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.

 

Katherine’s Wibbly Wobbly Walk (Guest Post)

From zero to completing a sponsored walk raising over £400 for hypermobility syndromes.

In 2011, after years of pain, exhaustion, worry and doctors’ visits, I was diagnosed with hypermobility syndrome, a hereditary connective tissue disorder. I experienced a bizarre mixture of contradictory emotions- relief, joy, excitement, shock, fear, hope…. my main hope was a referral to physiotherapy. I had three appointments, and the gist of it was: “You don’t need any help”. “Hypermobility can’t cause pain. Your pain is because you are so overweight and unfit. Lose weight and do some exercise”, I was told.

Over the coming weeks, I ran what I’d been told over and over in my mind. I remembered how I had been working out daily while I got steadily sicker. How severe the pain had been when I was well inside the “healthy” weight range for my height. How it was the pain, frequent injuries and bone deep exhaustion that caused me to reduce my activities.

I thought about how hard I’d worked to get to where I was then, from being barely able to walk in 2008 due to an ankle injury, followed by 2 years of painful foot problems. I knew what the physiotherapist was saying wasn’t true- hypermobility syndrome does cause pain- painful, weak joints is a primary symptom of the condition. I also knew that it wasn’t true that inactivity and weight gain were the cause of my situation. But the important question was- how could I fix this on my own? I wanted expert help to find a way to sneak up on my body and rebuild my fitness, without increasing the pain and fatigue to intolerable levels, and without keeping injuring myself and going back to where I started, something which had happened many times in the past.

So I educated myself. I joined the Hypermobility Syndromes Association and too part in their forum. I googled. I joined online support groups. I listened, I talked, I discussed, and I began my journey, with much trial and error and very, very slowly. I increased my walking, I saved up and found a secondhand elliptical and started doing 5 minutes at a time. I bought pilates DVDs.

By September 2014 I’d made progress. My joints were more stable and I had a little less pain and was a little less exhausted. That was when I came across the No Excuse Mom 12 week challenge. My tummy squiggled with butterflies as I wondered, could I really attempt 12 weeks of regular workouts? What was I thinking? My progress had ground to a halt and I knew I had to push harder. Maybe committing to the challenge, doing it alongside others, was what I needed. So I signed up.

The first few weeks were something of a nightmare as I struggled to keep up with my other commitments and manage to do regular cardio, pilates and strength training. Thankfully, I am a very stubborn person when I need to be! By the time I reached the end of the 12 weeks, it seemed a little easier, and I kept going, hanging on and hoping to see results.

Fast forward to 2017. An idea had been growing in my mind for some time, to do a sponsored walk to raise funds for the HMSA, to thank them for the work they do to support people with hypermobility syndromes and in raising awareness of these greatly under-diagnosed conditions. I decided that now was the time. I chose a route- a 9 mile circuit on local moorland, taking in steep and rugged up and downhills, slippery and boggy areas and rocky passes. I set up a sponsor page and before I knew it, the date of the walk arrived.

The weather was bright and breezy, perfect for hiking. I set off, with trepidation but determined to just keep walking no matter what, until I reached the end. I wasn’t prepared for all the emotions I experienced. There were times of intense boredom, periods of elation and feeling utterly victorious, interspersed with weariness and anxiety and then back to joy and a feeling of being completely at home out on the moorland. The last mile, down a steep rocky path, was almost intolerably painful and my muscles were too fatigued to properly support my knee joints. I had to resort to stepping very slowly and carefully sideways and sometimes sitting down and sliding on my bottom. But five hours after setting off, I arrived back at my starting point, I made it!

That day, I proved to those who have been critical of me that I can be strong and determined and overcome challenges to achieve my goals. But more than that, I proved that to myself. As is common for those with invisible illness, I’ve heard discouraging messages from those who don’t understand or accept the difficulties I face. I’d also listened to those kind of messages from within myself, partly due to difficulty accepting my condition- “Maybe I’m not really ill, maybe I’m just weak and lazy, if I just push harder I can lead a normal life” and so on.

