body image · diets · eating · fat · fitness · motivation · sports nutrition

“Nutrition is the foundation of health and fitness. You simply cannot out train a poor diet.”

The quotation above is from Greg Glassman, the founder of Crossfit. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between nutrition and fitness and thinking about where there’s room for improvement in my efforts to be the ‘fittest by fifty.’

Unlike my co-blogger Tracy who has decided that sports nutrition counseling isn’t for her and who has stepped away from the scale, I’m continuing with habit based nutrition counseling. I’m a numbers geek, I like tracking, and I’m looking forward to getting leaner in the year ahead.

It’s not about hating the body I’m got, I’m quite fond of it thanks, and it can do amazing things, but I need reminders to give it the love and attention it deserves. With three kids and a busy career, I sometimes struggle to take care of myself. I’m not quite the opposite of the food obsessed dieter but it’s true that for me, more often than not, convenience and the needs of others, take precedence over my own food choices.

Whether it’s a banana and a protein bar before Crossfit, a drive thru coffee and bagel on the way to rowing, a pizza slice post Aikido or instant oatmeal as a warm bedtime snack, some of my food choices aren’t the best. And given the demands I place on my body, I need to do better.

For some reason, for me, physical activity is easy. I love it, can’t get enough of it, but nutrition is another matter. And yet, eating well supports everything else I do. And I do a lot so I need to eat very well. So I’m setting out to work on the foundation this year, to try to pay as much attention to nutrition as I do to other aspects of sports performance. I’m trying to think of eating as part of sports training. Nutrition counseling helps serve as a reminder that this matters.

I’ve blogged here about my reasons for wanting to be leaner but I need to balance that goal with making sure I eat enough to support my physical activity.

I just did another check in at the Bod Pod this week and I’m happy with my progress so far. I’ve lost another 4 lbs overall but more importantly, as part of that overall, I’ve also gained 2 lbs of muscle since my last check in, and so my per cent body fat is down 2%. Yay Crossfit! Yippee new muscles! I’ve joined Tracy in the merely “excess fat” category, heading towards “moderately lean.”

I’m also now following the Lean Eating program at Precision Nutrition.

You’ve probably read a few wonderful rants I’ve linked to by Krista Scott Dixon. Here’s my faves:

In addition to having put together the best women’s weight lifting site on the web, and having a PhD in Women’s Studies she’s also the Coaching Program Director for Precision Nutrition.  I’m actually working with another Precision Nutrition Krista though. Krista Chaus is another woman with a pretty impressive bio.

“Since beginning her competitive career as a strength athlete 10 year ago, Krista has become one of the Canadian Powerlifting Union’s Top 20 Female Powerlifters. She is also a National champion, provincial record holder and two times Commonwealth Championship medalist.

Recently, Krista has turned her competitive attention to the physique side of the industry, capturing 7 overall finishes in bodybuilding in 2008 and placing 5th at the 2009 Arnolds Amateur Bodybuilding Championships.  She’s currently working towards a National bench press record with the Canadian Powerlifting Association.” from her PN bio

It’s not a diet, in terms of short term change. Instead, I’m trying new habits on for size and trying to make them part of my life. The first big change for me is that one will sound familiar to those who’ve been following the blog: slow mindful eating.

There’ll be no vibrating forks for me though. I’m hoping to pay more attention to my food and less attention to electronic gadgets at the dinner table.

Anyway, wish me luck.

body image · weight loss

On feminist philosophy and weight loss

There isn’t a lot of feminist literature on the experience of losing weight and keeping it off so I was very happy to read Ann Cahill’s paper “Getting to My Fighting Weight” published in the Musings section of the journal Hypatia (25 (2):485-492, 2010). It’s a very gentle piece of philosophy, light on prescription, rich in personal experience and narrative.

I love the idea of  “fighting weight” as a concept that goes beyond boxing and martial arts though I admit that’s what I originally thought Cahill’s piece would be about. I expected a piece on “making weight” or “weighing down” the way one does for fitness competitions, races in light weight rowing, and martial arts competitions.

Cahill also notes there isn’t a lot of feminist work out there that is positive about the experience of losing weight and staying at the new weight.  One possibility of course is that this phenomenon is so rare. Estimates vary but most agree that only about 1 in 20 people who lose weight keep it off for more than five years. Most feminist literature looks at weight loss as part of the larger effort to control women’s lives by imposing an impossible regimen of dieting, self monitoring, and self regulation.

The philosophical literature which Cahill cites will be familiar to many of us. Most feminist philosophers of my generation will have read, in grad school, the two B’s: Bordo and Bartky. Bartky’s 1990 book Femininity and domination: Studies in the phenomenology of oppression and Susan Bordo’s 1993 book Unbearable weight: Feminism, western culture, and the body were the first feminist philosophy works that discussed the political dimensions of women’s efforts regarding our appearance and the high cost we pay for this concern.

