health · nature · snow · winter

Sam Goes to a Spa. Yes, Really.

So I went to a spa. First time ever. First pedicure a couple of years ago (never since!) and now the spa.

What next? What’s the world coming to?

I’m just joking (sort of). In my mind spas aren’t meant for me. Like pedicures, I think of spas as a THING RICH PEOPLE DO.

It’s not that I don’t spend money on luxurious things, like expensive bicycles, I do. And it’s not like I don’t spend $60 (the price of spa admission) on meals or concerts pretty regularly. I do.

But for reasons of family background in the first part of my life and resisting normative feminity, in the second, spas have never been on my radar. I’m the kind of person who didn’t have nail polish or make up for my own wedding. I did my own hair and it was touch and go whether I’d shave my legs.

I resisted getting a hot tub at our old house for years but then loved it and used it lots. I love sitting outside, in the heat, surrounded by snow and ice. I loved soaking after long rides and tough Aikido classes. My highlight of my holiday in Iceland a few years ago was soaking in a hot river after a long hike.

We went to the Scandinavian Spa on the Sunday of our weekend at Mount Tremblant when it was too cold and icy to ski or fat bike. I loved how much of it was outdoors. I really liked the steam rooms and the sauna and the hot tub but probably my favorite thing was relaxing in front of a fire outside wearing a bathrobe while covered in a giant warm fuzzy blanket. I loved basking in the sun, surrounded by trees and snow.

Some quick observations:

I loved wandering around outside in a bathrobe and bathing suit in the middle of winter. I love the outdoors and I’m almost always happier in the sun.

I’m so glad it was a silent place. I realize that I’m quiet anyway but I was so glad I didn’t have to listen to other people’s conversations. I found that really relaxing. I didn’t mind the other people there with everything quiet.

There are a lot of beautiful bodies out there. But it’s mostly the women who are on display. That’s no surprise but I forget that sometimes. I saw a lot of women in thong bathing suits with men in baggy board shorts. What’s with that?

I loved the idea of swimming in the river in the freezing cold water between hot things but I couldn’t make myself do it. Instead I settled for the cold bucket of water over the head a couple of times. That actually felt pretty refreshing.

I didn’t count the spa time as a workout though it turns out that time in hot water does have similar health benefits to exercise.

I’d definitely go again.

health · injury · running · yoga

Yoga for what ails you

The idea of yoga as a strategy for managing what ails you is far from new. Before yoga was the trendy lifestyle package it has become today, I had B.K.S. Iyengar’s book, Yoga: the path to holistic health. It was an illustrated book that laid out sequences of asanas (poses) recommended for different health conditions. It addressed physical and mental health, with an entire section devoted to stress. Back then, there was no YouTube. As a student of Iyengar yoga, I attended one class a week with the goal (as was the goal for most followers of Iyengar) of developing a strong home practice.

On occasion, if I was experiencing particular issues, I might flip to the section of the book that recommended a practice for those issues. But mostly I didn’t really take seriously the idea of yoga as a go-to for dealing with specific mental or physical health issues.

Fast forward 20 years. On Sunday, when my outer knee started to bother me at about the 7K mark of my 12K run, I knew my IT band was the culprit. I hate icing, but I know ice is recommended for the first 24 hours of any injury or flare-up. Besides that, though, it seemed obvious to me that there must be a sequence of yoga postures that would stretch that tight IT band and provide me with relief.

And I was right. I did an internet search for “yoga for IT band” and up came articles and videos for preventive and therapeutic yoga for runners with IT band issues. I zeroed in on one from Do Yoga with Me, specifically titled as a stretch class for runners for the IT band. I set up my mat and hit play.

Though I wouldn’t call the instructor the most engaging yogi I’ve ever taken a class with, I did get a lot out of the sequence. It was a half an hour of basic yet effective yoga postures with holdings that took some effort yet weren’t too terribly long.