I believe that it’s only when you’ve looked around and experienced it seeming like every door is closed and locked in your face, that you really know what that is like. I want my story to be encouraging, but you will never hear me say, “Anyone can do it” or “Nothing is impossible if you try hard enough” or “If I can, you can”. I know the reality of living with chronic illness or disability is that many things are out of reach, locked behind those closed doors. Part of living the healthiest possible life is acceptance of that reality. But I also believe that most of the time there is something we can do, some tiny change we can make, that can lead to more babysteps of progress, and one day we can find we have achieved something we thought we never would.

I can’t say where my journey will take me now. I am continuing to work hard at becoming as fit and helathy as I possibly can be, so that I can lead the most full and active possible life with my family. But maybe tomorrow will be the day I get another injury that severely limits my activities for weeks, months or even years. There are no guarantees when it comes to health and fitness, especially for those with bodies that are more vulnerable than others One of my dreams is to run a 10K, something I used to do with my beloved dad when I was a teenager, But at the moment, a short and very slow run results in several days of painful and scary instability of my knees, so I may need to find a more practically feasible goal!

Some links:
NHS page on hypermobility syndrome http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Joint-hypermobility/Pages/Introduction.aspx

Hypermobility Syndromes Association http://hypermobility.org/

My Virgin Giving page http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/KatherineBaldwin

Wandererssong is Katherine, is a fitness freak who is fat, forty-something and a mum of four. Some of her other passions are- books, crime dramas, druidry, horse racing, biomedical science, Orphan Black, her schnauzer, campaigning for social justice, and all the music.

(Weight stigma) science is hard: some thoughts on the newest study on fat shaming

A girl in a white shirt, pondering some molecule diagrams on a blackboard

There’s new study that purports to tell us what we think we already know about weight stigma and physical activity:  when you perceive more weight stigma in your life, you are less likely to engage in physical activity.  The study, in BMJ Open, is here.

Here’s the abstract from the study:

Objective To examine the association between perceived weight discrimination and physical activity in a large population-based sample.

Design Data were from 2423 men and 3057 women aged ≥50 years participating in Wave 5 (2010/11) of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. Participants reported experiences of weight discrimination in everyday life and frequency of light, moderate and vigorous physical activities. We used logistic regression to test associations between perceived weight discrimination and physical activity, controlling for age, sex, socioeconomic status and body mass index (BMI).

Results Perceived weight discrimination was associated with almost 60% higher odds of being inactive (OR 1.59, 95% CI 1.05 to 2.40, p=.028) and 30% lower odds of engaging in moderate or vigorous activity at least once a week (OR 0.70, 95% CI 0.53 to 0.94, p=.017).

Conclusions Independent of BMI, individuals who perceive unfair treatment on the basis of their weight are less physically active than those who do not perceive discrimination. This has important implications for the health and well-being of individuals who experience weight-based discrimination, and may also contribute to a cycle of weight gain and further mistreatment.

Okay, this is probably no news to blog readers.  First of all, we hear about fat shaming around physical activity all the time.  One of the most recent episodes was the Twitter kerfuffle around Nike’s recent release of a larger-sized exercise clothing line (well, up to 3X).  There were lots of tweets arguing (no, not arguing, rather declaiming) that manufacturing larger exercise clothing would… I can hardly bring myself to type this…  encourage people to become fatter…. uh, because they now can?

As a philosophy professor who teaches introductory logic, I’m having trouble following the inferential thread here.  Suffice to say, people weighed in against the Nike decision, engaging in all manner of fat-shaming, healthist trolling, and name-calling.  I won’t even link to the discussion; rather, here’s my response to those folks:

Correction guy meme saying "Hold that thought-- forever."

Correction guy meme saying “Hold that thought– forever.”

But let’s get back to the study and my promised thoughts on it.