Bordo’s book came out the year I graduated but I read some of the articles that went into it along the way. Bordo’s writing about eating disorders was the first time I’d thought about dieting’s effect on women’s lives in the context of feminist philosophy.

Maybe for younger scholars, Cressida Heyes’ work will have played this role. Heyes’ terrific 2006 paper, “Foucault goes to weight watchers” is also published in the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia (21 (2): 126–49).

Cahill is a beautiful writer and I love her language when she talks about reconciling her decision to lose weight with her feminist values:

“I realized that maximizing my ability to move, quickly, effectively, strongly, was entirely conducive to my feminist aspirations and
activities. I wasn’t aspiring to skinniness or frailty, just the opposite: I wanted to bring strength and vigor to whatever struggle I chose. I wanted to get to my fighting weight.”

I don’t know of any philosopher who has set out to write principles that ought to guide our efforts at weight loss. Cahill doesn’t do that exactly either but she does describe the principles she chose and why they mattered to her. I admire the guidelines she adopted, on feminist grounds, to guide her weight loss journey. In short, there were to be no changes that couldn’t be permanent, no classes of foods off limits, no special or different foods, and no displays of food denial. I liked reading about her choices and how she approached them as a feminist and as a philosopher.

Instead, Cahill dropped weight through the methods of food journaling, calorie tracking, and exercise. Both Tracy and I have blogged about our different reactions to food tracking here on our blog. Tracking and the Panopticon was Tracy’s post on this subject which I followed up with Another Perspective on Tracking. It was interesting in the weeks that followed that post to hear which side of fence our friends lived on. “I’m with you, I track everything,” said one friend, while another agreed with Tracy that the process was “nasty and oppressive.” Everyone had done it and we all had a view.

One of the more philosophically interesting parts of Cahill’s project was how others saw her results.

“I might have called it getting stronger, or deepening my bodily flourishing, or becoming more intentional about the intersection of my material existence and my material culture. But in the context of contemporary culture, what I had done was ‘‘lost weight,’’ and people’s reactions to that weight loss were a fascinating part of the experience.”

Cahill strikingly writes about the downsides of losing weight. Like me, she isn’t so happy with the phenomena I call “skinny face.”

One thing that may have made Cahill’s experiences different from those of many of us is that she came to her plan without a history of body loathing and dieting. Prior to this it sounds like she didn’t even weigh herself regularly. And even now she doesn’t dislike her former, larger body. That’s so lovely and rare.

“I don’t look back at photos of myself from a year ago and shudder. That was a different body that I lived, with its own set of possibilities, practices, and abilities. And there are certainly cultural contexts where that body would be more useful and conducive to my survival than the one I’m living now. Come the apocalypse, those extra pounds would come in handy.”

I did wish Cahill spent more time addressing the dreaded D word, “diet” and I wanted to hear more about how she’s been keeping the weight off. I’ve been down her road of significant weight loss (a few times actually) but I’ve never succeeded in staying at the lower weight. At times I also wanted to hear her draw more general conclusions and principles but Cahill sticks wisely with philosophical reflections on personal experience.

If you’re a feminist interested in the phenomenon of weight loss and you have access to the holdings of a university library, I strongly recommend that you go read Cahill’s Musings piece. For the rest of you, well, this is why I care so much about open access publishing. The beautiful and important work of feminist academics ought to be more widely available, not locked away behind the firewalls that guard the ivory tower or the paywalls that guard the publisher’s websites.

And if you’re like Cahill, someone who has lost weight and kept it off, do her experiences accord with your own? I’m both personally and professionally curious.

body image · weight loss

Lower death risk for the overweight, go us!

From the New York Times: “The report on nearly three million people found that those whose B.M.I. ranked them as overweight had less risk of dying than people of normal weight. And while obese people had a greater mortality risk over all, those at the lowest obesity level (B.M.I. of 30 to 34.9) were not more likely to die than normal-weight people. The report, although not the first to suggest this relationship between B.M.I. and mortality, is by far the largest and most carefully done, analyzing nearly 100 studies, experts said.”

This is in keeping with a declaration made by The New York Times in 1912 when they declared Elsie Scheel, “the perfect woman” at 171 lbs.

Read more here: The ‘Perfect Woman’ In 1912, Elsie Scheel, Was 171 Pounds And Loved Beefsteaks

Blogger Kate Harding described Scheel in these terms: “Miss Elsie Scheel’s BMI would have been 26.8, placing her squarely in today’s dreaded “overweight” category. At Banana Republic, to pick a random contemporary store, she would wear a size 8 top, a 12/14 bottom, and probably a 12 dress with the bust taken in.” (Kate Harding is the author of the BMI Project.)

I’ve written a bit about the so-called obesity paradox, Obesity, health, and fitness: some odd connections.

