Book Reviews · Guest Post · menopause

Menopause Manifesto Reviewed (Guest Post)

by Alexis Shotwell

The Menopause Manifesto isn’t a manifesto. It would perhaps have been better for Dr. Jen Gunter, author of The Vagina Bible, to follow her previous branding and call this second book something like The Menopause Bible – which invokes a lot of information and story about which there is the need for interpretation, debate, and critique as a key part of faith.

I am really excited by the increasing number of books and blogs talking openly about hormone transitions of all sorts, and how they can be made less bad. I’m a feminist who studies transformations in medical practice, and I came into this book ready to cheer for anyone attacking medical sexism, especially the specific form that sexism takes in how it talks about menopause. I’m a nerd and I love there being uncountably many books about stuff I’m interested in. I’m an easy sell!

So, I’m disappointed in how strongly I cannot recommend this book to you. I was about to write, “to you feminist readers of this blog who think critically about fitness, many of whom are nonbinary, or trans women, or fat, or disabled, or asexual, or cancer survivors, or not parents, or all those things at once.” But really, having to put all those caveats in means that pretty much wherever you land on these matrices of experience the book will stab you on one of your other vectors of awesomeness.

My impulse to say: “If you’re thin, cis, straight, monogamously coupled, have had no problems having and bearing children, never had chemo related early menopause, and if you’re otherwise are this book’s normal, you can read this book” is actually really awful. I know that the particular brand of liberal feminism that means you can write a whole book, with the best will in the world, as though all the rest of us are sidenotes, actually doesn’t help even people in the supposed centre of the frame.

And I believe that Gunter really, really means well! She has taken on Goop around its antiscience grifting, the Toronto Star about bad medical reporting, and regularly engages various randos on the internet about health generally. The Menopause Manifesto has some great parts. Gunter is very sympathetic to taking hormones, especially in the perimenopausal years when they can actually help with vasomotor symptoms (hot flashes and night sweats, for example), and so she has detailed accounts of various hormone options and what they do. So those chapters will be helpful if you’re in perimenopause, having those symptoms, and interested in hormone therapy to help with them – it explains a lot.

The other very great part of the book is a list of signals for when to walk out of a doctor’s office around menopause stuff, because these things indicate that they are either quacks or so behind the science as to be potentially harmful to you. That list includes:

  • salivary hormone level tests
  • hormone level testing to guide therapy
  • recommending only hormone therapy and not the other things that can help menopause symptoms
  • prescribing topical progesterone cream to offset the dangers of transdermal or oral estrogen
  •  selling supplements or products.

(Re this last one, here is your reminder that it’s always a good time to read or reread Middlemarch and to reflect on the long history of people trying to practice integrity and care, including in and around medicine.)

 But one of *my* signals for when to walk out of a doctor’s office, unless there are really really specific conditions that actually involve weight, is when they say:

  • To solve these [waves hand] health problems, you should lose weight!

Gunter does this All. The. Time in this book. It’s SUPER WEIRD! Even when she’s talking critically about how sexist weight loss advice is, she reproduces it.

Doctors in general have a tragic axiom lock around weight – they struggle so much to look at fat people and treat our actual health, even when they know that fat isn’t the reason we’re in their office. They can say in one breath that standard measures, like BMI, are unscientific and useless and in the next breath reiterate just slightly updated versions of dodgy, unscientific pap about fat. Gunter goes for “visceral fat” and waist circumference.

Many doctors, Gunter included, go on from using bogus measures of fatness-as-illness to suggest weight loss as a good remedy for what ails us (in this case, menopause). In a book so critical of pseudoscience and from someone aware of the problems with generalizing health advice from a single person’s experience (Gweneth Paltrow might have good personal results from jade vaginal eggs, but she oughtn’t market them), it’s so odd to see Gunter recommend that her readers do what she does as though it will work for us.

She says, “Admittedly it’s a work in progress and I’m not recommending this approach for anyone. But experts say that journaling is a low-risk intervention that can help with weight loss and weight maintenance” (83). Which experts? Where are the studies? And it’s jarring to have her acknowledge that weight loss advice is sexist, and political, that weight interventions overwhelmingly fail, and proceed to give the usual pablum weight loss advice in the chapter “Metamorphoses of Menopause” (Watch what you eat! Cook at home! Don’t eat ultra-processed food!). I’m here to say, I’ve done or do all of these things and I’m still fat! And I’m good with that!

The standard move here is to follow “I’m fat” with “and I’m really healthy!” But appealing to health as a foil for the “it’s bad to be fat” line is just another trick. Many of us are never going to be not sick, and all of us deserve solid help for problems with menopause, fat or thin, sick or not.

Gunter writes:

“Obesity is a medical condition, but it’s one of the few in which we assign or imply blame to the patient. It’s also one of the conditions where medicine generally provides the least amount of guidance and support. What if we treated people with cancer or high blood pressure the same way? Can you imagine a world where a provider would give the diagnosis of breast cancer, imply it was the person’s fault, and then send her out into the ether to find help?” (85)

So, you can see that Gunter thinks that people should have more and better support around fat. But, as readers of this blog know well, obesity is not a medical condition – fat is not a disease. Even if it were, the precise approach to fat that Gunter here excoriates is pervasive in the book, not just in that chapter. Weight loss is suggested as a remedy for almost every problem perimenopause and menopause might throw at you, and it is named as a potential beneficial side-effect for almost every medical intervention Gunter recommends. I was going to try to give you pages to avoid if you want to get some of the helpful stuff from this book but not be sent down a fat-hating, body-surveilling wormhole and I’m afraid I got overwhelmed. So, general content warning, I guess.