First of all, a science wonky comment:  there’s a big big big difference between statistically significant differences among groups and clinically significant differences among groups.  Let’s look at the results in bar graphs below:

bar graph of levels of physical activity in perceived weight stigma and no-perceived weight stigma groups

bar graph of levels of physical activity in perceived weight stigma and no-perceived weight stigma groups

Yeah, the print is tiny, but all you need to see here is that the differences in amount of physical activity (divided into inactive, light, moderate and vigorous) are pretty small.  One might expect this in their sample, which was people aged 50 and above.  Why?

First, it’s a big sample that seems pretty heterogeneous, which means the differences will be dampened by other potential factors the researchers aren’t controlling for.  Second, digging into the demographics of the sample, the weight stigma group is predominantly lower-income (no surprise there).  The weight stigma group is also on average heavier than the non-weight-stigma group (duh).

This suggests to me two confounding factors:  1) lower-income people generally have less access to physical activity because of less money and less time; 2) overall physical activity tends to decline with both age and increased weight (especially among women, who are 55% of the sample).

Here’s a study showing relationships between both workplace conditions (for workers in hospitals in Boston) and age with BMI.   What it suggests is that as age increases, so does BMI, regardless of type of job; and, as control over one’s job conditions increases (and this happens with higher-income earners), physical activity increases.

Duh!

One final nitpick (for now):  relative to the sample in the weight stigma study (about 5500 people), the group reporting weight stigma was very small (268).  The researchers thought this group was big enough to get a scientifically acceptable set of results, but this raises questions for me:  1) is there actually much more weight stigma in the group, but people aren’t either willing to report it or experiencing it in a more subtle way?  2) are the incidence or effects (two very different things) of weight stigma lower in people over 50?  In short, this study raises some interesting (to me) questions about weight stigma and physical activity, but it doesn’t answer any.

Which brings me back to the title of this post:  science is hard, and figuring out how to understand relationships between weight stigma and, well, anything else is also hard.

What’s not hard to figure out is this:  fat shaming is rude and wrong and unhelpful for anyone.  And my non-scientific solution for combating fat shaming is this:

The timeout corner: now sit here and think about what you've done and don't come downstairs until you are ready to apologize)

The timeout corner: now sit here and think about what you’ve done and don’t come downstairs until you are ready to apologize)

 

 

Why I hate (yes, hate) going to the doctor and why I go anyway 

As a white, cys-gendered anglophone in Canada I have many privileges. This post is about how, despite those privileges, I truly hate going to the doctor. 

It is the 1980s, I am a child at the pediatrician my mother asks why there are folds of skin in my armpits. “Babyfat, it will go away.” assures the pediatrician. In fact it is breast tissue. I find out when nursing my first son in 1999 as milk leaked from my underarms that I have breasts under there. 

It is 2009, I am sitting in a public health clinic room to have my pap. I’ve answered the medical history questions and the nurse practitioner stares at me. 

“How many sexual partners have you had?”

“My whole lifetime? I don’t know. I didn’t keep a list.”

“Well, if you had to guess.”

“I guess about 30. ”

“30!?! Who is the father of your children?”

“My partner.”

“What? How?”

“I’m sorry you are confused. I’m married to a man, who has a penis, that I have sex with that I refer to as my partner. We are the parents.”

It is 2004, I am sitting in the military hospital getting medically released after 12 years of service. My doctor talks to me about my mental health, my asthma and my bloodwork. He scribbled a fourth thing on the list but does not discuss it with me. I read it at home. 

Image of a medical firm listing illnesses and injuries. The list states major depressive disorder, mild exercise induced asthma, borderline cholesterol and obesity.

It is 2012 and I am at a colposcopy clinic for an abnormal pap follow-up. The nurse asks when my last period was. I didn’t know. She asked what birth control I was using. I said none. She chastised me for taking risks with being pregnant. I knew I wasn’t pregnant as my partner had a vasectomy and I had a tubal ligation in 2001. It never occurred to me that this was “using birth control”.  I explain my misunderstanding to the nurse from my feet in the stirrup position. She further castigated me as pregnancy could still occur and how would I know if I didn’t track my period? I explain I didn’t think my uterus required constant supervision. 

