of thumb. Wanting to have lots of time to rest and explore, I limited the distance traveled to about 5 km on the map each day, and a maximum of 2,000m of portaging. Of course the actual distance paddled would be more than that – we move through the water at about 4 km/h – but there’s a fair bit of time spent wandering toward pretty rocks or out of the wind, stopping mid-lake to pump water, paddling from site to site looking for one that’s free to camp on, etc. It also takes time to get in and out of the canoe at each portage.
In order to reduce the strain on Sam’s knee, we decided that she would carry only her clothes and the food pack (which is not too heavy and gets lighter as we go) for the portages, along with our water bottles, paddles, and PFDs. This meant being minimalist in our packing to bring down the weight of the “house” pack (including my clothes) to a manageable 32 lbs (14.5 kg). When combined with 48 lbs of canoe, this comes in right at the 80 lbs (36 kg) maximum weight this “weekend warrior” can safely carry in the backcountry. We made choices like : a tiny, lightweight backpacking tent; a down quilt instead of sleeping bags; one set of clothes (plus warm and waterproof layers), using pot lids as plates. We also needed to be minimalist in our food, bringing only enough dry, lightweight calories to keep us going, and enough sweet snacks that it still felt like vacation. And two full Ziploc sandwich bags of coffee, because there are some things that one cannot do without!
What did Sarah learn on this trip?
I’ve done nearly all parts of this year’s trip in previous years, so the things I learned this time were largely around food:
Naptha fuel to cook breakfast and supper for 2 people = 200 mL per day
One serving of oatmeal or pancake mix = 125 mL (1/2 cup)
One serving of maple syrup for oatmeal or pancakes = 50 mL (even if we have more, we don’t actually use it!)
Unless it’s a rest day or half day, budget for both lunch (sandwich) and a protein bar.
We don’t actually eat salty protein snacks like nuts or trail mix except buried in other meals. Better to bring more protein bars and peanut M&Ms.
Double check not only the count of meals but also the meal type. We were somehow short one breakfast but had an extra dinner(?!)
Oh, one more thing we learned, the sleeping quilt is toasty down to 6 C. But it works best if no one steals the covers!
“Previous evidence suggests that providing bicycles to school girls reduced the gender gap in school enrollment in India, but little has been known about the impact of bicycle distribution programs in sub-Saharan Africa and whether such programs can increase girls’ empowerment. In rural Zambia, researchers partnered with World Bicycle Relief (WBR) to evaluate the impact of bicycle access on girls’ educational and empowerment outcomes. The study found that the bicycles reduced commute time, increased punctuality to school, and reduced the number of days girls were absent from school by 28 percent in the previous week. The program also improved measures of empowerment, including girls’ sense of control over the decisions affecting their lives (i.e., their “locus of control” increased). Researchers did not find evidence that the program impacted school dropout or grade transition. “
Everyone loves this Susan B. Anthony quote: “I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. The moment she takes her seat she knows she can’t get into harm unless she gets off her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”
Here on the blog we tend to think of the connection between bicycles and feminism as a historical thing. I’ve written lots about that and I’ve given quite a few academic talks on the connection between the history of feminist activism in the west and the history of bicycles. See my post about the anti-bike backlash of the late 1800s here: Bicycles: Making good women go bad since the 1800s.
However, bicycles are still playing a role in improving the lives of girls and women all over the world. In many parts of the world, the choice is between biking and getting a drive from parents. But in many other parts of the world it’s the possession of a bicycle that makes getting to school possible at all. Often girls don’t have access to bicycles (and as a result, schooling).
From Outside Online: “There are various reasons for this phenomenon. Amid nationwide stay-at-home-orders, mass-transit ridership is in free fall, leaving essential workers in need of a socially distant way to get around. And many people, especially families with young children at home, are looking for lockdown-compliant ways to get outside and keep everyone as healthy and happy as possible.”
Most of the Fit is a Feminist Issue bloggers ride bikes. Tracy has moved on from road cycling but she’s kept her commuter bike. Christine also rides a bike. Catherine, Cate, Nat, Kim, Susan, Bettina, and I all ride bikes.
We want to welcome you, new rider, to our community!
Here’s some helpful advice from Jennifer Herring and others on Twitter.
Sometime in February, when it became clear that coronavirus wasn’t just going to be an outbreak limited to China and its neighbors, I got a lot more serious about going to the gym.
The logic was simple. I have cerebral palsy, a disability known to make pneumonia more dangerous by causing habitual shallow breathing, which reduces lung capacity. Less lung capacity means less reserve if you contract pneumonia. But this can be modified by exercise. As long as I was doing a lot of aerobic activity, my risk of severe illness should be about the same as that of a physiotypical 30-something.
Since avoiding the risk of infection entirely was impossible (even if I could have stayed home all the time, family members go out), it made sense to focus on harm reduction. Better a somewhat higher risk of an unpleasant illness than a lower risk of a dangerous one.
In March, my options for physical activity began to narrow. I stopped going to BJJ class because it didn’t seem like a good time to be getting into people’s faces. A week or two later, when students were sent home at my university, the rock wall was shut down. My main fun activities were gone — an unusually rainy March precluded outdoor cycling — but I could still exercise, maybe even train for a birthday challenge. Then, on March 15, my city ordered all gyms to close.
It’s an odd feeling when your main tool for staying healthy gets taken away in the name of public health. I felt a loss of control, combined with anger on behalf of others who would be harmed more than me. I could plunk down a hundred dollars on a mini-bike to use at home and set up Skype sessions with my trainer — not perfect but better than nothing. But that’s financially out of reach for many. Some people with disabilities need exercise equipment that costs thousands of dollars. Others can only swim. It wouldn’t have been too hard to set up designated fitness centers for such people, but no one thought of doing so. Even physical therapy offices closed.
The idea that an important aspect of pandemic preparedness is being overlooked is not just my intuition. Julie K. Silver, the Associate Chair of Physical Medicine at Harvard Medical School, writes in a BMJ opinion piece that it is crucial “to recognize that strategies that might help slow the spread of disease and perhaps reduce its overall incidence (i.e., social distancing and sheltering in place), could have the unintentional and harmful effect of decreased physical activity and contribute to cardiopulmonary deconditioning. In particular, the elderly, who are most vulnerable to pulmonary complications from coronavirus, may exhibit a decrease in their baseline cardiac and pulmonary fitness that could substantially impact their outcomes and increase morbidity and mortality.”
Some of the very people most at risk from COVID-19 — the elderly and those with heart disease and diabetes — are the ones most harmed by inactivity. And that doesn’t even begin to take into account questions of maintaining overall health and physical function. How many older people will become frail, possibly suffering fractures or losing the ability to do activities of daily living? How many will die from this?
There is still an opportunity to maintain vulnerable people’s health during this time. Some can take advantage of exercise videos or routines available on TV or online, or exercise outdoors while maintaining necessary distance. For others, cities and medical centers should try to provide individual or small-group telehealth sessions (hospitals may be overwhelmed, but the skills of physical therapists aren’t immediately relevant to treating COVID-19 patients) and set up in-person facilities for those for whom this is not enough. Getting through the pandemic with a minimum of harm to individuals and society will require a comprehensive approach that includes everyone. —
Jane S. is an ecologist who teaches mathematical biology. She enjoys climbing, Brazilian jiu jitsu and any activity that involves thinking with your body. She also gets a kick out of using her powerchair to move heavy objects.