But then content warning for so much more. I know I’m harping on this, but it really is shocking how Gunter is able to identify sexist medical inaccuracies and perpetuate them in the same breath and in the name of feminism.

Aside from leaving when medical professionals talk go first to fat, I have a couple of other signals to walk out of offices – when people go to evolution to explain health advice they’re giving me, when all their heroes are straight and cis, and when they have no disability analysis.

These are more signals that make me wish I’d walked out of this book, but, well, I guess I can offer you my experience. It is just hopelessly, deeply, pervasively committed to a particular understanding of evolution that grounds the worth of menopause in a narrative of “the grandmother effect” (a real and good thing, just not something that we should limit our explanatory scope to). This narrative pervades the text in a way that brings along with it a whole cluster of things around reproduction as the point of human existence, bundled with a whole bunch of stuff around evolutionary fitness. Making menopause a good thing because evolution just tangles us back up in eugenic narratives of personal fitness as a subset of the health of the population. This sucks.

The Menopause Manifesto is deeply straight. Its normative subject is someone who is going through menopause in her forties to fifties, with a uterus and overies, who is having sex with cis men. I feel it really minimizes cancer and decisions people might make around cancer risk that do not ignore other problems postmenopausal people face, such as heart disease and osteoporosis.

All of these grate the more because Gunter references misogyny over and over, and she is able to identify the sexism in her archive even as she reproduces it.  It is actually very possible to write a book about menopause that does not do these things – Heather Corinna has done so just this year!

I think that all of us should be demanding books that apply to and help women think about their experiences but that at the same time resist gender oppression generally. Acknowledging that non-binary people exist and go through menopause, acknowledging that trans men exist and go through menopause, that some people have had early menopause because of cancer or other medical treatment, acknowledging that not everyone wants to have vaginal sex, that not everyone needs to have a pregnancy test, and so on – these things actually help us fight sexism and oppressive gender norms. (Sophie Lewis’s book Full Surrogacy Now! offers a parallel example to Corrinna’s What Fresh Hell is This?, giving a political analysis of pregnancy without restricting it to women. It’s possible, and great!)

So, closing sidebar, not the point of the book but a plea for more science. Anyone who menstruates and weight lifts who I know probably has been interested in studies about lifting and menstrual cycles. There is data that training hard during your follicular cycle, the bit between when you start bleeding and when you ovulate, has strength benefits. I remember my aunt Karen Moe Humphreys, a two-time Olympic swimmer, gold-medalist in the butterfly, who has been a fierce and impressive athlete her whole life and continues to get stronger in her sixties, reflecting on her strength gains post-menopause and saying that she wished people would research this more.

Gunter, and everyone else writing about menopause, talk often about how perimenopause can involve higher levels of follicule stimulating hormone circulating in our bodies – but they do not make the connection to work on weight training during our follicular cycles as helpful. Rather they take it as given that menopause will make us weaker, less muscly, more fragile, no matter how much we exercise. So, I’m interested in someone doing more science on this, but in the absence of good studies, I’m personally going to decide that perimenopause is a good time to get incredibly strong.

And whatever you’re deciding to do with your perimenopause and menopause, I just want to say that you can do it just as you are, and you deserve help and care that doesn’t hate on any part of you.

The Menopause Manifesto cover

Bio: Teacher, writer, SF nerd, functional potter, queer, currently obsessed with doing handstands in middle age. Author of Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times and working on a book called Collecting Our People, about getting together to solve big problems in which we are complicit.

Book Club · Book Reviews · Rowing

We’re interviewing Tori Murden McClure: Send us your questions!

Awhile back I posted about an amazing book I was reading A Pearl in the Storm. It’s a memoir (the subtitle is “How I found my heart in the middle of an ocean”) and an adventure story about rowing solo across the Atlantic. Lots of themes in the book about growing up as young athletic woman in a country and at a time when that wasn’t allowed or encouraged will resonate with readers.

Two updates:

The musical version of the book just opened this summer: “Tori Murden McClure was the first woman – and the first American – to successfully row across the Atlantic Ocean. She succeeded in 1999 after an attempt in 1998 was foiled by a hurricane. Her vessel? A 23 foot rowboat she had built and named the “American Pearl.” The story of her accomplishment has inspired the new musical “Row” – with a book by Daniel Goldstein and music and lyrics by singer-songwriter, Dawn Landes.”

And, drumroll please, Tori Murden McClure has agreed to a blog interview! I’ll be interviewing her at the end of September.

SEND ME YOUR QUESTIONS! I have lots of my own, but I’m also collecting questions for the author (now President of Spalding University). We connected through blog guest and fellow feminist philosopher Lauren Freeman who it turns out is a neighbour of the author. Thanks Lauren!