I’ve also had some great luck lately with a neck and shoulder sequence from Yoga with Adriene (whom I just love doing yoga with because she is good and yet not overly earnest). I happened upon it by chance sort of because Christine sent me the link by mistake, thinking it was a link to a much shorter session. I did it anyway (it’s only 18 minutes long) and of all the things I’ve done for my neck since I injured it in a car accident nine winters ago, it’s offered me the most release and relief. It’s also great for general neck and shoulder tension, the kind that kicks in when we spend too long at our desk working at the computer. Check it out:

With all of the online content available these days, it’s easy to find what you need if you need a yogic solution. I know that at some level, all yoga is therapeutic and that regular practice can keep the body in tune.

I also know it’s not a cure-all, but it sure does provide tried and true relief from mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual and has been known to do so for ages (literally for millenia).

Do you ever use yoga therapeutically to help you work through minor injuries, health issues, or other ailments? Do you have any particular internet sources that you’d like to recommend? If so, please chime in in the comments.

Namaste.

health · illness · yoga

Bettina’s yoga mini-streak (inspired by Sam)

When Sam posted about her bike streak, I was inspired. In her second post, she wrote about her “back at it” attitude to interrupted streaks. You see, I’m ordinarily more of a “I’ve interrupted my streak, that’s it” sort of person, or even the sort of person who doesn’t join a “30 days of” or whatever challenge because I just know life will get in the way. External accountability works very well for me as a motivator most of the time,  so you’d think the group aspect of some of these challenges would make me a fan. But if I know in advance I won’t be able to commit for instance to a full 30 days of something, it becomes more of a deterrent. And that is normally the case – something will always come up during 30 days that will prevent me from doing the whole thing “properly”, and the perfectionist in me is against that.

But since last Sunday, I’ve decided to do my own private yoga mini-streak: yoga every day until Christmas, or at least until my last day of work (21 December), before I interrupt my daily routine for the end of year festivities. No external accountability. No hard feelings.

I’ve recently had a bit of health stuff going on, so I’m technically forbidden from hard exercise until at least Thursday next week (medical advice differs on just how long I should avoid swimming and running, but that is a topic for another post). Since I feel fine and need some movement in my life, I decided to test the waters last Sunday with an hour of moderate-intensity yoga. It was thoroughly enjoyable, so I decided that this would be my go-to daily workout until I can resume normal activities.

A woman rolling up a teal yoga mat. My mat is red, but looks very similar. 
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

So here are my “rules”. They’re not very rule-y at all:

  • Do yoga every day for 10-15 minutes in the morning, or longer on weekends. 10-15 minutes isn’t much, but at least it’s something. And when I have time, I can do more. This morning, for example, I did a 40-minute flow for strength. 
  • I’m allowed to replace yoga by another activity if I want. For instance, tomorrow I plan to reintroduce some gentle bouldering into my routine, so I probably won’t do yoga on that day, except for maybe some cool-down asanas after bouldering.
  • But of course I can also do my yoga in the morning and swim in the evening or run in the afternoon, once I’m cleared to return to the pool and the road!
  • If life gets in the way of yoga on a couple of days, so be it. I’m not going to beat myself up about it. It could very well happen, with all the pre-holiday commitments that are going on.

This week has worked out great so far. I’ve been trying to listen to my body to make sure I don’t overdo it.  For example, on Thursday I got my flu shot, and so on Friday morning I did a hands-free flow to avoid irritating my arm. Youtube is truly amazing; you can find flows for essentially any life situation on there. 

To be honest, I’m starting to go a little stir-crazy from the lack of the sort of regular movement I’m used to, but the yoga is helping. So here’s to my mini-streak!

fitness · health · injury

Can 180 Seconds At −245°F Improve Your Health?

Cryotherapy is a new-to-me wellness trend. Easy and scary, cryotherapy is a process by which a near-naked human spends two to four minutes standing in a cold chamber cooled to below −100°C. The protocol claims to reduce tissue inflammation, which aids in sports recovery, alleviates diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and MS, increases energy, enhances sleep and focus, assists weight loss, brightens skin and reduces anxiety and depression (17 ProvenBenefits of Whole Body Cryotherpay + Side Effects). Better to ask, what doesn’t cryotherapy promise?

I decided to give it a try.

