Riding safely in the big city

I’m currently spending five weeks working and visiting friends in and around London, UK – the “other” London, as we know it in southwestern Ontario. This is where I began my road cycling career 5 years ago, believe it or not, and it’s a place where I lived, worked, and commuted by bicycle for 26 months between 2012 and 2014.

London roads are full to bursting with cyclists these days, and it’s one of the reasons why the big, blue, bicycle “superhighways” that were introduced by former mayor Ken Livingstone are now undergoing a series of much-needed upgrades.

promoCycleSuperHighway2

(Two images showing wide blue cycle lanes in London, England. One is a close-up shot on a quiet road, and the other a view from above of the lanes on a wide, busy street.)

When I commuted via “CS7” and “CS2” between my home in Tooting, south London, and my job in Mile End, east London, back in the day, the blue paint on the road was mostly for show: taxis, motorbikes, and double decker buses all crowded into our lanes, and I (famously, to me) got side-swiped by a Stansted Airport Express coach on CS2 outside Aldgate East station on Valentine’s Day in 2013. Why do I remember this in such detail? Because it hurt. And because the police did ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about it.

I rode along CS2 yesterday, after a trip out to Surrey to play in the hills on my new road bike, Freddie. (My bikes travel with me everywhere. Your question: how much does that cost??!! My answer: not a penny. But I do tend to fly with established carriers, not budget carriers. Your mileage may vary.)

Were there changes to the lanes in the time since my commuting days? Oh my, so many! The route is now fully segregated in the high-traffic zone between the City and Whitechapel, by a mix of pole barriers and concrete, poured barriers. The bikes also now have their own traffic lights, meaning if you obey them and cross only when it’s safe to do so, you no longer have fight with turning vehicles not looking for you.

cmglee_london_cycle_superhighway_2_wikimedia_commons

(An image of London’s Cycle Superhighway 2, with a concrete barrier separating cyclists from traffic. This segregation is now the norm on what was once the deadliest road for cyclists in the capital.)

As I rode past The Spot Where I Got Hit four years ago, I thought to myself: that accident could not happen now. Or, if it did, it’d mean that the bus had jumped the barrier, which would also mean the cops could not just ignore it.

These much-needed improvements got me thinking a lot about how to be safe on the roads, especially in very busy, big cities. Lots more people now – in London, in Toronto, in New York, even in little London, Ontario – are commuting by bike, and bike lanes (and green bike boxes!) are more common in North America than ever before.

But I also know lots of people who won’t commute by bike, or ride on the road for exercise (Tracy is one), because they fear (very reasonably) the dangers that accrue to riding a pedal bike on roads built primarily for car traffic.

Which, of course, got me thinking that I should blog about how I have learned to ride safely in large cities, with the hopes that some of you who fear the roads now might use these top tips to give it a try.

1. Take up space.

This is my #1 tip by far. Beginner cyclists find the whole thing daunting with good reason: the majority of traffic on city streets is going 20-30kph (12-22mph) faster than you are. Gut instinct is often to cleave to the gutter, riding as close to the curb as possible. This is a mistake, though, because it gives traffic the impression that it can and should ignore you.

Basically, not taking up space gives cars license to not pay attention to you in the decisions they make as they pass you. This is good for nobody. It also means that you might hit stuff that’s been tossed into the gutter, possibly producing a fall. Trust me: there’s a lot of shit in the gutter.

What’s the alternative? Ride in the middle right (or left, depending on your national context) of your lane. That is: maybe don’t ride right in the middle (although there are times you can and should do this, and it’s legal!), but ride prominently in the middle of your “side” of the lane. That says to drivers: “I am here. I am riding safely, keeping about a metre between me and the curb. Go around me safely.”

door-zone-300x214

(An image, from the U.S., of safe riding in the lane to avoid what the image calls “The Door Zone”. It shoes a woman on the edge of a wide, marked bike lane and two riders in the middle of it. The image encourages safe mid-lane riding to make you visible and help you avoid being hit by motorists as they open doors.)

Sure, some drivers will whip by and curse you, because they are jerks – or maybe because they don’t know any better. Most, however, will pass you respectfully.

When they do, smile and wave or give them a thumbs-up to encourage them to keep that practice up.

2. Ride assertively (which is to say, with confidence)

That accident I had in 2013 on CS2 would not have happened if I’d been riding with my usual assertion, taking up space and maintaining a consistent speed in the face of traffic dodging around me. I wasn’t being assertive, though, because I was having a hip joint issue and struggling to produce power with my left leg. So I went gutter-side, slowed a bit, and the bus chose to ignore me (or maybe didn’t actually see me?…) as it veered left. WHAM.

