Women and concussions: what do we know? Not nearly enough.

A diffusion tensor image of a female athlete who has suffered a concussion

Today we have a co-authored blog by Catherine W and Julia F-C.  Julia F-C is a senior at Stuyvesant High School in New York City. She has a background in Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and a passion for feminist theory, sustainability, and plants.

Herewith, our co-authored blog:

Concussions have been in the news lately.  This summer the world of American football was rocked by the release of a study examining 111 brains of deceased NFL (National Football League) players who had conditions including dementia, depression and other behavioral and cognitive disorders.  On autopsy, 110 of the 111 brains were found to have CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

A recent news story highlighted a study from the same research center that has found that early exposure (before age 12) to football increases the risks twofold or more for cognitive, behavior and affective problems later in life.

 “Hitting your head over and over again in youth seems to lead to later-life problems, even if you only played up through high school or college,” [study author Robert Stern] said.

The research found increased risk was not tied to the number of concussions a player suffered. Translation: Head impacts that aren’t concussions still have serious, long-term effects. That reinforces earlier research.

There’s been pushback from a lot of football stakeholders, including NFL management, fans, and President Donald Trump.

On Friday, Mr. Trump said that the league was losing television viewers in part because it was too focused on safety, including penalizing players for making hard tackles. “They’re ruining the game,” he said.

His comments came a day after scientists announced that Aaron Hernandez, the former Patriots tight end who committed suicide in April, had a severe form of the degenerative brain disease linked to repeated head hits.

Virtually all of the research done on concussions has focused on males, including animal studies.  However, that is changing—research is turning to examining female response to brain injury.

“We classically have always known the male response to brain injury,” says Mark Burns, at Georgetown University. But there have been remarkably few studies of females. The bias runs throughout the scientific literature, even in studies of mice.

“Male mice have been used historically in research and not really been compared to female mice,” he says.

So what have we learned from those female mice?  That there’s a substantive difference in male-vs. female brain response to concussions.  In short, female mice brains respond more slowly and less effectively to brain injury, which may contribute to longer and/or less robust recovery (this last bit is my speculation, but makes sense given the evidence).  The study can be found here.

Studies are now examining humans to look for differences among cohorts of male and female athletes.  Here’s one:

The researchers looked at the medical records of 1,203 athletes who played at Columbia University between 2000 and 2014. (Columbia has collected data about concussion on all its athletes since 2000).

Among male athletes, 17 percent (140/822) had experienced at least one concussion during their collegiate career. Among female athletes, the rate was 23 percent (88/381).

Though women experienced a higher rate of concussion, they recovered and returned to play as quickly as the male athletes.

“Why are women more likely to experience concussion? Is it that they’re physiologically experiencing concussion differently? Are they reporting their concussion in a different manner? This study can’t answer these questions, but it unearths the follow-up questions,” Dr. James Noble says.

Yes—those are some interesting questions, eminently worthy of follow up now.  It’s not a surprise to those of us who follow health research, nor to many of you, our blog readers.

We already know that, for example, women are less likely to be referred for heart-disease-related treatments than men because of the misperception that women are “protected” against cardiovascular disease.  The incidence of heart disease among middle-aged women has increased in the past 20 years, while it has decreased for men of the same age.  You can get all the detail you would ever want from this article.

Back to concussions: this news story discusses a Cleveland Clinic ongoing study of boxers and mixed-martial-arts fighters that includes about 700 men and 60 women.  One of them is MMA fighter Gina “Danger” Mazany.  She describes her first fight below:

“She beat the crap out of me,” Mazany says. “Like she didn’t knock me out, she didn’t finish me. But she just knocked me around for three rounds. And I remember, later that night I was very, very nauseous. I was throwing up that night.”  It was her first concussion.

On the day of Mazany’s annual checkup, she is subjected to a battery of tests that assess her balance, reaction time, memory, and thinking.

After about 40 minutes, Mazany meets with Dr. Charles Bernick, the scientist in charge of the fighters study. They move to a quiet room. Bernick scans a chart. It shows Mazany’s test results over the past few years.

“Well you’re pretty stable,” Bernick says. There’s no obvious sign of trouble from her fighting career, at least not yet.