Despite the skeptics at The Guardian (Whole-bodycryotherapy: what are the cold hard facts?) and US News (ShouldYou Try Whole Body Cryotherapy?), there are a lot of celebrity fans (pro athletes and movie stars, including the reigning, though retired, James Bond, aka Daniel Craig) who swear by it. The skeptics make the point that cryotherapyis not a magic bullet (despite James Bond’s endorsement). The protocol does not eliminate the need to take care of oneself. Well, why would it? Seems obvious that cryotherapy is a therapeutic technique (like every other) meant to support and boost a healthy lifestyle, not replace it, or be a hack that enables a casual or reckless approach to wellness.

A quick online search gave me CryoHealthNY only a few blocks from my apartment.  The cryo-office was ultra clean and new looking, but the space also has an unpeopled feel, too. The General Manager, Sujellee, alone at the reception desk the first time I went, was glow-y and enthusiastic.

As instructed I took off all my clothes except bra and underwear and put on the robe, white gym socks and pale blue nurse clogs provided. At the gateway to freezedom, Sujellee gave me earmuffs, a pair of liner gloves, ski gloves and a surgical mask. At the place I went the set up is this: There are two adjoining cold chambersabout the size of a large telephone booth. The first is the pre-freeze chamber, where you take off your robe. From chamber 1, you step through an inside doorinto chamber 2, the cryo-chamber, which, in this case, is cooled to a cryogenic temperature of −245°F. The attendant presses play on the music you’ve selected from Spotify (David Bowie’s Space Oddity) and your three minutes begins.

Temperature gauge of cryotherapy chambers, showing minus 125, because the session is over and the chamber has “warmed up” from minus 245

From the moment I stepped in, I was petrified. Panic nearly drove me from the Dr. Who telephone booth of deep space frigidity. Filled with cold fog, which makes it hard to see anything more than the shadowed specter of the attendant’s thumbs-up outside the window, I was claustrophobic, my breathing hard and choppy. I can’t even be sure how many times Sujellee’s disembodied voice piped into the chamber to let me know how many minutes and seconds were left. Three interminable minutes spent petrified. I had my hand on the door handle to the pre-freeze chamber when she gave me the five-second warning, and I busted out of there like a horse at the Derby when she announced “you’re done.”

The whole rest of the day I was exhilarated. Was it because I felt like I had dodged death? I may well have been experiencing some brush-with-mortality energy. All the way through to the next morning, underneath the warmth of my skin, I felt like I was wrapped in a hair’s-breadth-thick sheath of cold, a pleasant and tingly sensation.  

I also slept better than I usually do and felt springy and resilient on my run the next morning. That’s subjective, I know, but in the end, isn’t that what matters with any therapeutic protocol? Whether we perform better and feel better is the standard and goal, isn’t it?  

I am a willing guinea pig for so many new (and ancient) protocols. I’m curious about my mind and body. I have the good luck of being able to try things (at the place I went to an intro session is $55, a single session is $75 and a 5-pack is $300—I won’t detail the Black Friday specials). As to how often to cryo, I’ve seen recommendations of as many as 5 sessions a week, to once a week, or as needed when you’re feeling physically sore or depleted. At the price, I can’t imagine I’ll ever go 5 times in a week!

That said, I did go for my second session the very next day and took my partner with me. It was a lot less scary with the two of us in the Dr. Who chamber together. Neither of us experienced the same exhilaration I’d felt the day before. But then, he didn’t feel like mortality was an issue, since I’d made it out alive once already. In our US Thanksgiving double spin class the next day, I had strong energy. My partner wasn’t sure what benefits he felt, if any.  

A few days later my partner discovered he had e-coli. His bout was unpleasant and scary, but didn’t stop him from doing any of our usual activities, like going for runs and out for dinner. When he’d recovered a few more days later, we wondered if the cryotherapy had helped reduce the severity of his symptoms. We don’t know.

My third time (my partner’s second), I was still scared, but less so. My partner had a calf pull that felt particularly frozen after the cryo session and he said there was a healing heat sensation afterward. He said he felt more alert that evening and into the next day. I slept better than usual and though not all my sporting aches and pains disappeared, I feel more physically chipper. The next day at aerial yoga I felt more limber.  