A Pearl in the Storm: How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean
A Pearl in the Storm cover
Book Reviews · fitness · Rowing

A Pearl in the Storm, #CurrentlyReading

In a Pearl in the Storm: How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean Tori Murden McClure tells the story of rowing across the Atlantic ocean, solo, with no motor and no sail.

I loved her story and I recently found out that she’s the neighbour of a feminist philosopher who reads the blog. I’m going to interview her email and post here so if you have any questions for this remarkable woman, pls send them my way.

There’s a lot to love about the book. I’ve been reading it pretty much non-stop. I love the way she weaves in her life story with her harrowing journey in a very small boat amid some intense weather and big waves. Early chapters also tell the story of McClure’s earlier adventures. She was also the first woman to ski to the South Pole.

Also of note, especially for the academics out there. You might relate to McClure’s discussion of her decision to swap her life boat for books to take on the journey. I also loved the food recommendations she received. If you’re starting in good health, it’s okay to eat like a teenager for 3 months. The peanut M and Ms came on the trip.

I found Tori Murden McClure’s story of growing up defending her disabled brother from abuse at school more harrowing than the tale of rowing across the Atlantic. Parts of that story needed a content warning in a way the rowing adventure did not. The assualt story in Chapter 6 was especially difficult to read.

In a different way it was also hard to read the author’s account of the conflict between her early athleticism and being a girl. I suspect many blog readers will relate.

The book is also soon to be a musical!

See ‘ROW’: A Musical Odyssey Of One Woman’s Solo Boat Trip Across The Atlantic.

Tori Murden McClure, A Pearl in the Storm

You might also enjoy watching the TED talk A song for my hero, the woman who rowed into a hurricane: “Singer-songwriter Dawn Landes tells the story of Tori Murden McClure, who dreamed of rowing across the Atlantic in a small boat — but whose dream was almost capsized by waves the size of a seven-story building. Through video, story and song, Landes imagines the mindset of a woman alone in the midst of the vast ocean. “

Book Reviews · fitness · menopause

Book Review: What Fresh Hell Is This

by Alexis Shotwell

Why yes, since you wonder, I am writing this short review at 4:13 in the morning because of perimenopause. Maybe you’re reading it in the middle of the night for the same reason! If so, I am here to tell you that the Heather Corinna’s new book What Fresh Hell is This? will make you feel better than you do right now, and you should get your (perhaps sweaty, cranky, bewildered) hands on a copy asap.

Written by a nonbinary, rad, smart, funny, sex-educator, this really is a game-changer in a field of books that try to be helpful and relevant but end up just recapitulating tired gender-binary, straight, fat-hating, ableist sexism. In place of so much that makes us sad, What Fresh Hell is This? offers practical, supportive, buffet-style advice for meeting perimenopause and menopause with kindness, feminism, and science.

The book starts with a great, short history of how messed up and sexist treatment of perimenopause and menopause have been in western medicine (easily skippable, as Corinna notes, if you just want to not think about annoying things). Then it gives a clear run-down on hormones, why they are complicated, and why their changing affects us so much. (I had no idea that there are four kinds of estrogen that bodies produce? One of which is only produced if you’re pregnant, and it is made by the fetus’s liver? How wild.) But in this part, Corinna begins their reframing of the assumed subject of perimenopause with an ease that feels casual and comfortable as you read it, although it is clearly a political decision enacted with rigor.

The “proper subject” of menopause is often implicitly imagined as a straight nondisabled white cis woman who has had kids and worries about getting fat, wrinkly, nonreproductive, and moody. Corinna writes for that woman, for sure, but she is not the central subject from which the rest of us deviate. So all throughout this book there are regular people who have had or do have uteruses and ovaries, and who enter menopause suddenly because of chemo or oophorectomy or hysterectomy, or using T, or other things.

There’s an excellent supplemental section at the end about how trans women and people with testicular systems experience menopause. Being disabled, queer, and nonbinary is not exceptionalised, and Corinna marks how racialization and poverty shape the conditions of life through which we enter menopause.

I just can’t express how relaxing it is to be able to read a book about perimenopause and not constantly brace for or read around heterosexuality, fat-shaming, and ableism, a book that acknowledges racism as a structuring condition of our lives.

But then mostly the book is just helpful about perimenopause. Corinna explains the whys and hows of various things that can happen: Vasomotor symptoms (hot flashes and night sweats), mood shifts and mental health upheavals, cognitive affects, chronic pain flares, and changes to digestion, skin, bleeding (of course), and sexuality.

The bulk of the book, which goes through various kinds of experiences people have with perimenopause is grounded, thoroughly researched, and measured. I learned a lot, including about things that I thought I had settled views upon, like about whether hormone therapies are good or bad. On that front, I didn’t know that the studies that convinced me that menopausal hormone therapy was harmful and bad didn’t actually focus on the people who might benefit most from short-term combined hormone therapy – they were done on people who were postmenopausal, on average 63 years old, and with an aim of preventing long-term health problems. And I didn’t know that testosterone can be used as part of a menopausal hormonal treatment plan.