It may take some practice in your neighbourhood, on quiet streets, or with trusted friends to build your confidence, but do it. Do it so you know your bike and your reflexes. Get friends to join you and ride very close to you so you know what that feels like. Get another friend to hop in a car and pass you in different ways so you know what that feels like.

Nope, you cannot simulate crazy traffic, I know – but you CAN simulate your responses to different kinds of driver actions. And that’s important.

Riding assertively means riding like you have every right to be there and to be moving at your preferred pace on the road. Drivers do it all the time; so can you. Take the time to get comfortable with both your bike and that feeling of belonging. You’ll feel stronger in every way once you do.

3. Don’t use routes you don’t like

Some routes to your final destination are more direct than others, and they probably involve high-traffic roads. If you aren’t comfortable riding on them, don’t use them. There are lots of alternatives. Get an app like Citymapper or Cyclemetre to help you find one, or use Google Maps to plot the best routes to and from preferred destinations. (And: use the “street view” function to be sure those routes have appropriate road surfacing for your bike. If you commute on a road bike you don’t want a gravel road: trust me.)

Over time, as your confidence builds, your willingness to use busier routes will increase naturally. Let that happen; there’s no rush. I may ride some of the busiest roads in London when I’m here, but back in LonON, I commute primarily on the bicycle paths, going at a much more leisurely speed. There’s no shame in that; in fact, it’s often the smartest route for me to work.

4. Drivers will get mad at you. Don’t engage.

I get yelled at. A lot. It’s probably the fancy bike and the lycra, plus the fact that I take up space and always move to the front of a line of traffic when we are waiting at a stop light – whether or not there’s a bike box. (Why? I want everyone at the top of the queue to see me and know I am there. They may hate it, but I know they would hate hitting me more.) Anyway, pretty much once a ride I get a drive-by “fuck you! Get off the road!”

Why do drivers do this?

Sometimes because cyclists are being jerks. (Some cyclists are jerks, just like some motorists are.) Sometimes they yell because they are having a super bad day and you are in their way. Or they are in a rush.

Or, they yell because they have been conditioned (by, you know, media outlets that are maybe not always sympathetic to the cycle commuter) to believe cyclists are all arrant rogues in flashy pants who deserve all the *#&$^% they get.

You might not ride like me, which means you might not get yelled at as much as I do. But you will get yelled at, guaranteed. When that happens, I urge you to let it go. Assume the motorist is being ignorant, not malicious. Assume it’s not really about you.

Remember that you do not know that motorist as a human being, and that motorist similarly does not know you.

Of course sometimes you’ll yell back. Of course you will use hand gestures from time to time. We are all human. Just remember that it’s not actually about you and the person in the car. It’s about a system that encourages us to see roads as car “territory” and bikes as interlopers. Until that changes, altercations are inevitable.

roadsage-560x628

(A cartoon image that encourages creative responses to car-cycle altercations on the road. My preferred response to the yellers? I smile, wave, and blow them a showy kiss. A kiss that says “I’m not fazed by you.” It’s disarming, and thought-provoking.)

5. Wear. A. Helmet. (Always.)

The bus collision in 2013 is not my worst ever bike accident. My worst ever bike accident happened 1.2km from my house in London, Ontario, in a parking lot at my local outdoor pool. I hit a speed bump, went over my handlebars, and hit the deck.

I had decided it was too short a distance to bother wearing my helmet.

Luckily, I landed on my chin. I had a big bruise but my head was OK. The first aiders from the pool were kind, but when I went back later to get my bike (I was taken to a hospital in an ambulance, for fear of broken limbs, but was discharged later the same day) they reminded me that helmets save lives.

Now I always wear one, even if I’m going just down the street.

You will fall. You will; it’s normal. Just be prepared.

Know that chances are the fall will be minor. Know that helmets are excellent protection against serious brain injury. Know that proper cycling clothes protect skin! (I have awesome road rash from that parking lot crash. I was wearing a swim suit and flip flops! Better idea: cover up for the ride, and wear proper shoes to ride, too. Closed toe – protect those small bones!)

Practicing how to fall is also a good idea, by the way. Choose a path near grass. Bring a friend.