My partner and I are going to go back a couple more times to see how we feel. Then we’ll decide if the therapy is worth integrating into a regular regimen or using to heal injuries.

What are your cryo-thoughts? Skeptic, curious or convert?

fitness · health

The real news from the US physical activity guidelines: everything counts.

Last week, an updated report with the newest physical guidelines for physical activity for everyone was released by the US Department of Health and Human Services. The last edition came out 10 years ago, and the new version, informed by the latest research, is saying this:

Move more. Sit less. Do all kinds of activity– aerobic, muscle strengthening, bone strengthening, balancing (this one’s very important for older people), and multi-component activities that combine these features.

Aim to do 150–300 minutes a week of a combo of moderate-intensity to vigorous-intensity level activity. This means anything from walking 2–4mph to running.  Cycling and swimming, depending on speed and effort, can vary. Lower-intensity activities are good, too, although more intense activity is needed to get the most benefits.

Why should we do this? The guidelines give us the low-down (this was from a JAMA article):

Strong evidence demonstrates that regular physical activity has health benefits for everyone, regardless of age, sex, race, ethnicity, or body size. Some benefits occur immediately, such as reduced feelings of anxiety, reduced blood pressure, and improved sleep, cognitive function, and insulin sensitivity. Other benefits, such as increased cardiorespiratory fitness, increased muscular strength, decreased depressive symptoms, and sustained reduction in blood pressure, accrue over months or years of physical activity.

So, we get benefits now and benefits later.  Immediately we feel calmer, clearer, more ready for good sleep, and metabolically in better shape. Over time, we get lowered risks of all sorts of bad health outcomes, from bone fractures to dementia to cardiovascular disease and on.

This advice holds for everyone– small children, teenagers, pregnant women, older adults, people with chronic illness, people with disabilities– everyone. 

A new message for this version: everything counts.  Every minute of walking.  Every flight of stairs. Every time you park far away from a building. Every load of laundry you haul around. It all adds up, and it is all beneficial for us.

That’s really good news.  And it’s important.  Why?

Because, right now, only 20% of Americans engage in physical activity that meets the guidelines. It looks like this:

2 out of 10– the two are in gray…

In Canada it’s the same– a 2016 report showed that only 2 out of 10 Canadians meet their physical guidelines of 60 minutes per week of moderate-to-vigorous exercise. 

Why is that?

Probably everyone who reads this blog knows how hard it is to start and continue an exercise or activity program from scratch. Here’s what some of them look like:

These look rather daunting to me, and I’m usually one of those gray persons who meets the physical activity guidelines.

I wonder what it would be like if governments released a tl:dr version of the guidelines that just said this:

Move. Everything counts.

I even generated a meme for it:

Move.  Everything counts. Picture of a woman’s feet in flip flops, with blue jeans on.

You’re welcome, US and Canada! Other countries– you may borrow this as well.

Readers, how much or how often do you pay attention to or work on extending your everyday movement in your lives (apart from anything organized, like classes, rides, swims, gym workouts, etc.)?   I’m curious to know if and how and when it figures into your activity.

advertising · aging · body image · Fear · health · meditation · mindfulness

Why Is The Wellness Industry Growing By Leaps and Bounds?

The wellness trend is surging, so we’re told. Women are taking care of themselves more these days. Prioritizing their needs (an idea whose time has surely come). Paying attention to nourishing foods. Getting more exercise. Starting to think about the health of their minds and spirits. These are good things, right? Yes!

I’m on board. I have a curious bent. As much as I like to try new physical activities, I also like to try new health and wellness protocols. Why wouldn’t I want to feel as good as possible physically and emotionally? I’ve had some kind of meditation practice for more than a decade. I incorporate acupuncture and massage into my schedule with some regularity. There’s a Korean spa just over the George Washington Bridge we like to go to with friends for a stiff scrub and some time in the saunas and under the far infrared light. Yes, my vagina has been steamed with mugwort vapors (enjoyable, not life changing). And I have succumbed to the promises of quite few skincare products; the best of which deliver on about 25% of their hype, which is more than I really expected, if I’m honest with myself.

