fitness · health · racing · running

On group running (Guest post)

In February 2017, I joined a running group. I had been thinking about something like that for a while but did not want to sign up for something official and pay fees. I did not want to join a group to find motivation or train for specific races and distances. I was just curious as to the dynamic of group running and perhaps, unconsciously, try to break out of my isolation. I live by myself and am a very independent person who can do pretty much everything on her own, including training. But I had started thinking this may not be good for me.

So when I saw a few posts on my Facebook feed about the Merchant Ale House Run Club I inquired. This was the perfect group for me to try: I was told all levels of running and walking were involved and it was very informal: show up at the Merch at 10am on Sunday and go out for a run. And so I did.

It was intimidating to join a group of people I did not know (as it turned out, I knew the one person I inquired from and found out when I showed up). Peter, a group member, saw it was my first time there and ran with me even if it slowed him down. That was really nice and made me feel welcome. After the run, I returned home not entirely convinced though that this was for me. So a few Sundays in a row I forced myself to go. A bit more than a year in: I would not miss Sunday morning run club unless I am out of town and even then I miss it.

As we like to say, this is a drinking group with a running problem. After the run, we gather at the pub for some pints and food. When I first joined, I did not know this was the pattern and on my first visit even left right away! Now? I would not miss the run or the gathering of friends. As I see it, the Sunday morning sessions are a great boost to my physical and my mental health. Now it is not just the pints, food, and merriment that boosts the latter, but also the encouragements and mutual support the group offers while out running and after.

I have blogged before about my return to running after a stretch of injury and how I had been amazed at running 8.5 km with a goal of eventually running 10km (see here). This past Sunday I ran 11.5 km with the group, including climbing the Hydro Hill by Brock which is a very steep escarpment hill. The fasties (Lisa, Tony, and Jordy who regularly run 2 digits distances at a fast pace) waited for us at the bottom of the hill. At first, my friend Alex and I thought we were going to run to the bottom of the hill and back. But once there, and with encouragement and enthusiasm, there we went! And we conquered it!

Hydro Hill conquered! From left to right: Tony, Alex, Jordy, me, Lisa, Peter, Christine

3 weeks before, gently pushed by Peter and Christine I ran 10km at a pretty good pace for me without having planned for it. This is what run club has also done for me: lead me to unexpected achievements. Also, we have signed up for races – something I would never have done on my own – and I ran the Run for the Grapes 5km on the hottest day of the year on 24 September 2017 and then 10km on October 15, 2017 as part of the Niagara Falls marathon! Crossing the finish line with my run club friends cheering me from the side was such a great experience! On April 21st, we are running Head for the Hills Trail Race. Who have I become?

Running by myself is still great. I enjoy the meditative aspect of it. It also happens that run club is a solitary run as we spread out running at our individual paces. But gathering together after the run, cheering and celebrating each other’s accomplishments, is the mental health boost that can’t be beat!


body image · disability · fat · fitness · health

Reflections on the exercise pill by a reluctant desk potato (Guest post)

The exercise pill is in the news again. We’ve talked about before (here and here), as has Fit and Feminist (here). The pill made the headlines again this week because of new experimental results that the drug allowed mice to run on a treadmill for 270 minutes before exhaustion set in (compared with 160 minutes for untreated mice).

Here’s a quick explanation of the experimental drug from The Guardian:

Scientists led by Ronald Evans at the Salk Institute in San Diego made the discovery after they set out to explore what endurance meant on the molecular level. “If we really understand the science, can we replace training with a drug?” he said.

They turned to a drug known as GW501516 which had previously been shown to improve stamina and burn fat faster. Through a series of tests with mice on treadmills, Evans found that the drug changed the activity of nearly 1000 genes. Many of the genes that became more active were involved in the breakdown and burning of fat. But other genes were suppressed, including some that convert sugar into energy.

The result is a pill that reproduces some of the effects of endurance training, with some other downstream effects, such as less weight gain and better control of blood sugar levels.

I listened to a discussion of the new results on CBC’s The Current this morning. The conversation inevitably turned to a discussion of who might benefit from the drug – athletes, folks with limited mobility who aren’t able to do endurance exercises, couch potatoes. At that point, the interlocutors chuckled at the notion of someone who could exercise taking a drug instead. LOL. Just imagine being such a couch potato that you would take an exercise pill!

That got me thinking about the ways in which we moralize health and fitness. I’ll be honest. I’m pretty sedentary these days, owing to advancing arthritis, injuries, and an out-of-control work schedule. (Really, I’m more of a desk potato than a couch potato.) And I feel guilty about that, as if it’s some kind of moral failing not to work out.