I talked with some friends who are fighters and coaches for fighting sports about concussions.  Karen Miller Peterson, a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, has competed and taught and coached, and recently opened a school called North South BJJ in Montclair, NJ with her husband Adam, also a BJJ fighter and teacher.  Karen’s experience with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu suggests that concussions may depend at least in part on style and training:

I think it’s fighting style. Since there’s no striking in jiu jitsu, it just doesn’t happen a lot. Situations it might happen would be in a takedown or throw, which aren’t practiced in academies as much as ground grappling. You can see it happen in competition from time to time. We do sometimes get knocked in the head during training or in a competition, but rarely is it hard enough to cause a concussion. Maybe a broken nose or bruise. It could happen, sure, but because of the style of jiu jitsu it just doesn’t happen like boxing or MMA.

Skill will definitely play into it too. Head injuries in jiu jitsu will happen more often with lower belts/beginners.

I spoke to Cesar Nicolas, a long-time trainer and coach for multiple sports (boxing, BJJ, kids’ soccer, baseball and wrestling) as well as a brown belt fighter and competitor. His primary concern is that sports may inadvertently conceal risks of head injury.  He cites head gear in boxing and MMA– it may seem as if it’s protecting fighters, but it does not actually end up protecting them from significant blows.  As a soccer coach for middle schoolers, Cesar notes that when someone’s head makes contact with a soccer ball, this can cause serious injury.  In one study, researchers found that 1/3 of all concussions among US male high school players and 1/4 of those among female players involved heading the ball.  However, the study did not look at data on younger children.  Cesar’s observations about soccer are in keeping with concerns about football played by younger children.

So how do concussion worries affect what younger women think and do in sports?  For her viewpoint, we turn to my co-blogger, Julia Farach-Colton for some comments.  Here’s Julia…

Being a young woman in a male-dominated sport is always challenging but strangely triumphant. I started Muay Thai (Thai-style kickboxing) when I was about nine years old. As I grew older, I savored the surprised looks I’d get as I sank a hard elbow into a bag that weighed almost three times as much as me but shrank away from curious glances of the men who also practiced in my gym. This is the persistent question of young women in sports, “Are they impressed by my talent or are they impressed by the fact that I’m a girl?”

This brings me to the topic of concussions. One of the main reasons society disregards concussions and injuries among young women is, what I like to call, the “Sugar, Spice and Everything Nice Complex.” Everyone knows the nursery rhyme, comparing what boys and girls are made of. It’s deep-rooted into our culture; little girls are mean verbally and little boys are mean physically. This carries into our view of young women as athletes too: it just isn’t expected that women will play hard enough to get concussions. Think of how long it took for football fans to acknowledge concussions of male athletes!

Although the societal lens doesn’t focus on the safety of young women in sports the correct way, women look out for each other. I can’t count how many times a woman has bailed me out from sparring with a particularly aggressive college dude at Jiu Jitsu. The answer is women supporting women until the rest of the world catches up.

 

Float report: Or, Kim tries hydrotherapy

I’ve just moved house, to a new city; it’s been a stressy time. Between the administrative challenges (do not put me on hold again!!), the physical labour (please, please, no more boxes…), and the emotion management required by getting to know a whole new group of neighbours, not to mention where the grocery and pet stores, the post office, the local riding groups, the gyms, and the good coffee shops are…

Let’s just say I spent most of September looking like this:

stress_0

(Image of a male cartoon character with bulging eyes, mouth open, gripping his hair. Stressed out, people!)

Luckily, my new joint – the Hammer, HamOnt, Hamtown, aka Hamilton, ON, the Brooklyn of Toronto – is super cool. My second weekend in town Emma the dog and I attended not one but TWO street festivals, heard some amazing music, ate some excellent food truck delicacies, and wandered the boulevards together. On one of those wanderings we found ourselves checking out booths set up by local businesses. One of those booths represented the Zee Float studio, just a five-minute walk from my new house.

Well, I have to tell you: I beelined for that booth, because I have always wanted to try float therapy. I love massage; I consider it part of my wellness regime (and it’s a huge privilege to have a job that covers part of the cost of semi-regular massage, I know). I love yoga, too, for the way it brings me into my body in a calming way, and encourages me to think about joint health, bone health, flexibility, and quality breathing.

Floating in a warm vat of water laced with Epsom salts has always seemed to me an extension of these kinds of self-care activities.