***

That’s it. In sum:

Practice until you feel confident with and on your bike. Then, on the road, own some assertiveness. Take up space. Let drivers pass you, and if they yell, don’t engage angrily. Find routes that work for you. Wear protective gear to keep yourself as safe as is reasonably possible. Then: relax and have some fun.

Oh, and if you have any energy left over, get involved in cycling advocacy! See a route that needs improving? Call your local representatives. See an intersection that needs a bike box? Ditto.

Like I said above: safety for cyclists is tied to systemic assumptions about road ownership. Let’s change that system, one commute at a time.

 

One of the hardest parts of getting older: Friends, family, illness, and death

We write a lot on the blog about aging.

See my posts On not growing old gracefully, Invisibility, aging, and perspective, and Women who care most about their looks have the toughest time aging.

These posts concern issues about looks and self-esteem. And while it’s true that aspect of aging is tough, it’s not the toughest thing. It’s also hard having new aches and pains and not being able to do some of the things you used to do in your youth. Me, I’m also having a hard time recognizing that there are now some things I’ll never get to do. Not at all doors remain open. Hard stuff.

But the toughest thing isn’t any of this really. It’s coping with death. Remaining emotionally well as one makes one’s way through life means making peace somehow with death and loss.

When my first friends died I was young. They were young. Men in their forties. One died of H1N1. (Remember that?) The other of a heart attack. Goodbye Steve, goodbye Randy.

Both deaths were awful, tragic, but they felt like a fluke. Death still felt like something far away. I mean, something awful happened to these friends (yes, I think death is bad for the person whose death it is) but it seemed so distant and unlikely. Death wasn’t yet a normal part of my life.

My sister, Sarah, also died in 2009 at the age of 41, after decades of struggle with depression and mental illness. Death seemed closer then. More real.

Then more friends from high school started to die, men in their early fifties. One died of ALS. The other, a high school boyfriend and a sweet, gentle man dedicated to his family, died of cancer. Goodbye Justin, goodbye Kevin.

And yes we all die but these deaths seemed early. They were people in the middle of things, on whom others depended.

And then more cancer, more deaths. Goodbye Gerry, goodbye Peter. I don’t swear but even I say, Fuck cancer.

Two members of my feminist book group died.

And so many parents, Avis (see On counting almonds, searching for Devil’s Claw, and remembering Avis), Tom (On “special weather,” bike commuting, and missing certain people) and my father. Of course, friends of my parents have been dying too. 

Now this year it seems it’s the mothers of those close to me: Eleanor, Rob (see Remembering Marion) and Sarah.

So many parents. I mean on the one hand I know we all die. I know we mostly all have two parents. And that makes for a lot of parental deaths

Yesterday a friend and I joked about that line from Oscar Wilde, ‘To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune to lose both looks like carelessness.”

And in the midst of it all, Sandra Bartky died. See Saying Goodbye to Sandra. I’m away this weekend at a memorial gathering of her former students. I’m thinking again about death, how short our lives really are, and the legacies we leave behind.

I know I can’t keep track of them all but sometimes in my head I recite the list of names of friends and family members who’ve died over and over again. And I know it will get longer and longer, assuming I stay alive. I know I’ll lose track. There are probably people I’m missing now. I didn’t list friends of my parents. I didn’t list my friends’ parents.

Often now I buy sympathy cards in multiplies. I’ve gotten better at knowing what to say. I’ve been to lots of funerals. Always go to the funeral.

My mental list is getting too long. Sometimes now already I forget that someone, usually a philosopher, is dead.

It feels selfish writing about some of these deaths since I wasn’t that close to the people involved. But it’s true for all of us that friends and family members die. It doesn’t let up. Sometimes I just want to tell the world I need a break. “Could no one please die this week?”

I don’t want to get tough in the face of death. I want to stay soft in my heart and open to love and to loss. People sometimes think that my quest to stay physically fit is about fending off death. It’s not. See Fighting aging? Why the battle language?

I’m all for aging. As my dad used to say, it beats the alternative.

But losing friends and family? There’s not much good to say about that I’m afraid. I’ve gotten very protective of the people I love. DRIVE CAREFULLY, I scream at them. I ask if they are eating well, seeing a doctor regularly, you know. I hang on to people tightly. I hug goodbye fiercely. It’s the toughest part of aging, in my experience. Also, so few people talk about it.

My mother lost a dear friend last month. They’d been close friends for decades. Old friends, the kind you’ve known for most of your life, won’t happen again. This is just normal aging, I know. There’s nothing tragic here really. But still. Nothing stays the same. Don’t get me started on the dogs.