There are so many more moments that are flooding back to me as I write this but you get the idea. 

When I go to the doctor I feel on the defense right away. My body is deemed too heavy. My blood somehow lacking or having too much of the wrong things. There is something wrong and more often that feels on my part like the something wrong is my whole self. It’s terrible. 

In the military I was regularly categorized, measured and tested to ensure I was fit for flying duties. Many years later I feel the complicated things about not fitting expectations or having medical issues. 

I go anyway because not accessing care is why queer women have worse health outcomes than other women. 

I go because my health is worth the effort and I’ve honed and prepared my responses for when medical professionals cross a line. 

I go ready for a fight. I hate that too.

The Flu and My Friend’s Fitness Journey (Guest Post)

Last week I got unexpectedly hit with the flu. (Come to think of it, is it ever really expected?) Anyway, it knocked me out hard and I was upset by the rough start to my 2017. (Needless to say I haven’t worked out but proudly made it to a Yin yoga class which my post-flu body could barely handle.)

While I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions, I do appreciate a New Year’s reflection on my overall life trajectory. What have I accomplished? What haven’t I? Where would I like to see things going over the next year?

new years ecard.png

New Year’s resolutions for me, like lots of people, tend to fall flat by Week 2. Sam wrote about December 1st as the new January 1st. I actually like the idea of getting a jump on a new year the months leading up to it.

In the fall, I was excited to recommit to my health and fitness. I’ve written here about how I am learning to see myself as an active person who is takes her wellbeing seriously. One of the people who inspired me to make the change in my own life also recommitted to her health and wellbeing exactly one year before I did (she in November 2015, and I in November 2016).

I thought that I would speak more formally with her about her experience, as there are things I recognize as similar about both of our stories: we both started out as relatively active children and young women but became discouraged and anxious about fitness as we got older. We both had multiple false starts over the years, and we both decided to integrate fitness and wellness in our lives around the same time.

 

Tracy: What does being “fit” mean to you?

Jaclyn: Being fit means loving, embracing and accepting my body for all the amazing things that I can do. This is not to say that now I love my body because it is leaner and has more muscle mass, and that I could not love my body before because I had a much higher body fat percentage. Getting stronger, lifting heavier, and getting my cardio up to a level I didn’t know was possible has led to an appreciation for myself and my body that I never had when I spent most of my days drinking, partying, and subsequently binge eating my hangover away the next day.

Tracy: Since you mention it, regarding your drinking/partying in the past, do you feel like you simply “replaced” those old habits with new ones or is it more complex? (Do you feel like a different person now than you were back then?)

Jaclyn: I think it’s more complex than that. I’m the same person, yet a different person. I think a part of the drinking was me trying to cover over parts of me that I didn’t like (or that I thought I needed to change to be liked). When I began my fitness journey, my new habits (nutrition, fitness, sleep, water intake, etc.) replaced old habits (binge drinking, binge eating, partying).  As my new habits began to slowly weed out and replace my old ones, there was a moment that I realized I was truly and genuinely happy. In that moment, I realized that this new lifestyle fuels me and allows me to be my most authentic and genuine self.

Tracy: That’s so wonderful and it’s been amazing to see your progress. What was your previous experience with fitness? Were you an active child?

Jaclyn: I grew up an active kid; I was on the swim and synchronized swimming teams, played soccer, and did ballet. My family loves to camp, so I’d frequently go canoeing, hiking, swimming and kayaking with them. But gym class was a nightmare for me. As a shy and introverted child, cliques in gym classes (which often involved choosing partners and teams) intimidated me. My intuition was to skip the classes to avoid this.

In undergrad, I joined a couple gyms but never stuck with them because I had no knowledge about what I should be doing, how to use the machines and free weights, or how to bring variety into my workouts and how to eat in accordance with my goals.