Have we gone too far?

Lured by the wellness industry’s promises of eternal youth and beauty (also great sex), are we trying to buy our way out of reality? Goop is one of the industry’s most high profile villains-du-jour. High on the list of accusations lodged against Goop are that it is marketing products that are not scientifically proven.

photo-1512867957657-38dbae50a35b
amber tincture bottles on a desk with books and decorative straw ball

As an aside, researchers (at Harvard, no less) are hard at work studying the surprising efficacy of the placebo effect. Virtually all of us engage in some magical thinking that has worked. There is a good chance that we will discover that a lot of pseudoscience may be less pseudo and more science than is currently understood.

In the meantime though, Goop has been taken to task (and court) more than once for grandiose claims it makes about the products it hawks. The clientele, largely white women of privilege, is disdained as gullible over-spenders with too much money and not enough sense. It’s so easy to question the priorities and intelligence of someone who buys a jade egg for her vagina; even if the whole idea of the egg is pretty ancient.

Yet, the very success of enterprises like Goop demonstrates that for all the privilege (whether real or not—the infamous jade egg was only $66), money is not buying us peace of mind. I haven’t actually bought anything from Goop, but I’m pretty certain I wouldn’t feel better about myself. Rather, our unease with ourselves enables companies to offer more and more outrageous and outrageously priced “solutions” for unsolvable challenges, like aging (and fear of aging). As this article in Quartzy points out, #skincare is just a code word for anti-aging. The marketing language may be coloured with all sorts of body positive words, but the root emotion that’s targeted and monetized is the same as always with these kinds of products—shame. Shame about our bodies. Shame about getting older.

I struggle with this. I spend too much time studying the wrinkles on my face, trying to decide if they are worsening, or if whatever new miracle product I’m using is actually smoothing them away, even a little. I have strong feelings about cosmetic surgery. Denying my aging feels like a betrayal of women. Yet it is also a high horse that is precarious. As much as I want to accept the inevitable with dignity and grace, to stay strong and healthy by eating well, drinking water, exercising, sleeping and such, I know that at any moment I might fall off my hobbyhorse, landing on needles full of Botox and fillers, or UPS boxes full of promise-y Goop products.

We women are not alone in our susceptibility. Men are just drawn in by different language. For men it is the language of performance optimization that closes the deal. Deploying knowledge to biohack a more efficient personal ecosystem are their code words for lose weight, get strong and stay young.

We are not idiots for falling for these bright, shiny promises. We live in a society that delivers a torrent of messaging, which tells us that we aren’t young enough, fit enough, beautiful enough, rich enough, famous enough, or really enough of anything. Even when anti-aging is rebranded as the dewiness we all deserve, we know the truth of what we are buying. We are spending money to put a finger in the leaky dyke of our not-enoughness. Intellectually, I know I should always think that I am enough. But I don’t. I know I’m not alone in this. It’s a big part of why the health and wellness industry is growing.

We have the actual, literal possibility of more and more comfort, yet we live with less and less ease.

I wonder if that’s because we know that our society is askew and our subconscious senses this dis-ease. The gap between have-a-lot and have-not is widening exponentially. Some women are spending a small fortune and enormous amounts of time on wellness, while in the same country other women are working multiple jobs and still can’t put dinner on the table for their children. Coming home from a dermatologist appointment during which I had a little skin tag on my neck removed (a voluntary procedure), I walked past a homeless man, sleeping out in the pouring rain. A wave of guilt washed through me. Should I have given the money I’d just spent to him instead?

I’m not saying we shouldn’t take care of our health and wellness. I’m not going to stop trying to stay physically and mentally healthy, or stop buying any beauty products. I’m not saying we shouldn’t indulge.

I am proposing that if we do so more mindfully, perhaps we can indulge just a little less and share just a little more.

We are optimized when we are comfortable in our bodies and with who we are. That’s the brass ring of health and wellness.

fitness · health

A week in the life of metabolic research, or what a mouse should have for dinner…

One of the many demands on my inbox-reading time is the weekly newsletters I get about this, that and the other thing. In principle it’s a great idea to sort information into categories and aggregate information into weekly digests. In reality, I get backlogged and glutted with too much to read.