Manny and Olivia, two black dogs, looking in through the screen door with a green chair in the background.

Manny and Olivia, two black dogs, looking in through the screen door with a green chair in the background. They both died in 2014.

Hug everyone. Hug lots. Hold people close. Tell them you love them.

How do you cope? What strategies do you recommend? Puppies, I know that one. Long bike rides. Walks in the woods. But what else? 

 

 

 

 

 

Guest Post: Everyday Shakti (“Power”)

by Treena Orchard

My yoga journey began in January, as a way to deal with heartache- new year, old sorrows. I needed to move, not just out of my apartment but out of my head and the disappointment that had taken root there. There are only so many times I could cry or limp through my days feeling angry and hurt, only so many times I could listen to that broken heart soundtrack featuring Tina Turner (Typical Male, You Better Be Good to Me- wishful thinking, clearly), Alicia Keyes (Fallin), Lauren Hill (X-factor), and that 1990s favourite by Mazzy Star -Fade into You.

I wanted to do something else, but hadn’t done yoga for years. Is this what I want to do? Where? When? Do I still have yoga clothes? These are the questions I asked myself while scrolling through the studio options, weighing the pros and cons of each one: ‘Only does hot- nope, never done that, not ready for that’; ‘Too far away, I’ll never go’; ‘Too trendy, not up for seeing all matter of fit young things sweating up a pretty storm.’ Then I came upon my goldilocks place: ‘It does hot and normal yoga, is only a block away, and it looks cool.’

I chose a non-hot Yang/Yin class because it seemed the most basic place to start and with trepidation and excitement I strode through the red door of The Yoga Collective, ready to begin. As the Tuesdays and Thursdays, and then Sundays too, began adding up so did my strength and desire to do more. It was like rekindling an old relationship with myself through my body, welcoming back the knowledge stored in the muscle’s memory. To remember is to become aware of something again and like our guru Robin often says at the end of class, when we’re all zenned out and just about to utter ‘Namaste” in unison, it’s like coming home.

Does all this goodness mean that I was totally on board with the 30-day challenge when talk of it first began to circulate through the studio? Hell no—NO. No, I can’t do that. That’s what my Vancouver friends did, super fit people who were into super cool things- namely yoga, brunch, and being from Vancouver. Could I do a yoga challenge too? Do I want to? I thought about it a lot and talked with my fellow women yogis, who seemed to be in the same see-saw place as me, wanting to do it but not quite sure about making the commitment. Making a commitment is making a promise and being dedicated to something, serious business.

Despite the positive traction that has been made to reframe how we talk about failure as well as success, I’d be lying if I said the prospect of failing didn’t matter. The image of a circus appeared in my mind, not an innovative, fashion-forward Cirque de Soleil thing but a more carny, less health and safety variety. I am high atop the crowd in a shiny, non-cotton leotard with those dreadful ‘spice’ coloured tights, traipsing inch by nervous inch across the tightrope towards a piece of wood nailed to a pole or some such fictional symbol of a successfully completed 30-day yoga challenge.

Clearly, I really wasn’t sure I could do it. I did not want to fail and my primary concern was related to the physical nature of the challenge. Could I really do yoga every day? I’d only been going three times a week…The tipping point came when Robin said that he decided to hold the challenge when he thought we could do it. Enough said. Fuck it, I might not finish it perfectly but I’m going to do it. I was excited and proud of myself for making the decision.

But, I still felt nervous, especially as Day 1 crept up. These feelings continued into the first week of the challenge, when I was rather obsessive about “doing yoga” and “making time for yoga.” Happily, those feelings began to melt away as the incorporation of yoga into the rhythms of my daily life became ever more seamless. Time itself began to bend to the clock of yoga, which became the measure by which I paced, organized, and rearranged all other things. Tick-tock went the mornings and nights of practice.

As the days passed I felt stronger physically and mentally and those 30 days were an exceptionally creative time too, not just for ‘work work’ but also my own writing, reading, and thinking. The 6 am classes were my favourite. As I walked quietly through my apartment, packing my water bottle and looking at myself in the mirror before heading out into early summer’s dawn, I often thought of Sylvia Plath. During the last months she worked in the very early hours, the only time she could steal away for herself and her beautiful, caustic reflections on a life that was fast slipping away.