That’s okay. I’m not worried. I’ve been in the overweight category all of my adult life, even at my thinnest. Given my 122 lb base of muscle and bone, I’ll always be overweight. Which is, I’ve argued here, part of the problem with weight and BMI as measures of anything meaningful.

I often wonder about the effect of news like this on the naturally lean. One of thing that interests me is that it seems it just doesn’t matter how big the health benefits of being overweight are, no one would suggest that underweight people try to gain weight. It’s just too tough. Why doesn’t this work the other way?

sports nutrition · weight loss

Great reading for the fitness geek on your gift list

Timothy Caulfield’s new book The Cure for Everything: Untangling the Twisted Messages about Health, Fitness and Happiness aims to set the record straight on what the latest research in food and fitness does and doesn’t show. Caufield is sick of all of the myths and hype surrounding food and fitness trends.

For the most part The Cure for Everything is a fun, fact filled exercise in debunking. I like a good debunking as much as the next philosopher. What science minded academic doesn’t?

Here are some highlights from the self described science nerd and health nut:

  • When it comes to weight loss, exercise is just a tiny part of the story. 90% or more of it is diet. Caulfield thinks there is a reason so much funding for sports and exercise programs comes from food manufacturers. They’re anxious to redirect attention.
  • That said, we should all exercise more than we do. It’s incredibly good for us, even if we don’t lose weight. What sort of exercise? Heavy weights and intensity. Forget “moderate” exercise, intensity is where it’s at and what makes a difference. Governments encourage “moderate” exercise because that’s where there’s the biggest bang for health improvement buck but really, it’s intense exercise that offers the most individual benefits. Governments rightly worry that if they shared this message we’d all give up, go home, and watch yet more television.
  • There’s no such thing as toning and the best way to visible abs is low body fat. (That’s why heroin addicts look ripped.)
  • Stretch if you want to but there’s no evidence to say it’s good for you and some evidence to show it hurts performance. (Yes! Thank you.)
  • The food industry touts the ‘everything in moderation’ ideal but the truth is that some foods have no place in a healthy diet. Rather by the time you eat all the foods you need to eat, there’s no room for them in the daily calorie count.
  • Don’t bother with vitamins and supplements. Eat real food.
  • And there’s nothing particularly good to say about detox and cleansing diets.
  • Most surprisingly (for me) was his critique of yoga. I wasn’t shocked that homeopathy isn’t medicine but I was taken aback by his claim that yoga is not very good as exercise though it is probably good for stress relief. I’ll worry less now that I’m not very good at yoga but I still enjoy it anyway. Hot yoga on a cold winter day feels wonderful. And I’ll be curious to hear what yoga buffs make of Caulfield’s claims. (Hi Tracy!)

You can read the short version here on Huffington Post, 9 Health Myths Debunked by Timothy Caulfield.

Caulfield leads the Faculty of Law’s Health Law and Science Policy Group at the University of Alberta and is a Canada Research Chair  in Health Law and Policy. He is also a pretty serious track cyclist (a former Canadian master’s champion in sprint cycling) and the same age as me, 48. Oh, and he’s got cool glasses.

What counts as fitness, according to Caulfied? In an interview with Healthzone he says:

In our society, fitness is about looking good, about esthetics. My definition is not tied to sexy abs. It’s tied to feeling strong and vigorous. It’s about biological markers, such as blood pressure and cholesterol. You get all that from working out. If your goal is to look in the mirror for drastic changes, you’re going to be disappointed.

Some of this will be familiar to readers of Gretchen Reynolds’ The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can: Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer which I talked about here.

Both books cover lots of the same ground although I found Caulfield’s conclusions a little gloomier. Reynolds tends to sprinkle the bad news with the good. She’s also a health reporter and he’s an academic and the difference in background shows. Though both aim to be popular books sharing research in a field many of us care deeply about, if you actually want the science and some details about the studies Caulfield will be a better read.

Both books also make clear that the truth doesn’t provide much fodder for catchy motivational slogans: Exercise intensely for long periods of time and you might just stay the same! Both cite the same study showing women who exercise a lot, and regularly, still gain weight as they age. They just gain less. That’s good health news but won’t exactly make for a very good poster at the gym.

The bit that I found hard to take, though I don’t doubt he’s right, was Caulfield’s assessment of what’s required for long term weight loss and maintenance. People who lose weight and keep weight off in the long run have some traits in common. And this group, because they’re rare, have been studied closely.  First, constant vigilance. They remain as focused and determined as they were when losing weight and they log and track just as carefully as when they started. Second, they exercise a lot. Third, they also don’t eat very much. Yikes.

During the course of writing the book, Caulfied himself dropped 25 lbs and went into the very lean category in terms of body fat. He did with some simple rules: no junk food, very limited quantities (he only ordered starters not entrees) and half of everything he ate had to be fruits and vegetables. He speaks in frank terms about hard this was, about hunger and resisting temptation. He’s kept the weight off but still finds it a struggle.