I would never even dream of asking someone to show me how to do something, and I was too afraid of being judged using free weighs since I had never used them before.  So, I would go over to the one machine I knew – the treadmill – walk for 40 minutes and leave as quickly as I could.  After a couple weeks, I would get bored of the same old routine and frustrated by the lack of any tangible kind of progress, I would quit the gym.  Looking back, my social anxiety, shyness and introversion were the biggest obstacles for getting into fitness.

Tracy: I think that can be quite common—sometimes people see “gym culture” as macho or unfriendly, especially for someone who is new to working out or not that knowledgeable when it comes to fitness. How did you find this and what strategies did you find helpful in overcoming that?

Jaclyn: As someone with little knowledge about fitness and exercise, and as an introvert with social anxiety, breaking into the gym and developing a consistent routine was a huge obstacle. This time, however, I didn’t want to run; I wanted to face this challenge and move myself into a space where I could walk into a gym and do my routine comfortably.

As I’ve grown with my anxiety, I have learned things that I can do to help reduce attacks.  For example, in a conference setting, the more research I have done on my topic, the more comfortable I felt.  So, this was my first strategy in wanting to become more comfortable at the gym, to gain knowledge.

I’m fortunate that I could afford a starter package with a personal trainer.  My thought process was that if I was willing to spend the money I previously did on booze, then I could certainly take that money and invest in myself and buy some training sessions.  I thought that if I had an expert take me through the gym, show me how to use the machines and show me some free weight exercises, I would feel more confident walking in and doing it on my own.

Further, I thought that if I could learn the basics of form, that when I went on my own I would be less likely to injure myself.  Another alternative to training packages is to take full advantage of the growing fitness industry via social media platforms (such as YouTube). I used this to watch how certain exercises are done, would mimic the motions in the privacy of my own house, and then try them at the gym. Utilizing the knowledge from the training sessions and from my research online helped me feel more confident in the gym.

Tracy: You’ve mentioned your social anxieties, which I think are common for many people, especially when it comes to trying new things. How has fitness allowed you to grow in this area, and allowed you to become less fearful of being judged, etc.?

Jaclyn: In addition to gaining the knowledge necessary to make me more comfortable at the gym, I made sure to go during quieter periods (i.e., not during peak times), especially at the beginning. I would also wear a baseball hat, which almost acted like blinders—it helped me feel more “in the zone” and focus more on myself and less on others around me.

Over time, I became more and more confident in myself and in my place at the gym. The better I became at lifting, the less I worried about being judged.  Moreover, the more I fell in love with lifting, the less I cared about being judged; in fact, I don’t worry at all about this because I know that weight lifting involves stalling on reps, or failing a certain move.  I know saw failure as opportunity to grow and learn – understood that this was part and parcel of the process itself – and so I no longer feared being judged.  This process of working on my anxieties in the gym was by no means a speedy one, but I can now happily say that about one year later, I do not need to wear a hat, and I can walk into any gym, at any time, and get to the grind with no fear and no anxieties.

I found that this newfound confidence in the gym spilled into other aspects of my life.  Looking back at where I started and where I am now made me realize how strong and resilient I am.  It helped me realize what I want out of life, and what I wasn’t willing to compromise.

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Tracy: What surprised you most about the new lifestyle that you wouldn’t have expected?

Jaclyn: I never expected to fall in love with fitness and weightlifting like I did, but perhaps more surprising was the humbling self-love and acceptance that arose naturally out of the process.  I have cellulite and big thighs, but this no longer bothers me like it used to.  Instead, I am amazed by how strong and resilient I have become since I started.  I have become humbled by fitness and developed a love for myself that was absent from the larger part of my life.

Jaclyn is an aspiring fitness blogger, living in London completing her PhD in philosophy of neuroscience at the University of Western Ontario.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Speaking with Jaclyn over the last few months have helped to keep me both motivated and patient with myself. It’s especially helpful when I have my own hang-ups or things that slow me down—like the flu, or like fainting (which I wrote about in last month’s post). I’m grateful to have her as a friend and role model and thank her for letting me write about this so openly in this month’s post!