Yes, I’m mildly claustrophobic, but not so much that I worried about it as I eagerly chatted up the woman at the booth. As she described the facilities at Zee to me (three different kinds of float chambers! Kombucha on tap in the chill-out room!) I got more and more excited. Then she told me about their intro offer: 3 floats over 5 days, so that you can really try the experience fulsomely, and without cost pressure, for a very reasonable CAD$45 total.

Reader, I purchased it.

With both my massage therapist and my favourite yoga teacher back in London, ON, my former city, I reasoned a trio of cheap floats would be a quick way for me to de-stress during a tricky time, plus would give me a chance to see if this is something that will work for my body in the longer term.

So, how did it go, relative to my expectations? Well, it was a bit more complicated than I expected – especially since the point of it all is to relax completely, a task at which I do not excel. That said, by my third float, I knew I’d go back.

Herewith, then: my float report.

I arrived for float #1 a couple of minutes early, knowing there would be orientation. The cheerful and boisterous desk attendant, Hannah, commiserated with me when I said I was a bit nervous, gamely showed me around the whole studio, then carefully explained the entire pre-float procedure to me in my private room (the “Oasis” pod).

oasis_room

(The “Oasis” room at Zee Float: image of a wet room with white walls and a shower in one corner, a wood bench with towels, and a flotation tank with a door opening upward. Picture a shuttle launch from Star Trek.)

The space in which the pod (IE: the float chamber itself) is located is a wet room, with a shower on one side, a bench with pre-float prep items and hooks for personal belongings on the other. The room was bathed in a soft purple light, and looked quite inviting. However, I was nervous to realize that the float pod in the middle of the room looked, from the outside, a bit like a coffin – or perhaps more like one of those little launches that shoot off the back of the Starship Enterprise when crew members go exploring. Either way, it appeared to be pretty small. Hannah assured me, though, that the space inside was larger than a single bed, that the door to the pod did not lock, and that I could keep it open if I wished to feel more secure. The lights in the room, motion-controlled, would eventually turn off, and it would be as dark as I needed inside the pod, even with the chamber door ajar.

I prepped for the float as suggested: I went to the toilet, took a warm (but not hot) shower, covered my cuts with vaseline, inserted the earplugs provided, and got in. Instantly, I realized I hadn’t used the vaseline thoroughly enough; a cut on my arm, and the chafing in my groin (from my bike ride earlier in the day) both stung as my skin hit the salt water. I got out, splashing about as I did… and of course I then got salt in my eyes. Cue another quick shower, more vaseline, and a bit of talking to myself. Calm down! I shouted helpfully. You will be fine! YOU WILL RELAX!

Back in the space launch, I worked on breathing slowly. I turned on the light-up rubber duck to help me feel less panicked in the warm darkness. The glow-duck, however, reminded me how small the chamber was… which, in turn, initiated the following internal monologue:

Gosh this is tight. I bet there’s not a lot of oxygen in here!

Shut up, self. Obviously nobody has asphyxiated in here or they would not be allowed to run the business.

But seriously. How much air can there be?

There’s plenty of air. THERE IS PLENTY OF AIR!

…are we sure, though? Especially if I’m breathing… more and more… rapidly…

I shot out of the thing once more. More splashing. More salt in eyes. This time I used the clear water in the bottle attached to the pod door to rinse my eyes (a third shower, I reasoned, would be both decadent and slightly beyond the pale), and I talked myself down to normal breathing patterns once more.

At this point, I spied the head and shoulder rest Hannah had told me about earlier: it’s a little foam ring that you can use as added support if you’re having trouble getting comfortable in the float chamber. I reasoned it couldn’t hurt, grabbed it, and got back in, determined to make it through the hour.

To my own surprise, the head rest made a big difference. I felt held in the water more fully; I felt my body begin to untangle. I also left the pod door open this time, in order to stop myself from freaking out about the oxygen content. As Hannah promised, the lights in the room went out, and the glow from the duck grew more and more comforting. I drifted, letting my thoughts come and go past me, the way we’re often encouraged to do during Sivasana. I observed how my body was moving. I felt the salt drying on my skin, tasted it on my lips.

I was sad when the music came in, and it was time to get out.

Float #2 went a good deal less well. This was entirely my own fault, because I was hungover. (There is a post in there, about how I use alcohol as a quick route to relaxation far too often these days; look for that post in the next couple of months.)

I was in a different space this time around, the “Pro Float Cabin”, which is at once much larger (no oxygen panic issues this time) and, as a result, a bit cavernous and eerie inside. The male attendant, knowing I’d floated just a couple of days before, didn’t orient me; he simply left me to get on with it. I followed the procedure again, and again I got in – not less trepidatious, but, given the ache in my head, differently so.

