But a fitness class for those who use them might be a good idea anyway. Just don’t call it the “war on walkers” class. Why not? Well, it’s not a war and some people need walkers. for someone with balance issues using a walker can be the difference between independence and getting out and about safely. A walker with wheels, a seat and storage makes it possible for someone fragile to be far more active. It’s needlessly pejorative to call it a “war”. That said, maintaining core and leg strength to stand up out of a chair is huge and is a big indicator for fall avoidance. I like the starting where you are approach and not writing older people off. It can be a tough balance to get right.
Here’s this from a promo for the class called “War on Walkers”:
“War against the Walker class is starting to show real results. Getting up on her own is almost a reality. Introduced the modified push-up this morning. This entire assisted living population has been written off as either a lost cause or too much work. We totally disagree with this sentiment. We will train anyone in any condition, that’s what we do.”
So I was the fittest I’ve ever been in my life at 50 but I am still wondering about the various meanings of “fitness.” I’ve been thinking about it lots in light of arthritic knee, recent limits on my mobility, and my knee brace. (See snazzy knee brace photo above.) Am I really fit if I can’t run? What if I can’t walk very far at all? My body performs pretty well, given its limits, but sometimes I am not so sure how to think about those limits.
What prompted it most recently was a trip to Germany to visit the University of Bremen, a university with which Guelph has an exchange program. I blogged about biking in Bremen here.
But it wasn’t all bike riding and meetings and dinners. We also had one day for group tourism and so took the train to Bremerhaven with an exchange student from Guelph to visit the German Emigration Center, a museum dedicated to the history of German emigration, especially to the United States. It is Europe’s largest theme museum about emigration. Here is a NYT piece on Bremerhaven.
In the museum, visitors can experience the emigration process through interactive exhibits. We walked through the docks and visited a ship and could see all the various classes of rooms. We then exited in New York. In New York immigrants were examined on Ellis Island. Part of the test included climbing a steep flight of steps. Potential immigrants were observed and given a score for “fitness.” I thought about that while visiting the museum and climbing the steps because my knee was particularly sore that day. I could barely put weight on it and stairs were a real challenge. There was an elevator but you had to leave the interactive tour to go find it. Instead, I took the steps slowly, one at a time, and thought about almost certainly failing the immigration fitness test. I’d be seen as a burden.
From the article linked above: “After four decades, the federal government is getting rid of rules that turned away would-be immigrants with intellectual or physical disabilities, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said Monday.The government will no longer be allowed to reject permanent resident applications from those with serious health conditions or disabilities. Most of those impacted by the policy have been economic immigrants already working and creating jobs in Canada, but whose children or spouses may have a disability, Hussen said.”The current provisions on medical inadmissibility are over 40 years old and are clearly not in line with Canadian values or our government’s vision of inclusion.”
And lots of countries still have limits on immigration that rule out people with disabilities. It’s unlikely they use the “observe the person walking upstairs” test but it doesn’t matter. It’s still unjust.
I’ve been moving away from tracking steps since how much I walk is no longer completely in my control. Some days it hurts and even with my knee brace and it’s best if I don’t walk that far on those days. I don’t external prodding to walk when I shouldn’t be.
So I gave away my Garmin watch and have started using Google Fit instead.
One of my favorite things is that it tracks active, moving minutes. Yes, steps are there but they’re not the main measure. On a day like the one below I do pretty well with biking to work and my swimming lessons after work. Add some walking around campus, and I’ve more than met my daily movement goal.
I came across this article the other day on “rolling walking sticks.” It’s about the number of disabled people in Cambridge who get around on a bike.
From the article: “Riding a bike may be easier than walking for two-thirds of disabled cyclists, but they often remain invisible to society. Many don’t realize that more than a quarter of disabled commutes in this university city are made by bike.”
Lately I’ve become one of those people for whom riding is much easier than walking. I ride my bike sometimes when walking isn’t an option. I often find myself wishing I had my bike with me. Lately I’ve even been shopping for a foldable, take anywhere bike. It would be nice to have a bike to ride between meetings, that I could easily take into the meeting when I got there.