In the end I like ‘s assessment of the book. On his blog Weighty Matters he calls it an “evidence based romp.” Three words he says he’d never thought he’d string together.

You can hear Caulfield interviewed on the ABC here and his book is also reviewed  in the National Post

weight loss

Obesity, health, and fitness: some odd connections

The connection between obesity and health isn’t as straightforward as we might think.

Those of us who puzzle about the connection between obesity and health  ask whether it’s possible to be fat and healthy. I’d like to think that it is.

But until recently it didn’t ever occur to me that some people could be healthy because they’re fat and that for them not only is losing weight not necessary it might even be had for their health.

It does seem though that not only can fat people be healthy, in some people it seems losing weight increases a variety of disease risks. Researchers call this the “obesity paradox” though as they come to understand it it might be a misnamed phenomena. What matters, they think, is metabolic health, not obesity after all.

I find this fascinating but it does make me worry about weight loss in my case. I’m a clear case of a metabolically healthy, significantly overweight person.

See the following story from the Vancouver Sun, http://www.vancouversun.com/health/Obesity+some+healthy+others/7607904/story.html.

I’ve italicized the bits that make me nervous!

“According to a recent study funded by the Canadian Institute for Health Research, people who are obese are less likely to die from pneumonia than people of normal or low weight. The study of patients at six Edmonton hospitals found that obese patients were 56-per-cent less likely to die, an example of what the researchers call “reverse epidemiology.”

It is far from the only example. The authors cite studies that reveal paradoxical outcomes for obese patients suffering from coronary artery disease, end-stage kidney disease and heart failure.

Other recent CIHR-funded studies have revealed that some obese people appear to be protected against the very illnesses most associated with obesity, specifically type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

These seemingly contradictory findings are fuelling research into the so-called Obesity Paradox, according to CIHR researcher Antony Karelis at the University of Quebec.

Karelis has found that about 30 per cent of obese people appear to display metabolic health indistinguishable from those of young lean individuals, including normal blood pressure, low levels of bad fats, high levels of healthy fats, high insulin sensitivity and low inflammation.

Metabolically healthy obese (MHO) adults also have less fat in their livers, muscles and around their vital organs, but more subcutaneous fat under their skin, he said.

“Some [obese] people collect fat under their skin where it is less likely to go into the liver and the heart or the pancreas and cause all kinds of trouble,” said Karelis. “Fat on their thighs is associated with health benefits, but abdominal fat is more associated with [poor health].”

Karelis argues that identifying people by their metabolic health, rather than their weight, is key for doctors making decisions about how to treat their patients.

“We know these people exist and that they have a lower risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease,” Karelis said. “They have a better inflammation profile, a better hormonal profile and they are physically stronger.”

There are signs that weight loss may be harmful to people who are metabolically healthy but obese.

MHO individuals who participated in a six-month weight-loss study showed deteriorated insulin sensitivity, a risk factor for diabetes and heart disease. Metabolically abnormal obese study participants — those who display inflammation and unhealthy fat profiles usually associated with obesity — showed improved insulin sensitivity, suggesting their health could benefit from weight loss.

A 2009 study in the journal Epidemiology of middle- and older-aged obese adults found an increased risk of death associated with weight loss. Another CIHR study found that weight loss in obese post-menopausal women increased their risk of developing diabetes.”

Since diabetes seems to be the main risk caused by messing with a good thing, i.e. losing weight when you’re metabolically healthy to start, I think I’ll keep on eye on this in my case if I make progress to a leaner me by year 50. We’ve got a type 2 diabetic in the house so monitoring my blood sugar at least is easy.

body image · diets · fat · fitness · weight loss

I hate you Weight Watchers

Inspired by this recent anti-WW rant, Weight Watchers Probably Won’t Help You Lose Tons of Weight, So Maybe Stop Dieting?, I decided to write my own.

There aren’t many companies I have strong feelings about but WW is one of them. These are my feelings based solely on my experiences and your mileage may vary, yada yada yada. If it works/worked for you, great, though I suspect you are in a very small minority.

Like the author of the above post, I first went to Weight Watchers as a child, accompanied by a loving, well meaning parent. My mum has struggled with her weight all of my life and was at that point a regular attender of WW.

These days she’s also moved on from WW or “wrestling” as we dubbed it–you know a blend of fighting fat and WWF.

So when I first went to a WW meeting I was 12 or 13 years old. I have intense memories of this period of my life: my first diet. I was in Grade 6. I felt very grown up.

I did it part because I wanted shorter, grown up hair, but ‘friends’ thought I ought to lose weight first. Short hair was for svelte girls, not chubby awkward girls in knee socks.