 Part of what’s so great about WFHIT? is the steadiness with which it explains that the transition to not bleeding will be personal and specific, but that we can still know things about it. And it has really good suggestions in a frame Corinna calls “Ya Basics” for thinking about managing stress, sleeping, moving our bodies, finding social support, and quitting smoking. They offer sometimes irritatingly helpful advice while acknowledging that it’s sometimes irritating to be offered helpful advice. But they’re still offering it and honestly they’re probably right.

Readers of this blog are probably like me, people who think about a lot of things and who feel like we know some stuff. It is so strange and nourishing to read a book that shows how much more stuff there is to know about something that anyone who has or has had a uterus and ovaries will go through. I feel almost embarrassed at how relieved and affirmed I feel, having read this book, and I recommend it to you. And I hope you get some non-sweaty sleep.

Bio: Teacher, writer, SF nerd, functional potter, queer, currently obsessed with doing handstands in middle age. Author of Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times and working on a book called Collecting Our People, about getting together to solve big problems in which we are complicit.

 

Book Reviews · fitness · running

Really moving on past running, Sam gave the books away.

I’m an academic and a voracious reader. You can tell very easily what my interests are at a given time by what I’m reading about. I like to know a lot about the things I do. I’m often puzzled by people who aren’t curious in this way.

It’s not quite true any more that each new passion begins with a trip to the bookstore. There’s the internet after all. But at some point, I start buying books.

Oh you can follow/friend/whatever me over at GoodReads.

Sam’s mostly fiction, non work related, reading

But equally, when passions fade and life stages change, I don’t want these books taking up space on my shelves. For years I co-taught a course on progressive themes in Christian theology to my church congregation. When I stopped I donated the books to our church library.

Ditto all the books on parenting small children. Ditto all the books on pregnancy and childbirth. All donated to places where they might come in use.

In my new neighborhood in Guelph there are three or four small curbside “libraries.” Some people call them “free libraries” but I’m not sure why. Regular libraries are also free. I think of them more as places to give books away. Near me the book giveaway boxes hold everything from gardening books and contemporary mysteries to old textbooks and yet more copies of 50 Shades of Grey.

I recently added to their collections, with my old running books.

I started running in my late 30s. It never really suited me but I loved it. I went from 5 km to 10 km to aiming for 20 km. I got speedy, it’s true. But I also had two stress fractures.

In my forties and in my run up to fittest by fifty, I kept distances short. I ran playing soccer. I sprinted at CrossFit. And I ran doing short distance duathlons.

Now I’m waiting for total knee replacement surgery for both knees eventually, one more urgent than the other. I won’t run again unless I’m being chased by a bear or exiting a burning building. There’s no need to train for that and so away go the inspirational books.

If you live in Guelph’s Old University neighborhood you can find the three great books in our book giveaway boxes. I liked them all.

And I’m hoping some new beginning runner or triathlete gives them a read, puts on her running shoes, and is inspired to give it a go.

Slow Fat Triathlete: Live Your Athletic Dreams in the Body You Have Now

Slow Fat Triathlete: Live Your Athletic Dreams in the Body You Have Now:  Williams, Jayne: 9781569244678: Books - Amazon.ca

The Courage To Start: A Guide To Running for Your Life

Cover art

The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances (The Oatmeal Book 5)

Beat The Blerch
Beat the Blerch!

Enjoy!

Book Reviews · Sat with Nat

Nat reads “Every Body Yoga” by Jessamyn Stanley

The cover of Every Body Yoga featuring the author in one of her trademark pretzel poses that are the envy of many.

I have been following Jessamyn Stanley on Facebook and Instagram for a while. I enjoy her candid posts about how she is feeling, pictures of her in yoga postures and other great photos.

My fangirl status definitely leveled up when I got to enjoy this great video 30 Minute Yoga Sequence for Total Beginners. Jessamyn starts off matter of factly talking about props and maybe you can’t afford blocks. It was the first yoga video that addressed material and financial issues that can affect many folks at different times. Plus, she has this kind, matter of fact delivery that really works for me. Regular readers of this blog know many contributors are fans of other youtube yoga instructors. I’ve tried them and really gave other folks a go but I never really felt that those videos & instructors were for me so I kept coming back to what I could find by Jessamyn.

I was checking out her website http://jessamynstanley.com/ when I realized she had published a book. Friends, I am late to the game as it was first published in 2017. I knew I wanted to financially support an athlete & instructor that brings a lot of joy and wisdom into my life. I highly recommend if you are benefiting from anyone’s content that has products or services to invest in them too 🙂

So the book arrived. It’s a softcover of 222 pages filled with beautiful photography, personal stories and Jessamyn’s take on the Eight-limbed path of yoga. Each chapter ends with a section called “Questions Asked by (Literally) Every Beginner Yoga Student” that resonated with me.

From an exercise/posture/asana perspective there are detailed instructions on 41 poses with accompanying photos of 4 models in addition to the author. Jessamyn reminds us that yoga instructors and practitioners are more diverse than the pop culture image of a thin, white, young woman. She focuses on our inner journey that postures help us get at.

Jessamyn also includes several flows based on what the reader might need and then recipes for combining flows for a longer practice. These are prefaced by personal stories that are both uniquely hers while tapping into those universal experiences of the full range of human emotion. It’s a powerful combination.

I appreciate her joyfulness in the pictures and her writing. Jessamyn addresses the tough stuff about modern yoga and calls us in to try.