As I listened to The Current, I found myself both thinking that it would be great if I could take a pill and thereby acquire some of the benefits of endurance training, and feeling guilty for wanting to take a “short cut.” What the heck? Exercising is fun, and can support good health. But surely it’s not a moral duty.

I mean, we’re not opposed to short cuts in other domains: we take them when we’re driving, and we adopt tons of conveniences to make our lives easier (pre-fab food, dishwashers, motorized lawn mowers…). So, it can’t be the very notion of taking a short cut that prompts my feeling of shame when I think about how great an exercise pill would be. If there is a moral tinge to the notion of an exercise pill, that element must come not from the short cut part but from the exercise part.

But what makes exercise a moral obligation? Plausibly, the moral valence that we seem to attach to exercise and fitness is an side-effect of fatphobia. (Sam talks about similar stuff here.) Regular readers of this blog are well aware of the ubiquity of fat-shaming. When folks are pressed on their fat-shaming (and sometimes even when they’re not), they associate being fat with being lazy and therefore not exercising. Of course, no one makes corresponding judgments about skinny people who don’t exercise. They’re not lazy; they’re just lucky. This is pretty similar to the way in which a fat person with a milkshake is mocked (a standard trope on social media, alas) but a skinny person with a milkshake is celebrated for not being obsessed with dieting.

I don’t know if the exercise pill will ever make it to market, whether it will be safe, and whether it will be affordable. But I’m going to declare here and now that if there is ever a legal, safe, affordable exercise pill, I’m not going to let internalized fatphobia and accompanying moral double standards cloud my judgment about whether the pill is right for me. And neither should you.

A light skinned woman wearing glasses. She is standing in front of a window, smiling slightly.

Shannon Dea is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies at the University of Waterloo. Her research areas include (among other things) the metaphysics of sex and gender, and applied issues related to sex and gender. Before she became a desk potato, she was an avid runner. 

diets · eating · eating disorders · food · health

If not Weight Watchers for children, then what?

Regular readers know that I’m no fan (to put it mildly) of Weight Watchers. See I hate you Weight Watchers.

I think it’s extra awful that they are offering free summer memberships to children and I’ve written about that too.

(Added: Yes, it’s not just Weight Watchers. Goodlife Fitness does it too for high school students. FWIW, I also hate them.)

Yet, I can see the attraction. We know adults find it impossible to lose weight. That diets don’t work is a regular theme here on the blog.

Still, many people who agree that there is not much we can do about adult obesity other than helping people not gain weight in the first place, view children as the front line in the “war against obesity.” The thought is that if we can stop obesity either before it develops or in its early stages, we can avoid the health problems associated with overweight and obesity.

(Added: For those who don’t know the blog that well, I’m using talk of “obesity” and the “war on obesity” even though I think these are very problematic. See Catherine’s post with which I agree, “Obese” is a bad word—it’s got to go. I’m doing it because I think that even if that’s your framework you shouldn’t endorse dieting for children.)

What’s the problem then? Couldn’t children who are looking for help, who struggle with their weight, find some sensible advice at Weight Watchers? It’s got to be better than the semi-starvation plan that got me through high school. I lived for years on coffee, cigarettes (and, this was the 70s and 80s, we didn’t know better) bran muffins. We know lots of older children and young teens try wacky diets. At least Weight Watchers is all about regular food and includes all the food groups.

The big problem is that while common sense seems obvious, it’s actually not clear what works. “Eat less, move more,” sure, and what could be wrong with that? (James Fell says it’s bullshit and he makes me laugh.) But we don’t have a very good grip on the causes of obesity. Nor do we have a very good handle on what works to reduce childhood obesity. It’s definitely not as simple as “eat less, move more.”

If a medication had the same success rate as dieting—where ‘diet’ is behavior aimed at producing a calorie deficit by eating less and moving more—and a similar track record of bad side effects (including significant weight gain), there is no way we’d prescribe it to anyone, let alone children.

What do we know? We know what doesn’t work. Shame and stigmatization don’t work. See campaign takes creative aim at Georgia’s anti-obesity ads.

You might think who would recommend shaming, anyway? But bioethicist Daniel Callahan outright advocates shaming in his opinion piece, “Obesity: Chasing an Elusive Epidemic,” Hastings Center Report 43, no. 1 (2013): 34-40.

fat activist marilyn wann

What about labelling without shame, simply describing overweight and obesity without judgement?