I weighed 133 lbs when I first stepped on those scales and that number appalled me. The last I looked I wasn’t yet a 100 lbs. Where had those extra pounds come from? Keep in mind though that I was the tallest person in my class. I was probably 5’4 or so that weight shouldn’t have been as horrifying as it was.

I’m not sure I was even really overweight. When I look at pictures of me then I don’t see a fat kid. I see a slightly chubby almost teenage girl, on the verge of hips and breasts. I think she ought to have run more, played outside more but young me was a bookish, studious introvert, no lover of sports and games.

The people there were kind to me. No one thought joining was a bad idea. Indeed, I was called mature and told that it good to take care of this little problem now, before it got out of hand.

And in their defense I don’t think they knew then what we ought to know now about the dangers of dieting, especially setting up dieting habits in children. They really did think they were helping.

I remember coming home to find out there was lemon meringue pie for dessert (my parents were bakers) and that I couldn’t eat it, too many points. My mum gave me a one night reprieve for pie. I was to start the diet tomorrow.

I don’t remember how many weeks that first diet lasted. Not very many, I don’t think. I don’t think I lost any weight. It was the beginning though of a lifetime of weighing and shame associated with my size.

The good news was that even though I quit/stopped going, I did get my first real haircut anyway and it looked just fine. The world didn’t end.

Weight Watchers and I had an off and on relationship for about 30 years. A bad relationship but I kept going back, thinking they’d changed and that this time it would work.

Fast forward now to the last time I tried Weight Watchers.

Here are three things that I realized that will forever keep me away:

First, lots of the long term members and leaders seem to have seriously disordered eating habits. I actually heard an argument between a long term member, probably a life member, and a group leader about how many points you’d have to write down if you put a muffin in your mouth, chewed on it for a bit, and then read the label and spit it out.

Yes, gross. Disgusting. Ew.

The ‘chew and spew’ method never actually occurred to me as a method of sort of having your cake and not eating it too. Just yuck.

Maybe I’ve led a privileged life but the most messed up eating habits I’ve ever encountered were at WW. Life members boasted of still carrying their scales everywhere so they could measure and count every morsel they ate. They seemed thin but scarily obsessed with ever gaining the weight back.

Second, the WW approved weight for my height seems to me to be absurd. As absurd as it was to call 12 year old me overweight. I just laugh at their numbers. Even at a size 8, I’m not in their range for my height. I’m too muscular. I feel vindicated now after my visit to the Bod Pod which measures your per cent body fat. I’m almost out of the WW range for my height with 0% body fat!

My doctor offered to write me a note recommending a higher, more reasonable goal weight but the leaders refused to change my goal weight. They thought I should try it out first.

Third, they can’t handle people who actually exercise and do lots of physical activity. The leaders looked in disbelief when I told them how much I was riding my bike. Why would you want to do that? Clearly it’s not helping you with weight loss.

And yes, you get extra points for physical activity and you can spend those points on food, but you can spend them on whatever you like. Above the basic minimum for food groups, there’s no guidance at all how physically active people ought to supplement their diet. You want to spend them on all aspartame sweetened WW desserts, then go for it.

If you are biking, running, swimming….whatever, on a regular basis, then you need information about sports nutrition and WW isn’t set up at all to help with that. I ended up supplementing WW with advice from someone whose expertise was sports nutrition and then eventually, I just dropped out for good.

Good riddance Weight Watchers.

body image · fat

No more headless fatties, why not use images of active fat people complete with heads instead?

It’s time to expand our imagery of the obese.

Not at all fat people are unhappy. And some of us even have heads.

I’m interested in the politics of obesity, both as an ethicist with an interest in medical matters and the health care system, and as a significantly overweight person whose been obese off and on most of my adult life. And as readers of this blog know, I’m interested in the connections between being fat and being fit.

Sometimes I want to use different language–I’m big and strong, not obese (a medical term, based on BMI) but at other times I want people to realize that when they’re talking about obesity I’m part of the story. So too of course are all the Olympic athletes who count as obese.

I hate it when I try to share stories about obesity on social media, the image that almost inevitably appears is one of a headless fat torso. It’s as if there were no fat people, just fat torsos. Or as if no fat person would be willing to have their face associated with their body next to an article about fatness. But that’s just not true.

Along comes Stocky Bodies, a great new take (and pun) on stock photography. There’s loads of great images: fat people riding bikes, doing scuba, making crafts, using computers, and even (gasp) eating.

From their website:

The ‘Stocky Bodies’ image library was created in response to the stigmatised representations of overweight and obese people in the media and popular culture.

Such depictions tend to dehumanise by portraying subjects as headless, slovenly or vulnerable and reinforce stereotypes by presenting subjects as engaged in unhealthy eating practices or sedentary conduct.

Our library of stock photos was created to provide positive and diverse representations of the lived experience of fat that begin to break down the typecasting that heightens weight stigma. This is an important objective as research has strongly associated weight prejudice with widespread social and material inequalities, unfair treatment and heightened body esteem issues.