She is also an impressive athlete that has achieved a mastery of many postures. The books tag line is “let go of fear, get on the mat, love your body”. That’s a pretty inviting and encouraging call to action.

This book was what I needed to re-energize my at home practice. I last blogged about my practice back in June and it went off the rails in August. I refocused on walking but I needed something to help get me back into a daily yoga practice. This book was just what I needed.

For details on how you can purchase a copy for yourself or someone you adore check out the details here.

I’m not gaining any compensation or benefit from this book review other than sharing my appreciation for a great instructor.

Have you read a book that helped you re-engage with your yoga practice or workout routine? Let me know!

Book Club · Book Reviews · fitness

Book Club Week 7: The Joy of Movement, Chapter 7

A few months ago we started a virtual book club.

You can read about the idea here.

You can buy the Joy of Movement here or from a local bookshop or your favourite online retailer.

What’s the plan? Christine, Catherine, and I are reading a chapter a week, for seven weeks and writing about it here. We did that for Nia Shank’s book The 100 Day Reclaim: Daily Readings to Make Health and Fitness as Empowering as it Should Be. And we liked it so much we’re doing it again. Read what our reviews looked like here.

What’s different this time? We’re inviting you to join us. Read along and put your contributions in the comments. It doesn’t need to be a lot. A few sentences, a few paragraphs, whatever you’re moved to write.

Want to catch up?

Read Week 1 here: https://fitisafeministissue.com/2020/03/10/book-club-week-1-the-joy-of-movement-chapter-1/

Read Week 2 here: https://fitisafeministissue.com/2020/03/17/book-club-week-1-the-joy-of-movement-chapter-2/

Read Week 3 here: https://fitisafeministissue.com/2020/03/31/book-club-week-3-the-joy-of-movement-chapter-3/

Read Week 4 here: https://fitisafeministissue.com/2020/04/09/book-club-week-4-the-joy-of-movement-chapter-4/

Read week 5 here: https://fitisafeministissue.com/2020/04/16/book-club-week-5-the-joy-of-movement-chapter-5/

Read week 6 here: https://fitisafeministissue.com/2020/04/21/book-club-week-6-the-joy-of-movement-chapter-6/

Christine

This was a hard chapter for me to get through but that’s my issue, not the author’s problem. I am not the right audience for the discussion at hand.

Chapter 7 was about the motivation, benefits, and mindset for doing endurance events.

I am not wired for endurance events. I am not even wired for considering endurance events.

This may be, in part, due to my ADHD issues with time perception (lots of things already feel endless to me – I don’t need to take on extra ones) but also, I have a visceral negative reaction to the descriptions of the pain and suffering that are part and parcel of these events. I cannot wrap my mind around someone undertaking them on purpose. Even the descriptions make me frustrated and angry.

Is this a logical reaction? No.

Does it make any sense at all? Nope.

Would I try to talk you out of doing an endurance event? Also, no – because that’s your business. However, if you tried to talk to me about an event like that, I would probably have to stop you so you could find someone more positive to talk to about it. I wouldn’t want my issues to put a damper on your excitement and accomplishments.

McGonigal says that that what separates ultramarathons from masochism is context and I am just going to have to take her word on that.

Anyway, all of that being said, there was useful information for me in this chapter.

I appreciated the observation from hiker and author Jennifer Pharr Davis that you don’t have to get rid of pain in order to move forward. This idea has bounced up for me in a variety of contexts in the past and while Pharr Davis is primarily talking about physical pain, it also applies to other types of pain as well. I find comfort in the idea that sometimes you can have challenging circumstances AND still keep putting one foot in front of the other (literally or metaphorically.)

I did feel some connection to adventure athlete Terri Schneider’s discussion of her exploits. She describes how pushing her body to its limits felt joyful and how she felt freed from expectations about how a woman ‘should’ behave. As a martial artist, that resonated with me. I do enjoy a tiring class or belt test and I have definitely felt like I was stepping outside some ‘shoulds’ by taking pride in my punches and kicks.

However, the biggest feeling of connection and resonance for me started when McGonigal was describing her own experiences with wall climbing. Her description of a metaphorical ‘reaching-out’ to others for support when she couldn’t quite muster up her own faith made sense to me. And I enjoyed the resulting discussion of interdependence and how being able to offer and receive help is an added benefit of certain types of exercise.

After gritting my teeth through most of the descriptions (again, this is my issue, not an issue with the writing nor an issue with the people described) I was happy to have found this section at the end that let me relax into familiar territory and ideas that resonated with me.

Catherine

McGonigal explores the mystical world of the ultra-endurance athlete in Chapter 7. The stories chronicle pain, suffering, determination and hope. These are lofty sentiments, sincerely expressed and wholly appropriate to explain the process of achieving super-human feats.

But what about the rest of us? I, for one, don’t plan on running 100 miles, cycling across country in less than 2 weeks (check out the Race Across America if you’re interested), or hiking the entirety of the Appalachian Trail. What is there for me to take away from these stories?

We are many of us endurance athletes, but of a different sort. Committing to a practice of running, swimming, walking, cycling, lifting, playing, training day after day, year after year, is most definitely endurance activity. We deal with aging, injury, illness, natural disaster, job loss, divorce, and depression. Life events can send us into distraction, despair, cynicism, and loss of agency.