I recall the evening before joking how I would test floating’s effect on a hangover; in the cool, dim light of the cabin that seemed a cruel joke on me. I had trouble getting comfortable because the sensation of my body in the water was making me nauseated; I berated myself for letting myself get tipsy the evening prior, and then my heart started to race. Once again, overwhelmed by anxious self-talk, I climbed out of the cabin.

Over the course of this float, due in part to the building nausea and in part to my utter lack of enthusiasm for the enterprise, I got out probably three times, and I took three showers. I found sitting on the wet room floor, outside the float chamber space, easier on my head. I waited and waited for the float to be over – but the music never came in, and the light in the cabin never came on.

Instead what happened was: the pump in the float chamber turned on! It was loud and decidedly not relaxing. Panicked that I’d done something wrong by getting out too many times, I climbed back into the cabin. I sat morosely in the churning water, with the glowing duck swirling past me, judging me.

Eventually I decided I was done; I was getting nothing from the float except more anxious and angry with myself. I dried myself, dressed, and emerged – only to discover that my float had ended when the pump had come on, almost a half hour earlier! I explained that the music hadn’t faded in and I’d had no idea; the attendant and I had a laugh over it, but of course deep down I was utterly ashamed of myself. I’d ruined my own self-care experience with an ill-judged experience of self-harm.

So, of course, I was determined to make float #3 better – and it was. It was blissful, actually. I was in the cabin again, and this time I knew exactly what to expect, what to do and what not to do. I took a proper pre-float shower, vaselined up, grabbed the head rest and the glow duck (bless the duck – I’ve decided to name it Seymour) and climbed in.

I didn’t chill out instantly, but I did chill out pretty fast, relatively speaking, as I was much more secure in my surroundings than ever before. After about 20 minutes I stopped wondering what time it was; at that point, I realized that the size of the float cabin (about twice as big and three times as tall as the pods) meant my arms could move freely, both above and below my body. So I let them float above my head and I started to starfish.

This motion, I realized, mimicked the freedom with which I sleep. (I’m a side-sleeper/flail-abouter.) As my arms traveled over my head my legs opened and closed on their own, too; I started to lose track of where the water began. I gazed up at the blue glow on the chamber ceiling and thought it might be getting on time for the float to end; then I let that thought pass by me, knowing it was really quite lovely just being in the moment, where I was.

images

(Image of a larger float chamber with a side door, not unlike the Pro Float Cabin at Zee Studios, where I floated. The chamber is bathed in blue light, and there are two lights under the water line, and specks of light on the ceiling.)

***

So, what did I learn?

First, floating in the evening was far nicer than the morning float, and not just because of the hangover. Evening means relaxation can be followed by sleep, which is far preferable to the other thing. At least for me.

Second, I learned that judging myself is antithetical to the float experience, and, because I judge myself in my head constantly, challenging myself to let the judgements pass while I’m in the float chamber is a key part of the experience for me. In the cabin, after a while, it became easy; moving past judgement got simpler as my body got more and more comfortable moving in the water. I had to give up some control and let it happen; that’s hard for me but worthwhile.

Finally, floating requires some trust. Yes, the water is clean and the air is ample. No, you will not be forgotten and thus left trapped in the chamber forever. The space is safe; the staff are professional and there is a lock on the wet room door, so you can be secure in your body as you float. Others have prepared a space where you can be vulnerable in your body and let go; being prepared to trust in the integrity of their actions and intentions is a big part of feeling safe enough to relax.

So I’ll go back, for sure. Having completed the initiation immersion I’ve earned a free float, so why not? But more than that, I suspect I can only learn more about myself, and learn to curb some of my least healthy habits, by choosing to float from time to time.

 

 

Sports equipment as anti-fat-shaming devices

A few weeks ago, I went to the optometrist for my biannual eye exam and to get my reading glasses prescription updated.  During the eye exam, the doctor told me that I was suspect for glaucoma– my eye pressure was 17 (normal is 10–22, she said), but I had some evidence of damage to my optic nerve.  She scheduled me to have further testing done, which I did.  I’m extremely happy to report that I don’t have glaucoma.  Yay!  Whew!