The photographs for the image library are the outcome of an interdisciplinary project between Dr Lauren Gurrieri of the Griffith Business School and Mr Isaac Brown of the Queensland College of Art. The participants are everyday people who are involved in fat-acceptance communities and keen to see change in the representation of fat bodies.

Our images challenge oversimplified and demeaning representations of weight prejudice by showing subjects engaged in everyday activities, such as bike riding, shopping for fashionable clothes and performing their jobs. The documentary imagery to be shown through the library is a non-stigmatising view of what it is to be fat and live an affirmative life.

‘Stocky Bodies’ is a free resource that can be used by the media, health professionals, social marketers, educators and others.

————–
Thanks KR!

body image · diets · fat · fitness · health · weight loss

Working Out While Fat

Just after I reposted my story of why I left Goodlife Fitness in 2006 two super posts appeared on the problems of working out in public while fat.

The wonderfully titled essay by Lindy West, Hello, Fellow Gym-Goers, Look at My Fat Butt, details how wonderful exercise is but also how awful it is be everyone’s idea of a ‘before’ picture:

The more I exercised, the more I loved it. I felt strong and lean, I had tons of energy, I slept like a brick. But my body didn’t look much different. You’d still see me on the street and read “fat person.” And as a fat person, going to the gym is doubly challenging. There’s the basic challenge we all face—of getting the fuck out of bed, finding a clean sports bra, physically moving your body toward a place where a man will yell at you until you do enough lunges (IT DEFIES ALL EVOLUTIONARY LOGIC)—but for fat people, there’s an even more intimidating challenge on top of that.

It’s entering a building where you know that every person inside is working toward the singular goal of not becoming you.

Do you know how hard it is to walk into a building devoted to not becoming you when you are you!? It’s the worst! I’m me literally every day! “Fat=bad/thin=good” is so seamlessly built into our culture that people I consider close friends don’t hesitate to lament their weight “problems” to me—not stopping to consider that what they’re saying, to my face, is “becoming you is my worst nightmare, and not becoming you is my top priority.”

And Emily Anderson published Fat Acceptance at the Gym Burns More Than Calories at Women’s E-News. It’s an excerpt from her contribution to the anthology “Hot and Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion.”

Being a fat woman at the gym is in itself an act of social disobedience. I shouldn’t be in there, taking up the space of the lithe-bodied, unless it’s with a face of sincere penance and shame. But I have claimed the gym as my own. I celebrate being visible and fat all over the gym–running and sweating and sometimes breaking into song, lifting dumbbells alongside muscle-laden men with uncompleted tribal band bicep tattoos, flinging my weight around in aerobics and finally cooling it poolside in my bright, non-apple-body-shape flattering tankini.

I smile and chat with women before yoga and mention how hungry I always am after class and can’t wait to eat. I want to be seen. I am fat and happy in places where I should be fat and shameful, and denying this stereotype is a political action in my eyes.

You should definitely go read Anderson’s essay to find out about her daring and transgressive act on the elliptical machine.

I loved what both writers had to say, despite my own ambivalence about the word ‘fat’ as it applies to me. Thanks Lindy West and Emily Anderson for your fat pride trail blazing ways. I too hate it when people assume I’m either new to the gym (ha ha ha) or that I must already have lost a lot of weight and then they express admiration that I’ve made it so far. I really do worry about putting fat people off exercise when they think they only reason to do it is to lose weight and then they meet me.

I’ve often thought I’d like to teach a fitness class for big people, one that doesn’t mention weight loss at all. No mention of calories burned or looking good in your skinny jeans. I’m cool with people trying to lose weight–I’m not without goals in that department myself–but my dream class would focus on fitness and moving for fun only. The Y’s fitness instructor certification classes look like they might be fun. And I think I’d have a blast teaching spin classes too. Perhaps I’ll get my certification as part of this ‘fittest at fifty’ project.

Clearly, there’s a need for a spaces without fat shaming. A gym in Vancouver, Body Exchange, set out to create a safe haven for plus size exercisers but it ran into controversy with its plans not accept skinny members.

The Province interviewed Tony Leyland, from Simon Fraser University’s department of biomedical physiology and kinesiology, about the plus sized gyms and he was adamant that people not downplay the social value of creating safe places for mothballed bodies.
Leyland also says some bodies are naturally resistant to being lean. Even slightly pudgy people can be terrific athletes, he says. “Fitness trumps a lot of things,” he says. “The evidence is clear that people are really going to benefit from getting fit whether they lose weight or not.”You can read more about it here, Canada’s only plus size fitness company: no skinnies need apply.
I’m still not sure of what I think of a plus size only gym–generally speaking I prefer inclusion to hiding out in safe spaces and I worry that then people would think that’s where you belong, “Get thee to the fat gym”–but I think plus size, healthy at every size inspired classes would be lovely.
fat · fitness · health · sports nutrition · weight loss

Fat, fit, and why I want to be leaner anyway

As you’ll know from reading my posts on our blog, I’m fat and fit, aiming to be fitter and to be the fittest I’ve ever been, at 50. (In some moods I prefer big and fit, read why here.)