Don’t leave yet! Here’s the good part: endurance is all about acceptance and hope. Acceptance that where I am is not the end, but rather a point along a line (maybe an undulating one) that leads me through my relationship with my body. The hope is for completion of segments of that line—new personal bests, recovery after injury or illness, or finding a new normal amidst a backdrop of very non-normal circumstances.

Endurance athletes like those McGonigal talks with strike me as special creatures with niche talents and unusual psychological makeups. They are cool to watch and hear about. For most of us, though, being an endurance athlete looks like life: get up, eat breakfast, put your gear on, pump the tires, and set off. You don’t know what it’s going to look like or feel like. But it’s what you do. That’s endurance to me.

Sam

Again, I liked the stories best. If there’s a reason to read this book, that’s it. There isn’t enough detail here about the studies that are mentioned to satisfy a reader who cares about research. That said, I’m not interested in challenging McGonigal’s claims and the stories are inspirational on their own.

(An aside: If you want a great research book on the topic of sports endurance, read Alex Hutchinson’s Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. I loved it and started reviewing it here and got distracted.)

A confession, while I am not an ultra-marathoner, endurance is in my sports repertoire. I’ve ridden my bike some pretty long distances. I liked that McGonigal’s discussion of ultra-races includes the community and connection aspects of such events. I’d never be tempted to ride my bike alone 660+ kms but I’ve done it lots now as part of the Friends for Life Bike Rally fundraising ride with hundreds of other cyclists. Recently I reviewed a book about a woman who rode around the world and for her, it was global community that sustained her.

But I know that’s not true for all endurance athletes and I wondered if some of the solo sorts might feel left out by this chapter. Cate has blogged here lots about her solo cycling adventures, also major endurance events, and while they’ve never tempted me, I know she’s not alone in craving that kind of radical independence.

Have you been reading along? What did you think? What bits of this chapter spoke to you?

Book Reviews · cycling · food

Book review: Felicity Cloake’s “One more Croissant for the Road” – food and cycling in France

Being in lockdown has left me, like others including Sam, with time to do more of some things, including reading. I’ve always been an avid reader, but in pre-Corona times other “extracurricular” activities occupied more of my free time than they do now. Given the dire situation in the real world, I’ve also given in to the temptation of reading as a form of escapism, and what better way to go somewhere when you can’t go anywhere than a travelogue?

“One more Croissant for the Road” caught my eye one day early in the lockdown as I was looking for a light and joyful read. The premise is extremely enticing: Felicity Cloake, a British food writer, decides to explore the culinary joys of France over a summer. She picks out 21 classic French dishes and decides to visit each one at its place of origin… by bike. The result is a highly entertaining dash across the country and a lot of eating, some of it – but not all – delicious. From Boeuf Bourguignon to Tarte Tatin, Felicity Cloake makes it her mission to try all of it, often on several occasions. In between, her trusty green bike and bright yellow panniers battle many a hill and zoom along many a country road (and some dual carriageways, too). All of it is interspersed with a second quest, that for the perfect 10/10 croissant.

It’s definitely more food than sports-focused, but One more Croissant for the Road makes for great quarantine reading. In addition to her light and humourous writing, Felicity Cloake includes recipes for each dish, so you can expand your lockdown cooking adventures if that’s your jam (see what I did there?) and you can manage to source the ingredients.

If you want to know more, here’s the official blurb from the publisher.

Book Club · Book Reviews · fitness

Book Club Week 6: The Joy of Movement, Chapter 6

A few weeks ago we started a virtual book club.

You can read about the idea here.

You can buy the Joy of Movement here or from a local bookshop or your favourite online retailer.

What’s the plan? Christine, Catherine, and I are reading a chapter a week, for seven weeks and writing about it here. We did that for Nia Shank’s book The 100 Day Reclaim: Daily Readings to Make Health and Fitness as Empowering as it Should Be. And we liked it so much we’re doing it again. Read what our reviews looked like here.

What’s different this time? We’re inviting you to join us. Read along and put your contributions in the comments. It doesn’t need to be a lot. A few sentences, a few paragraphs, whatever you’re moved to write.

Want to catch up?

Read Week 1 here: https://fitisafeministissue.com/2020/03/10/book-club-week-1-the-joy-of-movement-chapter-1/

Read Week 2 here: https://fitisafeministissue.com/2020/03/17/book-club-week-1-the-joy-of-movement-chapter-2/

Read Week 3 here: https://fitisafeministissue.com/2020/03/31/book-club-week-3-the-joy-of-movement-chapter-3/

Read Week 4 here: https://fitisafeministissue.com/2020/04/09/book-club-week-4-the-joy-of-movement-chapter-4/

Read week 5 here: https://fitisafeministissue.com/2020/04/16/book-club-week-5-the-joy-of-movement-chapter-5/

Catherine

Chapter 6 of McGonigal’s book is about how nature helps us get out of our own heads and into a different state of mind. She cites E.O. Wilson on biophilia, who defines it as a hard-wired instinct that’s key to human happiness. Wilson says, “the emotions that modern humans tend to feel in nature—awe, contentment, curiosity, wanderlust—contributed to early humans’ ability to thrive as a species that had to find its place in a complex and constantly changing landscape”.