However, this Saturday, I decided to take some time to dip into one of these digests: Obesity and Energetics Offerings. Each week, Public Health researcher David Allison and lots of other folks collect the latest study releases and other relevant news items and send them directly to me.

One of my favorite things about this digest is that it is a snapshot of what kind of research work is ongoing about metabolism, nutrition, physical activity, etc. It’s not exhaustive, but if it were, I’d be exhausted well before finishing the reading for that week. Once again, less is more.

The digest is divided up into handy categories like “headline vs. study”, to alert us to misinformation coming out in the news, “contrary or null findings”, showing which hypotheses fell flat, and then a host of sub-categories, like “epidemiology”, “stigma”, “food and diet”, etc.

This week, my favorite study was about what male mice should have for dinner, partly because of this incredibly awesome graphic in the paper:

All you need to know here is this: "ad libitum" means "eat what you want, mousey", "meal fed" means they got one meal a day, and "CR" means "calorie-restricted diet". The calorie-restricted mouse had the best medical outcomes, but may not be the happiest of mice.
All you need to know here is this: “ad libitum” means “eat what you want, mousey”, “meal fed” means they got one meal a day, and “CR” means “calorie-restricted diet”. The calorie-restricted mouse had the best medical outcomes, but may not be the happiest of mice. However, the big take way was that it didn’t actually matter what they ate– high-carb, low, carb, etc. There was no difference in the outcomes based on diet composition.

Don’t you wish all scientific research papers had such explanatory and colorful graphs and tables?  Usually, they look much more hairy and complicated, like this one (which truthfully is entitled “The Hairy Graph”):

A hairy graph, titled "The Hairy Graph", with a jagged up-and-down curve and wispy hairy tendrils shooting up from various parts of te curve.  It's about the relationship between markets and LIBOR (a bank loan rate index, I think).
A hairy graph, titled “The Hairy Graph”, with a jagged up-and-down curve and wispy hairy tendrils shooting up from various parts of the curve. It’s about the relationship between markets and LIBOR (a bank loan rate index, I think).

But I digress. Back to the topic at hand…

Seriously, on any given week in metabolic (I don’t use the term obesity for a bunch of reasons; I blogged about it here a while back) research, we can see people hard at work on questions like the following:

  • Does BMI >30 affects recovery from ankle sprains? Not much, maybe a little, but it’s complicated.
  • Is a person’s gut microbiome affected by their ethnicity and their geography? Yes, it would seem.
  • Do community programs and policies aimed at reducing body weight in children work? So far not really. (me: although they have all kinds of other positive health effects, and maybe we should care more about those than we currently do).
  • Does increased body weight influence medical outcomes (like complications or death) following gun shot or stab wounds?  No. (me: seriously, this was a real study; heavier adults who went to the hospital after being shot or stabbed weren’t at higher risk for bad medical outcomes because of their weight.)
  • Is there good evidence linking consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs)  in children and higher BMI? No. Is there good evidence that reducing availability of SSBs in schools reduce consumption? No.

There are also lots of more technical biochemistry studies, which are beyond my ken.

Most of the time, we get our science and health news from, well, the news. By the time it reaches us, sometimes it seems it’s been through several rounds of the telephone game. Anyone remember playing this? You start out with a word or phrase or sentence, and whisper it to the person next to you.  It goes down the line, through however many people you have, and by the time it reaches the last person, it’s generally been transformed completely and humorously. Like so:

 

Screen Shot 2018-10-14 at 1.14.17 PM
Kids playing the telephone game, where a word goes from peas to bees to knees to cheese to fleas.

As fun as that game is, we don’t want science and health news to be like that. So what can we do?  I rely on friends (FB and others) and reliable sources (like blogs, newsletters, social media feeds of people whose work I trust) to help me access and digest and put in context the newest results. I also like to go directly to the original research, but I still have to rely on expert sources to help me interpret it.

So readers, where do you go and who do you trust for the latest in health news and information?