However, during my first visit with her, while asking about what one can do for eye care, she said, “well, you should always wear sunglasses.  And watch your diet.  But of course it’s clear that you take care of yourself.”

Hmmmm.  What made it clear that I take care of myself?  I’m fat, cis-female, 55, able-bodied as far as she can tell, and currently not bleeding.  So far so meh.

But:  I rode my bike to the appointment (which, in retrospect was a bad idea; riding a bike home after getting your eyes dilated is not good).  I walked into her office toting one of these:

a white road cycling helmet, with silver accents

a white road cycling helmet, with silver accents

She saw my bike helmet, which, I surmise, must have affected her views about me and my health.

This is not an uncommon experience for me and my cycling friends, including Samantha.  She posted here in June about why she rides or walks to the hospital.  Convenience and refusal to pay exorbitant parking prices is part of the story, but there’s also this:

The thing is when I’m coming to the hospital I’m often seeing health care professionals who don’t know me. They make judgments pretty quickly on the state of your health and well being. Often I think they do that on the basis of weight. And there’s not much I can do about that.

I want people to get things right and to not make silly mistakes. So I try to help. It’s like when I go to new workout or a new gym when traveling and wear my CrossFit hoodie. The fitness instructors worry less about me. (See Traveling, new gyms, and thin privilege.)

Riding my bike in, arriving at the appointment in bike shoes, sandals, helmet in hand, sends a signal. I’m signaling that I’m an active person.

Yes– just carrying a bike helmet to a doctor’s office can stave off lots of preconceived (and ill-founded) notions about what people of my size are like.  It’s like a magic anti-fat-shaming shield, sending out signals far and wide that “This person is an athlete!  This person is fit!  This person is not what you think a typical fat person is; this person is ok!”

I have a bunch of mixed reactions to this.

First– excellent!  Let’s just issue bike helmets to all women with BMIs over 30 as the new new healthcare destination accessory.  However, not all helmet designs are likely to be effective, as they must be instantly recognizable.  Not like this helmet design that has yet to catch on:

Two views of an inflatable bike helmet, worn on the left as a scarf/collar, and on the right as an inflated helmet/hood, surrounding the head and neck.

Two views of an inflatable bike helmet, worn on the left as a scarf/collar, and on the right as an inflated helmet/hood, surrounding the head and neck.

But imagine the possibilities:  we just haul these things into the examining room (no need actually to wear them, though), and voila:  no more fat-shaming talk!  Wouldn’t that be lovely?

Seriously, though, my other reaction is frustration with healthcare relationships.  I don’t expect my optometrist to know about my life and health goals, but I do want to be able to talk with my primary care doctor/nurse practitioner about them.  This involves talking about my current activities, what I want to do, what I don’t think I can do, etc.  I also don’t want my health concerns brushed aside just because the provider sees a helmet and thinks that I must not be in need of any discussion about my activity levels, mood, nutrition, etc.

Of course, having such conversations with a provider requires something that we don’t have in the American healthcare system:

The word "time" in all caps in red

Signaling does help us make conclusions about other people rapidly.  And it serves a bunch of social purposes.  But in this case, all joking aside, it’s not clear that it is serving either me or my healthcare provider.  But until things change and there’s more time for us to get to know each other better, I’ll keep biking to appointments and bringing in the helmet.  Because it would be way to much trouble to kayak there and bring the boat indoors.

A man in shorts and a yellow coat and a life jacket, holding a yellow inflatable kayak over his head. He's standing in a crowd of commuting walkers downtown in a big city.

A man in shorts and a yellow coat and a life jacket, holding a yellow inflatable kayak over his head. He’s standing in a crowd of commuting walkers downtown in a big city.

 

 

 

New Year’s resolutions: the academic year edition

A group of colored pencils, viewed from their cross sections

For those of us who live by the academic calendar, it is New Year’s. My Facebook feed has been filled with pictures of grinning kids in their back-to-school ensembles and reports of fall syllabi being completed (or not). Lots of folks have already started school. In New England we traditionally start after US Labor Day, which is the first Monday in September. My first day of work is Tuesday, and my first class meeting is next Thursday.

A black-and-white image of a cartoonish cat, saying

A black-and-white image of a cartoonish cat, saying “Ack!”

I have tons of work still to do (as usual): I’m teaching a new Science and Values course for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) students, and also revising my intro to logic course. And I’m behind on other tasks (as usual).