In Australia, at ANU, the philosophy department had a bike for riding across campus. It had wide tires and a big basket on the front. Since all university departments had them there was never a need to lock it. Maybe Guelph could go that route?
My first experience riding with someone with a disability was very striking. While in Canberra, Australia I rode bikes with Michael Milton, a world record holding cyclist with one leg. Milton’s a serious athlete. He also holds the world speed record for downhill skiing. We were both members of the Vikings cycling club.
Here’s his impressive Wikipedia bio: “Michael John Milton, OAM is an Australian Paralympic skier, Paralympic cyclist and paratriathlete with one leg. With 6 gold, 3 silver and 2 bronze medals he is the most successful Australian Paralympic athlete in the Winter Games. ”
He’s also a really nice person to ride with.
One of the interesting things about Milton is that he doesn’t have a prosthetic leg for riding so when you’re riding bikes and you stop for coffee, he still gets around by bike. The bike comes wherever he goes because in addition to a go fast cycling machine, it’s also his main mobility aid. It goes in schools and shopping malls.
On a bike trip a few years ago, I noticed that the two oldest riders in our trip had a very hard time walking. They limped. They couldn’t do stairs. Off their bikes they barely looked mobile. But on their bikes, whoosh!
We jokingly called them Statler and Waldorf. They arrived each night for dinner in PJs. One was a widower and the other’s wife wasn’t well enough to holiday anymore. So the two joined forces and took biking holidays together. They had great stories of trips they’d done together through the years.
We were riding 70-100 km a day, including some serious hills, and they had no problem. I started to wonder how many seniors with walking issues might do well to switch to two wheeled transportation.
Again from the article on bikes in Cambridge: “For two out of three disabled cyclists, riding a bike is easier than walking, easing joint strain, aiding balance and relieving breathing difficulties. According to recent research by Transport for London, 78% of disabled people are able to cycle, while 15% sometimes use a bike to get around.”
It seems to me it’s another reason to put priority on bike infrastructure. If there are people, like me, riding because walking isn’t an option, then we need to make riding safe and accessible for all.
In my own case, it’s part of an evolving love story between me and bicycles. It’s been about transportation, about fitness, about friendship, and about performance. What’s new is thinking about bikes as mobility aid that help me get around when walking just won’t work.
So first I hated electric bikes. I blogged about it. “The ones I hate are like bloated overgrown scooters on steroids with vestigial pedals. As far as I can tell no one actually uses the pedals. They’re just there to make the thing legally a bike. As the ad for e-bikes at a shop near my house says “Ride with no license, no insurance, and no registration.”
I learned about the fitness benefits of e-biking and thought about people riding long (for them) distances, especially carrying heavy stuff (groceries, children, etc.).
Then I talked to some women about their new e-bikes and got all worried again. The thing is it’s only women who are talking to me about e-assist. (Maybe men are also buying these bikes. I don’t know. They aren’t talking about, not to me anyway.) My women friends and acquaintances are claiming that without e-assist they’d never make it up hills. I know that’s not true. Hills aren’t my fave thing either but I’ve learned to live with them and make it to the top on my own steam. They say that now, and only now, they can keep up with their male bike riding partners. Maybe? But you could ride with other women. Or you could train and get faster. Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad they are buying bikes and getting out there. But I am genuinely surprised at the insecurity that seems attached to the decision to buy an e-bike.
Some of them, it seems to me, could have bought lighter, more expensive road bikes.
Maybe I’m fretting for nothing. I am glad more people are riding. It’s still good exercise and it’s great for the environment.
Two weeks ago, I attended the Women’s Summer Festival in Ischgl, Austria. It’s basically a three-day summer camp for female adults. You can sign up for lots of different sports workshops, including yoga, mountain biking, climbing, hiking, the full works. All of it women-only, set very scenically in the Austrian Alps. I’d read about last year’s edition and it sounded like a ton of fun: a chance to try out new things, meet people and spend a few days frolicking in the mountains? Sign me up.