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Mood Swings (Guest Post)

I’ve written before about how I use exercise to manage my mild anxiety and depression. I know I’m not alone in using exercise to manage not only my mental health, but also regular emotions. After all, if I were, rage yoga and countless motivational posters telling you to work out your anger wouldn’t exist.

Often, I use more “conventional” types of exercise – running, swimming, weightlifting…even just taking the dog for a walk and breathing some fresh air for a bit. I’ve also written before that I often struggle to motivate myself to actually go do these things.

And yes, I do take pride in being able to push myself to go put on my shoes, to hit the pavement, to jump into the deep end. But I’m also an advocate for the idea that you should do the exercise you want to do. If running isn’t your thing, don’t run. Find something else you like, and do that. And whatever that thing is, it doesn’t matter whether it’s conventional or not – just go do it. Haters gonna hate.

All this brings me to what has been my saving grace over the last couple of weeks: the humble swing set.

Every day, on my walk home from my university, I pass through my city’s botanical gardens, where a simple two-seater swing set stands by the gate. Rather impulsively, after a long and annoying day filled with interpersonal drama, thesis-writing woes, and the (then still-unfolding) election of Donald Trump, I threw my bag on the grass, plunked down in the seat, and started to swing. I hadn’t swung in a long time, and was surprised at how quickly a few pumps of my legs got me as high as the swing would go.

Something I never realized as a kid was that swinging is actually pretty physically engaging. Pumping your legs back and forth, hanging onto the chains so you don’t fall out of your seat, that slight lean back as you swing forward, pressing your chest forward as you swing back: my arms, legs, back, and abs could all feel it. Sure, it’s not weightlifting or triathlon training, and it may be a sign that I need to exercise more than I do, but I was surprised at how demanding swinging turned out to be.

It often happens to me that I don’t realize how I’m feeling until I’m moving. Exercise helps me think through problems and channel my energy into something productive. I’ve always been drawn to repetitive pursuits: knitting, swimming, running. These activities offer me a chance to tune out for a little bit. I find comfort in the repetition, which quiets the part of my brain that would normally dart around from one thought to the next, and lets me sink into more focused, calmer reflection. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that swinging back and forth does exactly the same thing. The gentle rise and fall, the rush as you swing through the lowest part of the pendulum. Easy, predictable acceleration and deceleration. I’ve returned to the swing set a few times in the last few weeks because I find it calming and cathartic. When I’m angry, a few minutes of going all-out on the swing set is a surefire way to tone down the anger and start reflecting in a way that really gets to the heart of why I’m angry, think about what I can do about a situation, or work my way through a philosophical problem I’ve encountered while working on my thesis.

But there’s another benefit to swinging that keeps me coming back to that swing set, and it’s probably the most important aspect: swinging is really, really fun. Pushing harder, seeing how high you can make the swing go, falling through the air without fear of getting hurt. Is it any wonder that children flock to swing sets? They’re exhilarating! The physical activity helps me control my emotions, surely. But doing something just for fun is pretty great, too, and I think that part of swinging is at least as beneficial as the physical activity.

One of the swing sets I visit occasionally.

One of the swing sets I visit occasionally.

Chloe is presently completing her PhD in philosophy. When she’s not busy writing, she can usually be found knitting, gardening, cooking, sewing, stargazing, or lifting heavy objects.

Finding my fitness spirit animal (Guest post)

I have figured out my fitness spirit animal.

My desire to get in better shape has been a long time coming. I’ve always dreamed of being the kind of person who truly enjoys physical activity, who opts for a salad instead of something crunchy and deep-fried. One of my good friends is one of these people. It seems to come to her naturally—she runs marathons for fun and honestly enjoys vegetables. She often says that her spirit animal is a hamster because she can relate to the need to run on a wheel that doesn’t go anywhere—just to burn the energy.

I envy these people. And I cannot relate to them at all.

In the past I’ve related most closely to lazy housecats. Or maybe to a blubbery seal sunbathing on a rock with half-eaten fishtail dangling from its mouth.