However, even telling children they are overweight has bad effects

“A recent study by researchers at UCLA found that if girls had been called “too fat” by someone by age 10, they were more likely to be “obese” at age 19, and that the more people who told her she was “too fat” the more her chances of being “obese” increased. The study included controlled for income, race, childhood weight and puberty age.” See here.

Girls who are told by a parent, sibling, friend, classmate or teacher that they are too fat at age 10 are more likely to be obese at age 19, a new study by UCLA psychologists shows. The study looked at 1,213 African-American girls and 1,166 white girls living in Northern California, Cincinnati and Washington, D.C., 58 percent of whom had been told they were too fat at age 10. All the girls had their height and weight measured at the beginning of the study and again after nine years.

Overall, the girls labeled fat were 1.66 times more likely than the other girls to be obese at 19, the researchers found. They also found that as the number people who told a girl she was fat increased, so did the likelihood that she would be obese nine years later. (These findings appear in the June 2014 print issue of the journal JAMA Pediatrics and are published online April 28.)

“Simply being labeled as too fat has a measurable effect almost a decade later. We nearly fell off our chairs when we discovered this,” said A. Janet Tomiyama, an assistant professor of psychology in the UCLA College of Letters and Science and the study’s senior author. “Even after we statistically removed the effects of their actual weight, their income, their race and when they reached puberty, the effect remained.”

See also “Adolescent Dieting May Predict Obesity and Eating Disorders” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 2006.

Doctors suggest weighing children without judgement. It’s just a number. That’s all.

A set of swings with no one in them. Photo by Aaron Burden, Unsplash.

One other suggestion is to decouple inactivity and obesity and focus is on the inactivity side of the equation. There are obesity related reasons to care about inactivity but that’s not the only reason. There are also good reasons to decouple them. Efforts at improving activity (and nutrition) shouldn’t be measured solely in terms of impact on obesity.

There are no studies showing harmful effects of increasing children’s activity levels. Thin people need to move more too and overweight and obese people shouldn’t quit exercising if the scale doesn’t move

I think a similar focus on nutrition and developing a healthy relationship with food would be good regardless of its impact on weight and BMI.

But until we have a good handle on the causes of childhood obesity I think that guilting parents and shaming children has to end.

We know diets don’t work. We know body shaming doesn’t work. It turns out that even naming the problem makes it worse. Children who are told they are fat by friends, family, doctors are more likely to gain weight.

So what to do?

First, don’t take them to Weight Watchers.

Second, help them learn to appreciate the bodies they have and the things that these bodies can do. Make movement fun and joyful.

Third, help children learn to cook at home and make family meals happy occasions.

The American Academy of Pediatrics new guidelines (see here) on dealing with weight and kids suggests getting rid of body shaming, weight talk, and dieting because it predisposes kids to eating disorders and to eventual weight gain as a result of disordered eating. Since the old way of trying to eliminate obesity tends to make people more prone to illness, there are also new guidelines including emphasizing exercise and nutrition, NOT body size.

That’s all I’ve got. How about you?

diets · eating · fitness · food · health

Are fat people lying?

When I was a kid the thing I hated the most about being young was not being believed. See Seen but not heard: children and epistemic injustice for a discussion of this phenomena in the medical context.

Lots of groups aren’t given the credence they deserve. It’s not just children of course. It’s also women, disabled persons, people of colour. And people who bear multiple minority group status can be doubly or triply not trusted.

You can add to this list of victims of epistemic injustice, fat people.

See There are no right answers for your fat friend.

It’s about the interrogation fat people face about what and how much we eat.

“Sometimes, when I tell her how I eat, she will flatly insist, that’s not possible. Because to her, my body is evidence in a trial that’s already underway. Like a childhood nightmare, I am failing a test that was never announced. I am on trial, and she is judge, jury, executioner. Her eyes are fiery, overtaken with a determination I do not understand. She is a bomb I cannot defuse.

This is the interaction, with staggering reliability, and not only with her. The interrogation is visited upon me from old men and young women; city-dwellers and rural folks; people of all ages and many walks of life. Whoever you are, wherever you’re from, this is how we will interact. Every question is a turning point, and every answer a dead end. I am forever searching for an escape that does not exist.”
I get this too. I hate feeling like I am a mystery or a liar. For awhile a group of fat athletes were posting food logs online. In a “believe me now?” exercise they shared without logs and food logs for the world to see.

But the thing is it never works. It’s all about fear. If I’m fat and exercise and eat well, it could happen to you too. That’s horrifying news.