But what’s really exciting to me about the academic New Year is what Tracy wrote about this week: the possibilities found within routine, either in a return to old favorites, or the promise of new and improved life patterns.

Summertime is wondrous. There’s sun and warmth and long days and fresh produce and license to laze and loll, cavort and frolic. Part of its brilliance is in its departure from the standard routine: hey, let’s grill in the backyard! Wanna go for a swim/bike ride/beach walk/canoe trip? Yesssss!

However, as Tracy pointed out, some things get lost in the heat and hysteria of summer pleasures. In her post this week, she quoted one of her 2013 posts, which sums it up perfectly for me:

What I like so much about a regular routine is that it establishes a rhythm to my day and my life. I don’t need to think, I can just fall into the beat of that rhythm. A routine at its best is a series of good habits, exercised effortlessly, with little thinking through.

But it’s hard to establish that rhythm in the absence of some structure, at least it was and is for me. It’s like flailing around in the dark or taking the very first arbitrary stab at a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle.

When I’ve got something solid to work around, things can start to fall into place.

Rhythm– we all want this in our lives. For Tracy, it’s a return to some of the patterns she’s established and loves. For me, it’s a combo: resuming habits that went by the wayside in my happy summer haze; and aspiring to fix or stave off habits that I’m constantly battling.

Every September, even in the midst of mourning the end of summer, I’m at the same time anticipating a fresh start with a routine that supports me physically and emotionally.

Herewith my New (academic) Year’s Resolutions:

  • I shall turn off my bedroom light by 11pm;
  • I shall turn off social media or internet-sourced info/entertainment by 10pm;
  • I shall do one off-road bike ride a week;
  • I shall do one training road ride (tempo or threshold) a week;
  • I shall go to yoga twice a week;
  • I shall cook food for the week on the previous weekend.

These are all basic self-care resolutions. They are, in some ways, modest. I ride more than listed above, BUT I want to go on record (mainly with myself) stating what I really want (and need, for self-satisfaction and fitness-according-to-me) to do each week.

The sleeping and cooking resolutions are a little harder. I am by nature a night owl, so it’s easy for my bedtime to creep up towards 1am. Summertime tends to wreak havoc on my sleep schedule; I stay up later and then sleep later. This cuts into my productivity and also my feeling of being moderately in control of my life. So, I’m going to turn off the light at 11. I did it last night (yay!). So far, so good.

Cooking is something I’ve been doing haphazardly this summer, mainly because I’ve been in and out of town a lot. I’ve been loving the fresh produce, and it’s been easy just to throw together meals. But come fall, I want to be able to rely on having good-to-me food ready to eat when I get home from school. This requires cooking.

By the way, I just subscribed to the New York Times cooking newsletter. If you have a subscription, you can sign up. Some of these recipes can be accessed on a limited basis, and they are worth checking out. I’ve already bought ingredients for this pasta dish with black kale, shiitake mushrooms and sausage (this can be made vegetarian by changing out the sausage for some other protein, and vegan by omitting the cheese). Doesn’t this look yummy?

Spaghetti with black kale, shiitake mushrooms and diced sausage with a sprinkling of parmesan cheese, on a brown plate with fork.

Spaghetti with black kale, shiitake mushrooms and diced sausage with a sprinkling of parmesan cheese, on a brown plate with fork.

I’ll report back in a month on how I’m doing with these resolutions. Accountability is tricky for me (I both want it and fear it), but this is a forum in which we can share our successes, failures, needs and wants. So here are mine.

Does the impending fall give you the feeling of a fresh start? Do you shift your patterns in an intentional way come September? What do you do? We’d love to hear from you.

N+1: A Love Story (Guest Post)

I know many of the contributors and readers of this blog are avid cyclists. I’ve only recently discovered the joys of cycling. Although, like most people, I learned to ride a bike when I was a child, it never captivated me until I moved to Aotearoa New Zealand and started commuting to university by bike. My officemate, who was leaving the country, sold me his bicycle (whom I christened Beatrice), and my love affair began. After a few months of commuting (plus an unexpected influx of cash), I decided to buy a new bicycle that fit me well and expressed my personality. Beatrice was lonely and needed a sister, after all! Plus, I am told that it is a well-known adage amongst cyclists that the number of bikes you need is n+1, where n is the number of bikes you currently have.

A side photo of a bright orange commuter bike leaning against a white house in the sunshine.