Weight loss isn’t a direct goal for me in this project. That’s partly because I’m a supporter of the Healthy At Every Size movement, partly because I don’t think there’s a fatness-fitness connection, and partly because for me, personally, there aren’t health related reasons to lose weight. So I take it as a starting point that it’s possible to be the fittest I’ve ever been and not weigh the least I’ve ever weighed. Indeed, although I wouldn’t like it, I might be the fittest I’ve ever been and weigh more than I do now, though I’d much rather that not be the outcome I get.

As I detailed in Fat, Fat, and What’s Wrong with BMI I’m a bit of a healthy living rock star. Yes, I’m significantly overweight but I have excellent blood pressure and heart rate, excellent good-bad cholesterol ratios, and excellent blood sugar levels. I’m also an over-achiever in the bone density department but that’s from years of living large and lifting heavy weights.

(An aside: Bone density is a great reason to lift weights, especially for you small, thin women whose frames aren’t much challenged by the mass you carry around. Weight lifting works to build bones unlike endurance sports such as swimming, cycling, and running which in volume can actually hurt bone density. Read “Training to Improve Bone Density in Adults: A Review and Recommendation here.)

I’m also not sure about the wisdom of picking a goal–long term weight loss–that defeats almost all the people who aim for it. (Read Gina Kolata’s Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss—and the Myths and Realities of Dieting for some of my reasons.)

Oh, and I already eat very well. I’m a vegetarian, aspiring vegan, non-drinker, who stays well away from fast food. I have a bit of a sweet tooth and sometimes I eat too much of  good thing but there’s not a lot of room for nutrition improvement.

But I really would like to improve my ratio of lean to fat, by building more muscle and losing some fat, even if I think that’s got zero to do with fitness or being fittest by fifty.

Why?

That’s a question that in our culture hardly seems worth asking. Everyone I know, pretty much, wants to shrink. The size 4s want to get back to size 0, the 10s back to 4, and so on. It’s a cultural obsession and mega money making industry. I try to stay clear.

Most people assume weight loss is why I exercise. But really, if that were my goal I would have quit long ago. Indeed I worry that lots of fat people quit working out because they aren’t getting thinner and why else would they go to gym? The fat but fit person looks like she’s doing all the work and not getting the rewards. Nevermind that the real rewards are health related and have nothing to do with weight.

So again, why do I want to be leaner?

My main reason I want to get leaner is sports performance. An awful lot of what I do depends on a power to weight ratio. For an explanation of power to weight ratio and its importance when it comes to cycling, read The Pursuit of Leanness over at Australia’s Cycling Tips blog.

I’ll never be a hill climber. I’m a reasonably powerful sprinter and time trialer (for a recreational cyclist in her midlife years!). I know my place in the cycling world. But I’m sick of getting dropped on hills.

My second motivation for the pursuit of lean is wear and tear on joints. I love sports and physical activity. Hard to imagine life without it. But you don’t see many overweight runners in their 70s. Cyclists either. I worry about stress on my knees and hips and think there’s got to be an advantage to weighing less. Or at least if I want to play with people lots younger than me, as seems to be the case with every sport that I do, I want to even the playing field.

Evening the playing field is one of the reasons I feel great being a non-drinker on multi-day cycling events. Stay up, you 19 year olds and 25 year olds. Have another beer. I’ll be asleep, sober, and well hydrated by 10 pm. Not fun now but fun when I see you suffering tomorrow.

Finally, there’s  bad motivation, one of which I try to be wary. And no, it’s not looking good naked. Like Tracy, I’m pretty comfortable in that department. I don’t have a lot of body image issues. I’ve often wondered about why that’s so. I’ve got some thoughts about my resilience in that department, fodder for a later post, I think. (Short answer: Thanks spouse, thanks feminism, thanks queer community.)

Sometimes I want to look like the very fit person I am. There are days when I’m weary of fighting the good fight, challenging our notions of the size and shape fitness takes. Sometimes I want people to look at me and see who I am and what I do.

For example, I’ve got incredible abs. You can’t see them as they are under a layer of fat but they do amazing things. I’m very strong in my core but it’s like they’re a secret super power, my invisible abs.

Not being seen for who I am is a bit of a struggle on my life on a few fronts. (You can read some of my work on bisexual invisibility here and here.)

So sometimes I’m sick of it all and want to be seen as the athlete I am.