 

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This is how I spent much of the last two years: sprawled out on my couch with Netflix and a family-size bag of chips balanced expertly on my chest. (For you non-snackers, a family-size bag is much bigger than a regular size bag.) I was going through some intense stuff in my personal life and so hibernation seemed the most sensible option for a time when I was feeling so emotionally raw. And don’t get me wrong…I do have some fond memories of nights alone surrounded by blankets and snacks, like any happy seal would. I don’t regret this perhaps necessarily indulgent time in my life. But the problem was that it became a fairly regular habit. From “What the heck, just this once!” to “Oh, maybe I’ll only indulge on weekends,” to “Well, Thursday and Friday are basically the weekend,” and so forth. You get it – it got out of hand.

I think part of the problem was also that I viewed myself as a very physically awkward person, so anxiety around my own physical awkwardness prevented me from taking action sooner. I just never thought of myself as an “athletic person.” And this would always be reinforced when, in the past, I’d be working out and feeling strong and graceful, only to catch my reflection in an ill-placed mirror and suddenly think, Oh God! Is that what I look like right now?? (Have you ever seen a seal try to get around on land? It ain’t pretty.)

 I mean, I probably suffer from an average degree of female-related self-consciousness about my body, but the combination of athletic anxiety and my perceived physical awkwardness didn’t help.

Who knows, maybe it’s that “fitness clothes” (bright and skin-tight) just aren’t that flattering on bodies like mine (soft and curvy with doughy bits). Don’t get me wrong, I do love my body and have admired myself in many a reflection on a good day—I even considered entering a burlesque show once—but by today’s standards of “fitness,” or what it means “to be fit,” I often see myself as too round, soft, and flat out awkward to be an “in shape” person. And it doesn’t help to see people with gazelle-like grace running past me on the street while I get sweaty just from walking around with a backpack on. My idea of what it meant to be active had become too dichotomous.

However, during my time of hibernation, another friend of mine had completely transformed herself from a hard partyer to heavy weight lifter. It was inspiring to see her journey and what appealed to me most about her story was that she had done so with no previous experience or even inclination to make such a change. When I asked her about her experience, she told me that she too had been initially intimidated by fitness culture and by gyms, never daring to try more than the elliptical or treadmill. But the real clincher for me was when she told me she still indulges in homemade desserts and other delicious treats every night. She still has nights sprawled out on her couch with Netflix.

It was a revelation.

Never before had I meant a healthy and fit person with the same lazy, snack-fueled inclinations as myself.

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I used to think there were two kinds of people: the gazelles and the hamsters of the world who love to run and don’t eat junk food, and the housecats and blubbery seals like me, doomed to lie about on our rocks and couches indefinitely. And while I know that different people have different inclinations (health- and activity-wise), it took me a while to realize that “fitness” is a wide-ranging sliding scale.

I used to think that being healthy and fit meant pretty much never eating fun stuff again, never lazing about guilt-free again. And this would mean that becoming healthier would be changing who I am and giving up some of the things I truly enjoy. It hadn’t occurred to me that incorporating fitness into my life would be about harmonizing my internal athlete and couch potato, my inner hamster and housecat.

While so much of the culture around “being fit” can seem impenetrable, exclusive, and intimidating—especially for someone who has never known quite how to go about it—finding someone who had found a way to take control of her health and wellness in her own way was eye-opening for me. I just had to find my own way that worked for me.

Strangely, I had been afraid that becoming healthier and more active would mean losing a part of myself. But what I learned was that I had it in me the whole time. My fitness spirit animal is still 100% a blubbery seal. But here’s the thing about blubbery seals, they know how to relax on land, but they get down to business under water. They are my fitness spirit animal: the perfect combination of awkward and graceful, blubbery and strong, lazy and active.

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Tracy de Boer is a real adult lady currently living in Toronto and completing her PhD in political philosophy at Western University. She is passionate about the ways philosophy enables people to think critically about everyday life. She is also very sad about the results of the U.S. election. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram, @tracyrwdeboer.