As I read this chapter about the feelings of transcendence, connection, care and contentment that immersion in nature brings, I can’t help but notice how distant those feelings are now. Parks and green spaces and beaches and wilderness areas are closed. And rightly so; when the governor of Florida re-opened beaches for socially-distanced recreation, crowds of people thronged the shores.

Does McGonigal have something to offer us for accessing the transformative powers of nature in these sequestered days? Yes. She describes how astronauts on the International Space Station all perked up around their new crewmember Rose, a spouted zucchini plant that one astronaut carefully nurtured from seed. NASA now recommends gardening in space as a psychological balm against the artificiality of space travel.

Yesterday I spent some time tending to my house plants, watering and pruning and staking and planning for repotting. I’m also starting an herb garden on my back porch. For me, caring for things live and green cuts down on the whingeing and promotes a quieter, softer mind state.

Walking through our neighborhoods, noting the developing buds and green shoots and flowering flora is a pleasure worth slowing down and taking in. Maybe we need to think of it like athletic training. I’m considering this and will report back.Christine

Christine

When comes to exercising outdoors, my ADHD-related challenges with *starting* an exercise session are compounded. Not only do I have to get myself organized to do the exercise itself, I have to get extra clothing on and I have to be prepared to face whatever weather is happening out there.

(Don’t start with the ‘There’s no bad weather, only bad clothing’ thing with me. I’m not buying it.)

I like to BE outdoors and I like doing outdoor things but, like with many things in my life, I have trouble bridging the gap between wanting to do something and actually starting it.

This is where McGonigal’s Chapter 6 ‘Embrace Life’ is going to come in handy.

This chapter is all about the underlying physiological reasons that exercising in nature is good for us. It’s not just about the movement, it’s not just about nature itself, it’s about the brainspace that we can access when we are exercising outdoors.

She says that in our regular resting-brain state our minds are not quiet, they are, instead, chattering about our social connections – our relationships with others, our place in our own social world. This is not inherently bad (in fact, it is quite useful) but it can create challenges when we are dealing with mental health issues. In nature, however, our resting mental state almost immediately flips to a different sort of consideration. The sights, smells, and sounds of nature draws our attention outwards and we get ‘out of our heads’ and tune into the world around us. We begin to feel that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.

That’s the kind of information that can help me get past the challenges of starting.

I know that I feel better in nature – exercising or just being – but having it described in this way is very tangible and helpful. Knowing the specific type of feeling I am seeking (and how to achieve it) can be another little push in the direction I want to go.

I was also very intrigued by her descriptions of groups who do gardening/landscaping/outdoor work for their exercise and how they can be motivated by seeing their progress…that there is a visible difference in their space from the time they start to the time they finish. This ties in nicely with another struggle of mine – not being able to see how the pieces add up to the whole.

One of my challenges with consistent exercise is that it is hard for me to recognize that any given single session will add up to a greater whole of increased fitness. There’s not often a tangible, positive result from a single workout so it is hard to convince myself that there is any point to a given session (Yes, intellectually, I know the difference but it’s not my intellect that is front and centre when I am trying to convince myself to put on my sneakers.)

So, this chapter has me wondering two things –
1) How can I regularly remind myself that exercising outside will give me that expansive ‘unity sensation’ that I enjoy?
2) How can I add that element of tangible, visible results to my exercise activities?

Chapter 6 is an interesting, enjoyable, and thought-provoking chapter and I will definitely be able to make good use of the information it contains.

Sam

I’ve decided I like this book best when I ignore two things: brief descriptions of theory without enough detail to determine if they are actually backed up by studies–that’s not the kind of book this is, and also the analogies with drugs and drug use–that’s not the kind of person I am, though clearly the author thinks lots of people will find it useful to think of exercise that way. Not me.

What I do love though are the stories. This chapter has some great stories about our connection to nature and the implications for human happiness, especially when it’s outdoor exercise in green environments.

I loved reading about emails to Melbourne’s trees. Melbourne gave 70,000 trees email addresses so people could report on their condition and instead, or in addition, people all over the world wrote letters to the trees themselves. See People from all over the world are sending emails to Melbourne’s trees.

I enjoyed reading about the author’s difficult decision about what to do with her elderly, ailing cat and how it was all made easier by a walk in nature with her partner that put things in perspective.

New to me too are Green Gyms, a program in the UK that combines, exercise, outdoor activity and caring for the outdoor environment. “Green Gyms are fun and free outdoor sessions where you will be guided in practical activities such as planting trees, sowing meadows and establishing wildlife ponds. Unlike other conservation projects, the emphasis is very much on health and fitness – volunteers warm up and cool down in preparation for a range of light to vigorous activities to suit all abilities.”

This appeals to me because I am often struck by how compartmentalized our lives are and how something as simple as gardening ticks a bunch of well-being boxes (outside, and everyday movement, and maybe even vegetables at the end).

Like Catherine, I’m thinking about the outside lots these days as I’ve moved even my bike riding to inside. I have wistful canoe camping thoughts and while it might be a very long time before I am back inside a restaurant or a mall, I want to get back into the wild as soon as possible. Heck, I am looking forward to eating outside in the evenings in our backyard as soon as it’s warm enough.