Women have always done this, always found ways to make room for themselves and their ideas, the things that matter. They have done this despite and because of others, whether it be the children they love, those who hurt them, or the world that remains caught up in repetitive cycles of patriarchal madness. We must make time and take space for ourselves because no one else will give it to us and because it is essential for our minds, souls, and bodies. Whether it’s a ‘room of our own’ or a yoga mat, amidst lemongrass diffuser mist and beside women and men who have become our friends, we all need that place where we can dwell inside the universe.

Treena is an anthropologist working in the School of Health Studies at Western University in London, Ontario. She lives with her adorable cats Shiva and Mr. Marbles, her art and books, and gets back home to Saskatoon as often as she can.

 

 

 

I love air too, but not for lunch

Image description: a colour image of smooth stones--white, grey, brown, rose-coloured. The largest one in the centre is grey with white specks and has "Just breathe" etched into it.

Image description: a colour image of smooth stones–white, grey, brown, rose-coloured. The largest one in the centre is grey with white specks and has “Just breathe” etched into it.

I’ve been blogging recently about food alarmism, that annoying tendency some people have to demonize certain foods by talking about how they’ll kill you.

But the most out-there food fad that’s ever come to my attention has got to be “breatharianism.” Sam sent me a link to “‘Breatharian’ couple survives on ‘the universe’s energy’ instead of food.”

This couple–Akahi Ricardo and Camila Castello–claims that humans don’t need food and water, that they can survive on the ‘energy of the universe’ alone. Apparently, since 2008 “they have survived on a piece of fruit or vegetable broth just three times a week.” Castello claims to have eaten nothing during the entire nine months of her pregnancy with her first child. Since she wasn’t used to feeling the sensation of hunger, she says, she “lived fully on light and ate nothing.” Considering pregnant women are meant to eat more not fewer calories to support the growing fetus, it doesn’t sound like the best approach to pregnancy.

She said living on air in the breatharian lifestyle also cured her PMS. Ricardo made the astute observation that “breatharianism” is a great way to slash the cost of your food bills.  Now that they have two children, they eat from time to time so they can share that experience with the kids. Castello says:

“Now, Akahi and I eat very sporadically — perhaps three or four times per week at the most. I might have a few vegetables, a juice or a bite of an apple with my children. Sometimes we have a glass of water too.”

“Whenever I eat now, it’s not because I’m hungry — I just don’t remember that sensation.”

Okay. I consider myself a fairly open-minded person who believes in reserving judgment and letting people live their lives as they wish, with the rough qualification that they not harm others. This pair claims not to impose their breatharian lifestyle on their children.

But when they say they don’t eat and instead exist only on the ‘universe’s energy,’ my first thought is that they have to be lying. I’m no scientist (or mystic), but I think we can say with a fair bit of confidence that you can’t live on ‘universal energy’ alone. My second thought is that okay, so they might eat something (a piece of fruit here, veggie broth there, the occasional glass of water every few days), but it’s not enough.  In reading about their approach, it’s not exactly that they demonize food.  They just consider it unnecessary. Food is not unnecessary. Granted, the air we breathe is also necessary. But surely it’s not sufficient to sustain a person? Don’t we have all sorts of science to back this up? This approach to eating, where the end result is to lose the sensation of hunger and eat very little (if not nothing) sounds alarmingly like an eating disorder.

It seems that I’m not the first person to question the veracity and sense of their claims. After the first article (quoted above), they released a clarificatory statement explaining that they actually do eat a bit more than they originally said:

“We do eat, just not with the same frequency or intensity as the average person,” the couple said in a statement to The Post Wednesday. “When we went through the ‘Breatharian’ transition 21-day process, our intention wasn’t to stop eating, but rather to heal on a genetic level, information that gets passed through the generations and manifests in each person in different ways (like ‘hereditary’ information). The not-eating was like a side effect that we freely explored when we were a young couple, without children, and also through Camila’s pregnancy.”

There might be more to it than what I’ve talked about here. They say it involves “conscious breathing” techniques as well. And guess what? They offer courses on that which range in price from $200 to $1700.

The upshot here is this: it’s a variation on a food fad. You can dress it up with “universal energy” and “conscious breathing,” but in the end it’s just another way of depriving yourself of food. I’m the last person to tell people what they should eat. But please, please, eat something. And eat enough.