I agonised for a while about my choice of workshops – there’s no way you can do them all – and finally put myself down for a via ferrata (complete novices), trail running (beginners), morning yoga (all levels), and an all-day hike (experts). Aside from yoga and hiking, I decided to do things I hadn’t done before, so for instance bouldering fell by the wayside in favour of the via ferrata. And I was too much of a chicken for mountain biking. Somehow, the thought of hurtling down a mountain on two wheels terrifies me a lot more than the thought of being suspended above a precipice secured by nothing but a fixed steel cable and two carabiners attached to my harness through a via ferrata set.
The classification of levels, I later learned from fellow participants, stumped not only me. How do you know you’re an “expert” hiker, rather than an “advanced” one? As I’ve mentioned before, I have my share of athletic impostor syndrome, so I was mildly terrified of both the trail running (should I have signed up for the “complete novices” one?) and the hiking tour (what on earth had made me think I was an expert? The hubris!). If anyone still needed proof that women tend to underestimate themselves, they only had to attend this festival. Nearly everyone rocked up with the same self-doubts.
But these shared concerns actually ended up making for an incredibly supportive environment. Everyone cheered each other on and kept encouraging others. It had been a long time since I’d seen two people as happy as two women with vertigo after crossing an incredibly scary suspension bridge on our trail run, fuelled by gentle coaxing from our guide and the supportive cheers of the other participants. It was wonderful to watch.
The other thing I’d been a bit wary of is going by myself. I wasn’t organised enough to enlist anyone else to come with me, and I’m not exactly a social butterfly – my small talk is limited and I tend to get incredibly intimidated by people I think are cooler than me, which is pretty much everyone. I ended up really, really enjoying myself, both in terms of the activities and the company. I met some very nice people, and the activities were great. In fact, both the via ferrata and trail running (who would have thought, considering how badly I do running uphill!) left me hungry for more.
The morning yoga was beautiful, and the hike was out of this world stunning – three three thousand-metre summits in one day! With bright sunshine! And incredible views! If I were to do this again, and I’m definitely keeping this option open, there are plenty of things I didn’t get around to doing: a more challenging via ferrata, bouldering, more hiking, and maybe, just maybe, even some mountain biking?
There was a framework programme too, to keep yourself occupied while not attending a workshop, with ad-hoc activities such as TRX training, massages, pilates, etc., and you could even get your nails and your hair done if you wanted (I opted for the nails, which I usually never do or get done, and also because there’s not much you can do with my hair). In the evenings, one night there was dinner at a local hut, which ordinarily is a hip après-ski joint, and another night there was a concert with a local band in the festival tent. And as these things are wont to go, there were exhibitors peddling the latest trail running shoes, hiking poles, outdoor and yoga clothing, etc. You could also try all these things in action, which was fun, though it didn’t motivate any purchases for me.
The whole thing was a very enjoyable affair, but I wouldn’t be a good feminist killjoy if I didn’t have some issues with it. This was obviously not a free event. The all-in festival pass set me back just under 280 Euros, and I treated myself to a nice hotel in addition. There was the option of booking just individual workshops, but they also weren’t super cheap. There was a goodie bag for those who’d booked the festival package that contained some ecologically very dubious plasticky giveaways (although in fairness, there were some great quality ones too that I’ll definitely be using). And diversity at the event was limited to cis-gendered almost exclusively white, almost exclusively able-bodied, relatively fit women who could afford to be there, and a bunch of invited press, bloggers and social media influencers who were there for free (disclaimer: I wasn’t one of them).
In other words, we spent three days oozing privilege from all pores. Is this inherently a bad thing? Probably not. We had a lot of fun and it was great to completely disconnect from the news and the heat wave gripping the rest of Europe for a few days, being active among a bunch of very nice, like-minded women and pushing our comfort zones in a highly supportive environment. The event is absolutely fantastic in that it lets you test the waters with new activities that might otherwise be quite intimidating, which I think is very important in getting women to be more active. But it’s important to be aware of that privilege – and of the fact that if you were insecure about doing any sort of exercise, you probably wouldn’t sign up for a three-day mountain sports festival in the first place, so a substantial threshold is still there.