Image description: A side photo of a bright orange commuter bike leaning against a white house in the sunshine.

My new bike, Jezebel, is a commuter bike with a temperament to match her bright orange paint job. I’ll be the first to admit that I know almost nothing about bicycles—although I’m slowly learning a few basic maintenance things—but that hasn’t stopped me from falling hopelessly in love with my new bike. Even though I grew up with a triathlete mother, I never really understood how some cyclists could develop such deep emotional attachments to their bikes.

Now I do.

So, I present to you, dear readers, a love letter to my bicycle*:

Dear Jezebel,

How happy I am that you are in my life! Your blazing orange coat fills me with joy every time I lay eyes on you. I can’t wait to show you all around the great city where we live, and I’m looking forward to taking you up and down roads, over hill and dale, along rivers and around the harbour. You will accompany me everywhere I need to go: to friends’ houses, my office, the supermarket, the swimming pool. I’ll tuck you in, safe and sound in the garage, and dream of speeding off into the sunrise with you in the morning.

You push me to be stronger and more adventurous, facing wind and hill and black ice with courage and determination I didn’t have before. You’ve also made me notice the small details I never would have seen otherwise. The potholes, quirks of the traffic lights at different intersections, hidden driveways, and roads that look flat but are actually very gradual inclines would have escaped my notice if you hadn’t pointed them out to me.

In you, I found freedom I didn’t know I lacked. Before we met, it took me ages to get anywhere. Although I enjoyed walking, it took up a lot of time. I didn’t drive anywhere because I don’t know how, and driving is impractical anyway because traffic is slow and parking is scarce and expensive. And if I took the bus, I was always travelling on someone else’s schedule. Now, you and I can go anywhere whenever we want. While the roads are filled with trapped cars waiting for the procession ahead of them to make it through the next light, we gleefully zip past them down the bike lane. I create excuses to go places simply so I can spend more time with you. I can’t wait for the long and happy life we will spend together.

Love,
Chloe

P.S. Be nice to Beatrice. Having a younger sister has been an adjustment for her.

A 26-year old white woman with short blonde hair, wearing a red and grey plaid shirt and black glasses smiles while posing with her orange bicycle.

A 26-year old white woman with short blonde hair, wearing a red and grey plaid shirt and black glasses smiles while posing with her orange bicycle.

*Yep, I know my bike can’t read.

My highest weight and feeling great?

That’s not how the whole body image & heart health narrative is supposed to go. I know. I’m supposed to struggle with my weight and health. Then, because I’ve sublimated my base urges and really learned to love myself, I miraculously transform into a thinner, better me.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this great blog post by Heather Plett.

I just love it and she captured so much of what I have encountered. People LOVE imposing a triumphant narrative on my fitness. 
I’m not at war with my body. My body is not a thing to be dominated or warred against.

I am trying to figure out how to be healthy and joyful. I think I’m hovering or orbiting around that, I’m in the neighbourhood at least.

In July this Facebook memory came up:

I’ve tried a lot of things since 2014 and some of it worked for me, other stuff, not so much. I’ve tried mindfulness and abstaining from alcohol. I’ve tried losing weight. (Spoiler, I didn’t keep it off!)

https://fitisafeministissue.com/2015/02/20/40-years-40-lbs-guest-post/

I’ve though a lot about my cardiovascular health!

https://fitisafeministissue.com/2016/04/09/facebook-memories-and-blood-pressure-stories/

I’m back to the weight I was 3 years ago when my high blood pressure diagnosis (and offer of gastric bypass surgery by my doctor) happened. The thing is, I feel great!

I’m gardening, cycling a bit, playing soccer and occasionally working out. My blood pressure is right where it needs to be.

I do know if I put all my time and energy into tracking food and using all my self discipline for staying away from sweets and alcohol I do lose weight for a while. The things needed to do that make me super anxious and sad. I only think about food. It’s kind of awful.

Thing is, I use a lot of self-discipline to parent, take my university courses, be a grown up at work…lots of things. And here’s the deal, like many of my emotional and cognitive resources, I’ve only got so much to go around.

I love making delicious and nutritious food. I love craft beers. I’ve decided that until my blood pressure numbers change for the worse I’m good the way I am.

So I think the question is more of an exclamation. My highest weight and feeling GREAT!