If you’ve heard of any other equally outrageous food fads, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

 

 

 

217 Workouts in 2017: #101

Sam and I (along with our friend Joh and a bunch of random facebook people) are doing a challenge of doing 217 workouts in 2017.  Sam did it last year (216 in 2016), and wrote earlier this year about her experience and trying to figure out “what counts” as a workout. Sam took a very philosophical tack on the question back in January, connecting the question to the Trolley Problem (which reared its head this week, weirdly enough, in my binge watch of this season’s Orange is the New Black.  Philosophy is everywhere!).  My definition is less theoretical, but last Friday I logged my 100th workout, and was reflecting on how clear “what counts” has become for me.

The terms of the group itself are fairly ambiguous:

“WHAT: The idea is simple. In 2017 there are 365 days. We are going to challenge ourselves to work out 217 times in those 365 days…. 

HOW: (1)Workouts are defined as any form of deliberate exercise/movement. Some examples are, lifting weights, doing gymnastics, a CrossFit WOD, a hike in the great outdoors, practising a martial art or yoga. Taking a dance class or playing rec softball with the folks from work also count. Do what inspires you to move your body.

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The image is Cate, a middle aged white woman in a bike helmet, on a break in the middle of a 60 km bike ride last Sunday in Ottawa, looking out over the Rideau River.  She needs more sunblock on that chest.

The group is also simple — we log our workouts in a short sentence, occasionally with a photo.  Sometimes people like each other’s posts.  That’s it.

The simple counting is strangely motivating for me.  The only time I’ve kept track of my workouts before was years ago when I was training for marathons, and that was more of an “am I following my program?” assessment.  This is just… stacking up a list.  And even in this world of strava, fitbits and garmins, I find a simple #97 hot 5K run in middle of day sort of seals a sense of accomplishment for me.  And if I haven’t logged anything for a couple of days, I have a nagging sensation that I need to move my body.  I know in my gut that I NEED to work out for my soul and body to function well, but other winters I have fudged that knowledge many times, letting 3 or 4 days drift between runs or trips to the gym.  This challenge has built in accountability for me — if I have to scroll down too far to find my previous post, it’s been too long. That’s my rule.

I think what I like most about this is that there is a loose external structure — a FB group, a number goal, other people doing it too — but everything else is personal.  You get to decide what counts for you as a workout.  That’s it.  Some people count every 2 or 3 km dogwalk, some people only count if they sweat.  There are no objective “rules.”

Sam and I have a similar approach to “what counts” — we count intentional episodes of working out but generally don’t count everyday movement.  That means we don’t count meeting our basic step count targets or short cycling commutes.  For us, that’s not working out, that’s just living our lives.  We count the things we wouldn’t be doing anyway.

Most counting is straightforward:  one episode of activity counts as one workout.  An episode could be a 3 km run or an 18 km run. One workout.  Going to the gym is one episode, even if I ran on the treadmill and did weights.  But — if I ran in the morning and then went to the gym in the afternoon, I’d count that as two workouts — because it was two different episodes of engaging in activity.

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Image of a bike on a rainy city street: this is an example of an episode of cycle commuting I counted as a workout, because I was soaking wet and freezing the entire ride home, yet I didn’t hop on the streetcar or into a cab.

This does create some grey areas.  Most of my cycling commutes total about 10 km a day, on pretty flat roads, in the city.  I don’t count that as a workout (though I do count it toward my yearly mileage in the saddle).  Other people might.  This is a very “you do you” situation.  However, I HAVE counted that 10 km cycling commute if it was really rainy or windy, because then it becomes an out-of-the-ordinary episode of mobility — although I usually count this as half a workout.  I might count two days of commuter cycling as a workout if I also threw in a few extra stairclimbs, or some pushups.  I don’t usually count hitting 10,000 steps in a day unless I exceed the 10K and it’s combined with a cycling commute.  And I’ve counted 12 or 13000 steps if it also involved moving boxes or lots of stairs, and certainly 15,000+ steps if I marched around a city for hours. I counted an hour of dancing at a wedding one night after I’d already gone on a long bike ride.  Other people have different frames of reference — again, you do you — I’m not going to weigh in on whether I think something constituted a workout for someone else.

In management theory, there is a concept called “felt fair pay,” which suggests that employees have an “innate” sense of appropriate compensation for their work, and the closer you get to that amount, the better motivation.  The theorist behind this  had a lot of crackpot ideas, but in my experience, when we’re engaged deeply in any initiative — whether it’s work or working out — we develop a “gut” sense of what feels fair.  I’ve determined that for me, working out is mostly defined in terms everyone would recognize as a workout — a yoga class, a run, a long bike ride — but there is also this gut sense of “it’s a workout if I added something somewhat strenuous to my day, especially if adding it felt like some kind of effort.”