No one wants to believe that. Thin people want to believe they work hard and deserve their thinness. So it must be that I’m lying. Or I haven’t tried the right thing that works. Most recent was a cycling coach (not mine who also struggles with his weight and knows) who said there must be some number of calories you could eat and lose weight. Do that! What if I ate that few calories and couldn’t ride my bike? Lose weight now and ride your bike later. Unbelievable.

It’s frustrating. It makes me angry. It makes me feel unseen and unbelieved.

I wish I had something positive to say about this, some suggestions for a way out, but I don’t. I do know that going down the road of telling people what I do and what I eat isn’t worth it.

I don’t hide in my room and emotionally eat cookies. I don’t. I don’t say I’m exercising when I’m not. Really.

Do you experience this? What’s your strategy?

A photo from Unsplash of colorful cookies, the word “love” and pretty pink flowers
fitness · health

Problems with workplace wellness plans: where do I start?

A couple of weeks ago, a big study on the effects of workplace wellness programs came out, and the news was not good (for promoters of those programs).  Researchers from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign designed a large randomized controlled study to test whether workplace wellness programs would result in things like more trips to the gym, lowered healthcare spending, and 37 other potential positive outcomes.  They came up with nothing. nada. zilch. zippo.

A zero with a line through it.
A zero with a line through it.

Co-author David Molitor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was quoted here as saying, “across 39 different outcomes that we looked at, we found zeroes — and fairly precise zeroes — on almost all outcomes,” including health spending.

He noted two exceptions: Workers who joined the wellness program did become likelier to be screened for health issues, and to say they thought their employer put a high priority on employee health.

You may be wondering:  what exactly are workplace wellness plans?  They’re employer-sponsored programs for employees like smoking cessation programs, blood pressure screening, and also exercise promotions like running or walking programs, Fitbit or pedometer promotions and competitions, gym membership or yoga benefits,  flextime offerings for exercise during the workday, etc.

This seems like a good idea, right?  Encouraging and maybe even paying employees to exercise, get screened for disease risk factors, connect with other workers to form fun movement groups– how could it not work?  Don’t you think you’d be healthier if your bosses set aside time for you to do side planks at work with your colleagues?

Mostly smiling women doing side planks in work clothes in an office.
Mostly smiling women doing side planks in work clothes in an office.

This is part of the problem.  Wellness programs don’t necessarily take into account what it takes for someone to be able to manage both work and working out under workplace time constraints.  A commenter for the article said this:

One problem at my work is they’ll let you take an hour, three times a week, but you cannot put that hour right before you leave, you have to report back to your desk from the gym before you leave the building….It takes too much work for me to change, get sweaty, take a shower that includes washing my hair, drying my hair, and re-applying make up all so that I can go back and sit at my desk for 10 minutes….Out of the 60 minutes I’m allowed, I’m lucky if a full 30 is actual exercise.

In this case, the constraints of the program didn’t work for her (and possibly not for lots of women, especially ones who are required to look and dress a certain way in their offices).

In addition, if companies encourage or expect their employees to engage in so-called health promotion activities, they should realize that these activities place an extra burden on workers in terms of time, scheduling, logistics, other resources (e.g. special clothing, time for cleanup, food and hydration, warm-up and cool-down periods).  It’s important to acknowledge work reality:  most employees are required to do more in less time, often for less money and fewer benefits (this is true for my job as a professor as well).  Responding to the expected stresses and illness that come out of such an atmosphere by handing out Fitbits is not going to do the trick.  Another commenter put it this way:

I have experience with a company that removed yearly bonuses, fun company paid events… and weekly paid lunches. Then they piled on so much work that break times became unpractical and overtime became expected. When turnover skyrocketed, they started a Stress Relief Team to come up with ideas like: plant a community garden and map out a walking path around the parking lot. Needless to say, none of this worked because it failed to address the issue of overworked employees…

Then there’s the worry that actually participating in the wellness program will get you in trouble with management because of the ever-expanding workday.  Here’s what another commenter said:

It’s one thing for companies to tout work-life balance, provide wellness programming of various types, and monetarily incentivize them to participate. In reality, when management is squeezed for results, scheduling early morning a/o lunch meetings is the norm, and your peers are wondering how does so-and-so have time to fit in a workout during their day…….participation in these programs is stymied.

If you want to read more about criticisms of workplace wellness programs, I recommend this Slate article, which is a data-packed scathing indictment of them.

The Illinois Workplace Wellness Study is a multi-year project, and their current results (of zero effectiveness!)  are after year one.  They’ll be continuing to gather and analyze data, including biometric and more survey data.  All this is important.