Why I’m glad I stopped worrying about sugar and other weird food obsessions

I had a funny exchange the other day on Facebook. There was a link about the dangers of the cheese powder in boxed mac and cheese. I commented on my friend’s post that when we can, we should rely on whole foods to make mac and cheese. Being an American, my friend thought I meant the food chain Whole Foods, which is not so cheekily known as Whole PayCheque for the high cost of it items.

Image: White bowl with pasta noodles, red tomatoes, and green basil.

Not macaroni and cheese, but my favourite feta, basil and tomato pasta supper.

Nonetheless we had a good chat about how expensive it can be to eat whole, unprocessed foods, and that led us to a whole other thread about clean eating, healthy eating, good foods, bad foods, cheat meals, etc. We weren’t actually talking about our approach to nutrition but the way the words we use to talk about food get co-opted by all kinds of agendas. It’s quite easy to have all sorts of “isms” and attitudes creep in, altering our meaning and twisting our understanding of food as fuel in our lives and how we relate to it in different contexts.

That same day SamB brought my attention to this article about Anthony Warner, described by the Guardian as “(the Angry Chef) who is on a mission to confront the ‘alternative facts’ surrounding nutritional fads and myths.”  Warner writes a blog on food fads, and he doesn’t hold back. He’s now written a book called The Angry Chef: Bad Science and the Truth About Healthy Eating, and I ‘m adding it to my reading list.

That’s because when you start a fitness program, there’s all manner of advice on how to eat, what to eat, and why the one true way (insert your favourite fad — howsoever you define it —  diet here) will be all that you need. Even if your goal is not weight loss, there’s all kinds of recommendations (cough, cough, rules!) on how to eat to train.

Heck, you don’t even have to be training to get food advice. I’m convinced all you have to be is female and not meet someone’s pre-conceived notion of how female should look, for the advice to come pouring in, accompanied by a generous helping of side eye finished with a soupcon of shade, if the advisor deems your food choices not to meet their definition of “healthy” eating.

What appealed to me about Warner is his evidence-based approach. In the article he says: “A lot of the clean-eating people, I just think they have a broken relationship with the truth. (…) They’re selling something that is impossible to justify in the context of evidence-based medicine.” I like science and research and critical thinking. Sadly, there’s too little of it when it comes to talking about food and part of it goes back to the agendas behind the particular terms used.

Warner says our fascination with fads or trends in food and eating is connected with our innate need for certainty. He explains it this way: “We really want to be able to say: ‘Is coffee good or bad for us?’ Well, it’s not good or bad for you, it just is. And we have to accept that; that’s what science says. So your brain goes, ‘I don’t like that level of uncertainty.’ Certainty is really appealing for a lot of people and that’s what a lot of these people are selling – certainly at the darker end.”

And he’s right. The people who have preached to me about gluten free diets when they aren’t celiac are utterly convinced of the rightness of their belief that going gluten-free cured their ills. Equally certain are the people who now look upon sugar with the same fear and revulsion we bring to edible oil masquerading as coffee creamer.

As I survey the speciality food shelves in my local shops, I’m enchanted by all of the interesting food stuffs and yet, truthfully, I am also challenged by how these same items are elevated in social media, on Instagram, and by celebrities to miracle food status. Warner, who lives in the UK and works for a food manufacturer is clear about the limitations food makers face when it comes to making claims about food: “If I made a food product and I wanted to say ‘it detoxes you’, I absolutely couldn’t. There are really clear laws: I can’t say it in the advertising, I can’t say it on the pack, I can’t make any sort of claim that isn’t hugely backed in evidence. But if I wrote a recipe book, I can say what I want.”

If you have been wondering how Gwyneth Paltrow can make pots of money selling her fans coconut oil as a mouthwash and wasp’s nests as a vaginal cleanser, there’s your answer. The trick is to stop engaging in magical thinking when it comes to food and applying some common sense. Warner’s advice: “eat a sensible and varied diet, not too much nor too little. If you have junk food every so often, don’t feel guilty; if you’re going full Morgan Spurlock, you’re probably overdoing it. Eat fish, especially oily ones such as salmon and mackerel, when you can. Don’t consume too much sugar, but equally don’t believe people who tell you it’s “toxic” and has “no nutritional value.”

Or you can go the Reader’s Digest version and follow Michael Pollan’s advice: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Excuse me now, as I forage in the fridge for the leftover maple syrup glazed salmon.

— Martha is a writer and powerlifter in training exploring a whole new world of food as fuel.