I like this little challenge, and the completist in me is determined to hit the 217 target.  It’s simple, it’s flexible and I like the data:  I’ve worked out 101 times so far this year. In the movement department, I’m taking care of myself.  Gold star for me.

 

Whoever said “eating fried potatoes is linked to higher risk of death” can f**k right off

Image description: Steel pail lined with newspaper and filled with a heaping portion of fresh cut fries. Beside it is a three-part condiment dish holding ketchup and two other kinds of dipping sauces for the fries.

Image description: Steel pail lined with newspaper and filled with a heaping portion of fresh cut fries. Beside it is a three-part condiment dish holding ketchup and two other kinds of dipping sauces for the fries.

I read this article that other day with an outrageous headline: ‘”Eating fried potatoes linked to higher risk of death,” study says.’

First of all, everyone one of us is at risk of death because, guess what? We’re mortal! But the article says:

People who eat fried potatoes two or more times a week double their risk of an early death compared to those who avoid them, a recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found.

 

But then it also says:

The study is observational, meaning the researchers simply tracked the behavior of a group of people and found an association between one behavior — eating fried potatoes — and another factor — early death. Because it is an observational study, Veronese [the principal investigator of the study] and his co-authors note it cannot be said that eating fried potatoes directly causes an early mortality — it would require more research to draw such a firm conclusion.

But he thinks the preparation of fried potatoes leads to all sorts of unhealthiness. Of course, there are “other factors” that could lead to the result besides the fact of eating fried potatoes.

The CEO of the National Potato Council (who knew this vegetable had its own council?) wasn’t about to take these findings at face value (whatever the face value is):

National Potato Council CEO John Keeling said the “study isn’t relevant to the general population” since the data was collected for an osteoarthritis study and includes only patients with arthritis. “Potatoes are inherently a very healthy vegetable,” said Keeling in an email. He said a medium-sized potato is 110 calories, has no fat, no sodium, no cholesterol, and provides nearly a third of the daily vitamin C requirement with more potassium than a banana.”How the potato is prepared will impact the calorie, fat and sodium content,” said Keeling, however the basic nutrients remain “no matter how it is prepared.”
Based on the data in the study, Keeling said, “it is very much a stretch to brand fried potatoes, or any other form of potato, as unhealthy.”

And another researcher, Susanna Larsson, was quick to note that there’s nothing inherently wrong with eating potatoes. And in any case:

“Fried potato consumption may be an indicator of a less healthy (Western) dietary pattern which is associated with increased mortality,” said Larsson, who also conducted a studyof potato consumption. Her study did not find an increased risk of cardiovascular disease linked to eating potatoes.

The article goes on to mention acrylamide:

Acrylamide is “a chemical produced when starchy foods such as potatoes are fried, roasted or baked at a high temperature,” explained Schiff in an email. The browning process is actually a reaction that produces this chemical one shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals and considered toxic to humans, said Schiff. Acrylamide is also a potential cause of cancer, she said.

“You can reduce your intake of acrylamide by boiling or steaming starchy foods, rather than frying them,” said Schiff. “If you do fry foods, do it quickly.”

So the plot thickens. It’s not potatoes per se, or even fried potatoes. It’s starchy foods fried too quickly.

I like fried potatoes. In fact, on Friday I had a craving for fresh cut french fries that for various reasons went unmet for 24 hours. On Saturday I was visiting my parents in Haliburton, Ontario at the same time as two other family members of french fry eating age (I mention that because there was also a baby). They have a great place in town called Baked and Battered, and it serves incredible chips (it’s a fish and chip place and bakery).

I could have bought just enough to satisfy my craving. But I know people. And what I know about people is: most of them (maybe not my mother) LOVE fries as much as I do. So if I had bought just enough to satisfy my craving, my craving would not have been sufficiently dealt with because I would have had to share and, upon sharing, would have ended up with less. So I bought the large.

The large wasn’t just big. It was huge (for a box of fries). I would call it “family size.” It turns out I made a good call because when I brought these fries home to have with our lunch, everyone, including my mother, devoured them (I had the most, being the one with the craving who bought the fries). They were lip-smackingly fantastic. And we had a family bonding experience over them.

And that was awesome. And not a single one of us thought about increasing our risk of mortality. You know what I call that headline about fried potatoes and increased risk of mortality? Food alarmism.

When Sam and I talked about it the other day I said something like: don’t eat french fries right before you go sky diving or you’re screwed.