Also, I plan to garden. Wish me luck!

Book Club · Book Reviews · fitness

Book Club Week 5: The Joy of Movement, Chapter 5

A few weeks ago we started a virtual book club.

You can read about the idea here.

You can buy the Joy of Movement here or from a local bookshop or your favourite online retailer.

What’s the plan? Christine, Catherine, and I are reading a chapter a week, for seven weeks and writing about it here. We did that for Nia Shank’s book The 100 Day Reclaim: Daily Readings to Make Health and Fitness as Empowering as it Should Be. And we liked it so much we’re doing it again. Read what our reviews looked like here.

What’s different this time? We’re inviting you to join us. Read along and put your contributions in the comments. It doesn’t need to be a lot. A few sentences, a few paragraphs, whatever you’re moved to write.

Want to catch up?

Read Week 1 here: https://fitisafeministissue.com/2020/03/10/book-club-week-1-the-joy-of-movement-chapter-1/

Read Week 2 here: https://fitisafeministissue.com/2020/03/17/book-club-week-1-the-joy-of-movement-chapter-2/

Read Week 3 here: https://fitisafeministissue.com/2020/03/31/book-club-week-3-the-joy-of-movement-chapter-3/

Read Week 4 here: https://fitisafeministissue.com/2020/04/09/book-club-week-4-the-joy-of-movement-chapter-4/

This week is just Catherine and Christine chiming in. I’m too swamped!

Catherine

In Chapter 5, McGonigal writes about overcoming obstacles, generally by plowing over or through them. For the record, I have no interest doing a Tough Mudder competition. Ever. Any athletic event that involves even mild electrocution is not for me. I know whereof I speak, having zapped myself and blown several fuses in my house once with an ill-tempered hairdryer.

I can relate, though, to willingly embarking on a physical adventure where at some point you just take a deep breath and say, f**k it, here I go. My first scuba diving trip was just like that. I jumped off the boat into 15 meters of cobalt blue water, having no idea what would happen. There was terror at first, followed shortly by “hey, look at that pretty blue fish. Oh, look, there’s another one. I’m think I’m going to go follow them now”. I can’t convey how proud and thrilled I was for having lept into the wild blue water.

McGonigal’s exploration of the idea of high terror/low horror experiences is intriguing, and helps explain the appeal and payoff that comes from extreme events like Tough Mudder. However, I don’t think this idea applies to confronting serious physical challenges like recovering from or adapting to severe injuries. She relates inspirational success stories of people who trained at an adaptive fitness gym. They and their trainers set very difficult goals, and when they finally reach them, they get to post a message on the Wall of Greatness.

Not everyone in physical therapy or training is going to meet those goals, though. Sometimes overcoming obstacles means figuring out ways around them. One of my favorite mountain bike ride leaders Bill, who rides everything elegantly, always reminded us that “every mountain bike comes fully equipped with a hiker”. Some obstacles you commit to confronting and riding through or down or up. Other times, you get off and walk your bike around them.

McGonigal reminds us of the glorious feelings we can have in our bodies from doing, watching, witnessing and trying to master arduous physical tasks. I have reveled in such moments. Right now, they’re not resonating so much. Maybe it’s because we’re in the midst of Coronavirus time. I’m biding my time, moving my body in my local environment, keeping some resources in reserve. There will be “Cowabunga!” moments in my future. I’ll reread this chapter again when I’m ready for one.

Catherine

 Overcoming Obstacles

I am getting so much out of this book and it is meeting my need for certain key types of information that might help me work with my ADHD (instead of against it!) and become even more consistent with exercise. The (sort of) downside is that the information is wrapped in big ideas and big personal concepts that take a while to unpack and that kind of thinking doesn’t lend itself to a weekly review. So, I haven’t been covering everything that I want to cover each week but I suspect that I will be circling back to this book in future monthly posts.

The ideas in Chapter 5 – Overcoming Obstacles are definitely examples of the situation I am describing above. There is lots of great information in here but digging deep into how it applies to me and how it will help me will take a lot more thinking. So this isn’t all I will have to say on this topic!

Overcoming Obstacles is all about motivation, encouragement, and hope. She describes all kinds of different scenarios that illustrate the key components of activities and programs that support people to persevere and push themselves (in useful ways) towards the goals they have set for themselves. The personal stories are inspiring in themselves but her information about *why* they work is especially valuable.

In fact, the way that McGonigal handles stories is one of my favourite aspects of this book. Not only does she share individual stories as examples but she also refers frequently to people’s storytelling capacity, and to the stories they tell themselves as they proceed through their lives. As a storyteller and a life coach, I LOVE these references. In some cases, they confirm information that I already use in my practice and in others they expand it in new directions – it’s great!

I really enjoy the way in which McGonigal discusses the mental challenges involved in preparing for and completing physical challenges. Too often, the mental work of exercise is dismissed or lumped into ‘Grit’ or ‘Just set your mind to it!’ Obviously, grit and determination play a role in the mental effort required but it is much more complex than that (especially for those of us who are not neurotypical) and I appreciate the ways in which she addresses the thinking required to accomplish physical tasks.