But I’m hoping to keep those motivations at bay and focus on the hills and the climbing.

fat · fitness · weight lifting · weight loss

Science, exercise, and weight loss: when our bodies scheme against us

I love it (okay, not really, need sarcasm font) when people suggest to me that to lose weight, I should get a bit of exercise, you know, walk more, or take the stairs instead of the elevator. When I tried Weight Watchers for the very last time they gave handy hints like getting off the bus one stop early and walking to your destination. (Um, I ride my bike to work most days. I ride hundreds of kilometers a week, in addition, for fun when the weather is good. How does that fit in?)

Of course, this advice is always from well-meaning people who don’t know me. Those who know me, know that I work out at a variety of sports and physical activities most days of the week, often twice a day. I run, ride my bike, play soccer, lift weights, practice Aikido, and most recently have taken up Crossfit. And yet, I’m very overweight. Fat, big, call it what you will.

How on earth can this be? Newcomers to cycling sometimes say “Oh keep riding the bike and you’ll lose weight,” thinking I’m new too. (I like passing those people, zoom!) Sometimes I’m aware I actually put other fat women off exercise because they are starting to exercise in order to lose weight and then they see me, and think it’s all pointless. But I don’t exercise to lose weight. My experience tells me that, on its own, it doesn’t do very much.

So why doesn’t exercise help with weight loss? (Or to put the question precisely, why doesn’t it help as much as it seems it ought to, when you consider the calories burned in our efforts at fitness?) Given my interests and personality type–geek, academic, fitness buff–I’ve read rather a  lot about this question.

There are a number of different answers.

The first answer is simple and it’s probably that first thing that came to your mind: when we exercise, we eat more. Indeed, if you care about performance and recovery, you need and ought to eat more. I was once told by a cycling coach that it’s foolish to try to lose weight during the racing season. Not eating enough–which is what you need to do to lose weight–cuts your speed and your recovery. Diet in the off season when you’re just riding for fun, he said. Don’t hurt your performance by dieting.

But there’s another answer that I find intriguing. Our bodies’ efforts at maintaining weight are ingenious. It turns out that when we exercise more, we also move less the rest of the day. This isn’t intentional. It isn’t anything we decide to do. The idea is that our bodies decide for us.

I’m interested, and fascinated by, the way our bodies undercut our best efforts. Heavy exercisers, it turns out, often move less the rest of the day and so burn not that many more calories than if they hadn’t exercised at all. When not exercising, they’re chronic sitters!

The study which sets out to prove this is cited in the Gretchen Reynolds’ book The First 20 Minutes  and she writes about it in her New York Times Phys Ed blog too. Following a group of young men assigned to a heavy exercise program, researchers were surprised at how little weight they lost. Yes, they ate more but more surprisingly, “They also were resolutely inactive in the hours outside of exercise, the motion sensors show. When they weren’t working out, they were, for the most part, sitting. “I think they were fatigued,” Mr. Rosenkilde says.”

Some people say we ought to “listen to our bodies.” But in my experience our bodies are sneaky experts at staying the same size. They need to be ready for feasts and famines and those women with extra body fat are more reproductively successful.

It’s another argument in favour of short, sharp, intense Crossfit style workouts since they don’t seem to have this effect. Once again, it’s High Intensity Interval Training (HIT) for the win. Thirty minutes, says Reynolds, is the sweet spot for exercise.

And it’s yet one more argument against sitting.

Some personal observations:

  • In the past I’ve been a big fan of the hard exercise followed by flopping! It’s when I write best, physically exhausted and mentally alert. Without exercise, I’m a big fidgeter and pacer in a career that rewards focus, concentration, and long bouts of sitting. Now I’m working at a standing desk (at home anyway) and I’m liking the change. I’m also trying to incorporate more movement throughout my day. 
  • This puts me in a mind of a discussion members of my bike club used to have about our long Saturday morning rides. Some of us thought we ought to have shorter routes, say 100 km rather than 150 km, not because we couldn’t ride 150 km but rather because we wanted to do things with our families afterwards. The extra kilometers tipped us past the point where much was possible after other than a nap, a bath, and lounging about the house. It seemed all wrong to come home and then tell the kids that I couldn’t go to the park, go for a bike ride (yikes!), or walk the dog because I was too tired from all the bike riding!
  • While exercising itself doesn’t make much difference, changing your body composition does. A body with more muscle burns more calories throughout the day and so there’s good reasons to lift heavy weights. I know lots of women do long, slow cardio to lose weight (you know, the “fat loss” button on the exercise machine at the gym) but science says they ought to be lifting weights instead to get lean.
  • In terms of appetite, I think HIT is right on. Long, slow runs and bike rides make me famished. I can control what I eat after but it takes tremendous effort. Endurance exercise makes me hungry, whereas intense efforts have just the opposite effect.
  • Of course, why listen to a big person talk about exercise and weight loss? The truth is I’m terrific at weight loss. I’ve lost 50-70 lbs quite a few times. I’m a failure at maintaining the new lower weight, but that’s a puzzle for another time.