Here’s the thing. Fries aren’t going to kill you. Like with most things we eat, it’s good to diversify. You don’t want your entire diet to be made up of fries. But you don’t want your entire diet to made up of any one thing, even lettuce or kale or blueberries.

Food alarmism is in itself damaging because it encourages us to be fearful of one of life’s great pleasures. I like potatoes in all sorts of forms and preparations, including fried potatoes. And I know loads of other people who feel the same way. And to them I say: enjoy! And while you’re at it, enjoy some other foods too!

What’s the most annoying “food alarmism” you’ve encountered lately, either in the headlines or in your day to day interactions with people you know?

 

Guest Post: A Compatible Movement Practice (part 2 of 3)

Really, yoga is literally right next door to my home: zero commute time, zero extra carbon emissions, frequent classes with highly-regarded teachers… Plus, the people coming in and out just exude a kind of peaceful stretchy wisdom I should want to want for myself. The yoga people are actually very nice, not all of those people are cis-straight women with lululemon bodies. So I suppressed my trepidation.

Over several introductory sessions, I was relieved that nobody seemed exasperated with me for being unshaven, restless, too tightly-wound to touch my toes, and allergic to anything form-fitting. I did feel physically worked-out after each class, and the teacher seemed to be full of insight. My partner had long since gotten with the program. She does yoga regularly and even looks forward to it. It’s so clearly good for her. We could be a happy yoga household, right?

Yet I remained lukewarm at the prospect of going back, setting up the colorful mat that would define my bubble for the hour, and imitating pose after pose. If that first series of yoga classes felt like a sustained insult to my mildly butch self-image, surely I should embrace this as the spiritual challenge of working through the yuckily gendered semiotics of my embodiment. (“My ego feels like it’s in downward dog the whole time. Is that a good thing?,” I asked my friends.) Who was I to reject stamina and coordination and enlightenment? Something about the bodily discipline of yoga felt vaguely stifling, as though I might be able to visit, but could not make a home for myself there.

My yoga-loving partner listened patiently to my ambivalence. She did not crave the things I had treasured in past practices — things like laser-focused intensity, swinging hard at things, having to react quickly to shifting stimuli, being occasionally upside-down and underwater with my legs wedged into a boat. But she listened. I began to own my yearning for adrenaline and kinetic challenge. I yearned for these things, during yoga, the same way my kid craves coffee ice cream instead of the rest of the rice and veggies on her plate.

But here’s the hard thing about self-knowledge: Knowing that I crave something is not the same as knowing whether it’s good for me. And I felt as though the whole world had begun quietly chanting at me that it was time for my middle-aged self to learn to Eat Those Veggies. (My partner, meanwhile, loves all vegetables openly, and doesn’t understand how eating them could seem like a chore.)

Luckily, my therapist dismissed my yoga-vegetable-guilt-complex and forged ahead with brainstorming further ideas for a workable fitness regime. As I parried each suggestion with logistical objections or a picky aversions, I braced for a lecture about rationalization, laziness, and self-sabotage. Instead, she urged me firmly to focus again on aikido. She had seen the way my eyes lit up about aikido when I narrated my long history. “Scour the internet!,” she said. “Get leads from every dojo in driving distance, email friends of friends of friends to get recommendations for freelance instructors. Put out an SOS on craigslist, if that’s what it takes!”

Aikido and I had been seriously together for only a year, back when I was about 30. A relationship can only develop so far in one year, but I was a single and child-free itinerant academic when we met, so I had been able to immerse myself in dojo life, learning from an elegantly-bearded and compact Burmese sensei who radiated gentleness and precision. When I left that city because of a job, I found myself in a place remote from any aikido community. At the time I didn’t grieve much, since various projects kept me busy. But whenever I talked about it, there was a telltale sigh of loss.

So of course I rolled my eyes at this therapist and told her I had already done plenty of looking, and I was rusty at aikido by now anyway, so this yearning was pointlessly nostalgic. Surely I just needed to grieve like a mature person for not having an aikido connection anymore and find a way to hang in there and fall in love with… yoga?

But I promised I would put in a good faith effort at finding an aikido connection again. And on that Monday afternoon, my online search turned up an actual dojo within a workable half-hour drive, with all the right signs of hosting an active and friendly community. (I swear, it was hiding from google last time I looked!)  I dashed home, rummaged through storage for my old wrinkled gi, and drove there just in time for the 6pm “basics” class listed online.

See Part 1 here and Part 3 here