And things could be done to make the event more inclusive. One could think of travel stipends, marketing the event a bit differently to attract a more diverse crowd, and so on. Again, the organisers are a for-profit company that makes money with this, so it’s not surprising that it’s all a bit commercial, and all things considered, the commercialness is very low key – you’re not forced to buy anything or partake in any activities that aren’t your jam. And yet. A bit more of an effort in making the event more diverse and accessible would be very welcome.
Will I go back? Maybe. I had too much fun not to contemplate a return next year. I’ll keep you posted – and if I do, perhaps it will be in some fit feminist company? Would be fun.
One good thing that’s happened to me as a result of my knee problems is that I’ve got a much richer appreciation of the fact that people come to fitness from many different places. I can see now why people thought past me was just a little bit insufferable. I’ve apologized a few times, first for saying if you don’t love it, don’t do it (see An apology: A thing Sam thinks she needs to stop saying…) and second for saying it’s never too late, because sometimes it is (see The second thing Sam is going to stop saying…)
As someone who has always walked a lot and always ridden a bike and lifted weights since grad school, I come to new fitness activities in not awful shape to begin with. But that’s not true for everyone. Not everyone starts from the same place. In the past I don’t think I appreciated where people were with their fitness for different activities. For example, I dragged Tracy on some very long bike rides for which she wasn’t prepared. There was a 40 km ride that turned out to be 60 km. Later there was a promised century ride that turned out to be 110 km. Likewise, I’ve taken friends and family on hikes that have outstripped their abilities. Mea culpa.
We all start in different places. I’ve been riding a lot (where “a lot”= 3000-5000 km a year) for about fifteen years now. That’s why I feel like I’ve got 100 km in the bank. Check out my recent post about the 1 day version of the bike rally. I can ride that far at almost any time. But not everyone can do that. Beginners can’t do that. People new to cycling can’t do that and people new to fitness altogether certainly can’t.
Beginners can be beginners at a particular activity, like Tracy and road cycling. Or they can be beginners to physical activity in any form. These days, with cars and sofas and desks as the backdrop for our lives, we can start out pretty unfit. Someone found our blog recently by searching the following phrase: “I’m so unfit that even gardening is too much for me.” I discovered this when researching a blog post on why people hate exercise. Some people are so unfit, researchers say, that even cooking dinner and walking around the house can elevate their heart rate. See Hate exercise? You might just be much more unfit than you think.
So when Tracy writes about starting out small, for some people small might be really tiny.
That hit home when I was talking with someone recently about getting started cycling. She wanted to ride her bike to work but had to work up to the 5 km trip. She was riding around her neighbourhood, adding a block each night. She wanted to ride but couldn’t yet ride distances that would be useful. I couldn’t imagine not being able to ride 5 km but I rode a bike as a child and I’ve been a lifelong bike commuter.
In the past I haven’t been a fan of e-bikes. That’s mostly because I associated with them the faux scooters with vestigial pedals designed just to get around the rules that would require a license and insurance. I blogged about that kind here.
But genuine e-assist bikes? They have their charms. A friend in Germany rides one because his route to work has hills and he doesn’t want to arrive sweaty. He’s a pretty fit guy who races in triathlons but he likes the e-bike for commuting. Another friend’s dad in Australia rides one because, as a life long cyclist, he wanted to keep riding but he could no longer make it up the hills. If I were to go back to New Zealand, I’d be tempted!
Finally, another friend bought an e-assist for her cargo bike. She’s riding with stuff and two kids and needs a bit of help on hills. Who could possibly blame her? Not me.
So I’ve started to think about e-bikes differently. There are lots of good reasons to ride one including as a way to start out as a cyclist if you’re pretty unfit to begin. You can gradually use less and less of the e-assist and make practical use of the bike right from the start.
What do you think?
I can’t see them being used on bike clubs’ group rides and I wonder if they’ll make cycling holidays more accessible but I can see them making perfect sense as practical commuting and errand running bikes for beginners.