But as a feminist, a researcher with a soft spot for qualitative data, and an often-harried employee myself, I wish that the study would include this:  asking people what they think they need, and then (in the name of science), giving it to them.  And seeing what happens.

Just a thought.

Text saying "crazy idea".


fitness · health · meditation

Tracy reflects on the restorative properties of silence…

Image description: SILENCE in blue neon lights over PLEASE in green neon lights, both against a dark brick wall.
Image description: SILENCE in blue neon lights over PLEASE in green neon lights, both against a dark brick wall.

I was so envious this past weekend because a few women I know went on a silent retreat. To some, a weekend of silence might sound terrifying. But to me, it would be a welcome respite from the noise of modern life. Seriously. I can’t think of anything I appreciate more than silence. It’s so… undemanding. And warm. And calming.

Last week I #tbt’d a post about meditation.  So clearly I’m craving more time to retreat into silence. It’s true that the inner world can be noisy too, when the mind churns and spins. But the more silence I am able to call into my life, the quieter the chatter in my mind becomes.

I went on my first silent retreat about 15 years ago, taking three days at a retreat centre on Lake Erie in the middle of the week. Other than the nuns and the kitchen staff, I was the only resident and I felt as if I’d hit the jackpot. They respected my desire for silence and allowed me to wander the beautiful grounds without having to interact with anyone.

For me, this is part of the restorative power of silence — not having to communicate with people. It’s not that I hate people, or even communicating. But as an introvert I get restored most when I withdraw into my own world and don’t have to interact. Silence sort of takes that to the next level because by definition, for those of us who are most used to speaking as our main means of communicating with others, being in silence interrupts that default switch.

I’ve since learned that I don’t need to go on a formal retreat to be in silence. Renald and I are really good at discerning when we need silence. Throughout our relationship, we’ve had many an occasion when one or the other of us has declared a silent morning, afternoon, or day. It provides time for meditation, inward reflection, emptying the clutter out of the mind, regrouping, and above all, taking a break from having to interact.

But silence need not be a big declaration either. Last weekend when I was running along the tree-lined, snow-covered lane in Haliburton, I paused to take in the silence. Whereas before I could hear the sound of my feet and my breath, when I stopped everything went quiet. When that happens, I immediately feel a sense of peace. When quiet stillness descends, I experience it as a profound moment. And that is the kind of thing I can do any time really — at my desk, at a traffic light in the car, in the woods, on the beach, on the sailboat.

Whether for ten seconds, ten minutes, an hour, or an entire morning, afternoon, day or days, an encounter with silence always restores me.

Maybe that’s why, ever since I was a young child, I’ve loved the library — it used to be a completely silent space. I have spent hours of my life in libraries, hiding out in carrels amidst the stacks, in silence among others who also remained silent (back in the days where you couldn’t bring lidded drinks in either, so you couldn’t even hear the sound of someone sipping on a latte). Again, I experience it as permission to retreat into myself with no obligation to interact, and that always regenerates my energy stores.

What is your relationship to silence?

fitness · health · meditation · tbt · winter

Meditation anyone? #tbt

Even though this post isn’t from all that long ago, I wanted to repost it today because I’ve heard lots of people commenting on this dreary time of year, when the sky seems more grey than blue most days, and in our part of the Northern Hemisphere the cold makes many of us just want to pull the covers over our head in the morning and hibernate until spring.

That’s how I’ve been feeling a lot lately. Tired. A little bit miserable and off my game. Burdened even. It comes and goes. One thing that helps tremendously, seeing as I can’t actually make winter move through any more quickly, is meditation. It grounds me and helps shift my inner world even when I can’t shift my outer world.

I know it’s not for everyone, but maybe it’s something worth trying if you’ve not tried it or have been thinking of it but haven’t gotten around to it yet. Om…


When we asked people awhile back for some suggestions for topics they’d like to see covered on the blog, someone suggested meditation as a thing they’d like to hear us say more about.

joy within coverI first started to meditate back in 1991, when I was still a graduate student, and I’ve had a fairly consistent meditation practice since then (with various levels of dedication but it’s always a thing in my life regardless).  The book I learned with was called The Joy Within by Joan Goldstein and Manuela Soares.

It is an excellent starter book that helps you build from very short periods of meditation (under 2 minutes) to longer periods up to 30 minutes over a four week period. It takes you through different focusing techniques, some involving breathing, others involving sounds, still others taking attention to mental images. The authors suggest keeping a journal and jotting down your experience…

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