aging · health

Healthy habits, long lives, and elderly spiders

This is a blog post in three parts.

Part 1. It begins when a big study announces something that seems kind of obvious. The five habits that can add more than a decade to your life, from the Guardian.

In short, don’t smoke, drink only in moderation, exercise, control your weight, and eat your vegetables if you want to live a long time.

Researchers at Harvard University used lifestyle questionnaires and medical records from 123,000 volunteers to understand how much longer people lived if they followed a healthy diet, controlled their weight, took regular exercise, drank in moderation and did not smoke. When the scientists calculated average life expectancy, they noticed a dramatic effect from the healthy habits. Compared with people who adopted none of them, men and women who adhered to all five saw their life expectancy at 50 rise from 26 to 38 years and 29 to 43 years respectively, or an extra 12 years for men and 14 for women. “When we embarked on this study, I thought, of course, that people who adopted these habits would live longer. But the surprising thing was how huge the effect was,” said Meir Stampfer, a co-author on the study and professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.

2. And then a very old spider died making the point that not all lifestyle changes are changes worth making. “Number 16 built her burrow in the North Bungulla Reserve in southwestern Australia, when she was young. Like all female trapdoor spiders (mygalomorph spiders), she was a homebody, never leaving her burrow.”

Luckily none of the healthy habits involved never leaving the house.

3. Finally, health journalist Andre Picard points out that the healthy habits might not be enough. He tweeted, “Here are 10 other things that are probably more important to a healthy life than lifestyle choices.”

from Picard’s book “Matters of Life and Death,” p. 268

diets · health · nutrition

Eating Vegan: Not necessarily healthy, not necessarily unhealthy

various-fruits-and-vegetables-arranged-by-colorI don’t know why veganism creates such intense reactions in people. You’ve got your non-vegan folks who insist that vegans are undernourished–what the heck do they do for protein? Then, on the other side of it, you’ve got your so-called chefs who assume that grilled veggies make a sufficiently nutritious vegan meal.

There are those who insist that animals were put on this earth for our use, so we should just eat them. Or that plants have feelings too. Or that domesticated animals don’t have it so bad anyway. See a bunch of these arguments and responses to them here.

But today I want to address one issue and one issue only: is a vegan diet healthy or unhealthy?

That’s really a silly question, akin to asking if food is healthy or unhealthy. Some is, some isn’t. Whether your vegan diet is healthy or unhealthy depends on what you eat.

James Fell’s article, “Are Vegan Diets Healthy?” gives a clue as to what gets people’s backs up.  The author objects to “militant” vegans, but admits that only a small minority of vegans are militant.  Being vegan, I can attest to this fact. Most of us quite frequently dine quietly alongside, even with, people who are eating food that we think comes from an industry that promotes unnecessary animal suffering.

Then there is the even less political arm of veganism, those who won’t even use the term. They defer instead to the “plant-based” diet.  These are the folks most likely to be in your face not about the ethics of animal farming, but about the health benefits of eating a plant-based diet. They’re purists in a different sort of way, moralizing food choices for reasons that have nothing to do with animal ethics.

Obesity researcher, Yoni Freedhoff, is quoted in the article as saying:

There are some vegan organizations that like to tell people that this is the ticket to weight loss, but unfortunately that’s not always the case. You can have plenty of vegan calories as well. Going vegan does not necessitate a healthy weight.

I’ve blogged before about the sad truth that going vegan doesn’t produce a weight-loss miracle. And it doesn’t automatically mean you’re eating healthy foods, either. But it doesn’t mean you’re not.

Lots of people like to say that vegans can’t try properly because they can’t get enough protein. The article about vegan diet and health talks about endurance athletes who have forgone animal products with no negative impact (and sometimes, they say, a positive impact) on their athletic performance

The author goes on to say:

“Veganism is an ethical concept more than a health concept,” said Dr. Garth Davis, a weight loss surgeon in Houston, Texas and an expert in plant-based diets. “I don’t use the term ‘vegan’ with my patients. I prefer ‘plant-based.’”

Dr. Davis told me: “I think most vegans did choose it from an ethical standpoint, but it has changed and grown over time to include those who find they perform better at sports on plant-based diets.” He echoed what Lindsey Miller and Scott Jurek said that many choose it for health reasons because it makes you think more carefully about your food intake.

“You don’t have be vegan in order to be healthy, but being vegan is a very healthy way to live,” he said.

Notice the emphasis on the less political/ethical “plant-based.’ Here, the health benefits take centre stage.  Sure, if you focus on whole foods in your plant-based diet, you’ll make healthy choices. That’s probably the reason why so many people slide the two together. But vegan doesn’t mean only whole, low fat foods. I made an amazing vegan spiced pumpkin cake with a chocolate glaze yesterday and I’m glad I took it to an event where I wouldn’t have to contend with leftovers.  Despite containing pumpkin and being vegan, it wasn’t the healthiest thing to come out of my kitchen this weekend.

It should come as no surprise that James Fell, author of  “Are Vegan Diets Healthy?” concludes:

The takeaway here is that, yes, vegan can be a very healthy diet, as long as you do the work to ensure you do vegan well, and avoid the processed vegan “food.” From a health perspective, going vegan can make it so those who struggle with healthy eating are made to take their nutrition more seriously.

Because cutting out fast food burgers in favor of more plants is a good idea.

I’m the last person to discourage anyone from opting for a vegan diet and lifestyle, but the fact is that cutting out fast food burgers in favour of all sorts of other possibilities is probably a good idea.

And it’s worth saying that as with any approach to eating, you need to do a bit of research. One thing I’ve discovered, for example, is that vegans actually do need to make a point of getting their B12 because it is a necessary vitamin and occurs naturally in only a small range of plant foods. Most non-vegans get their B12 from meat products. For a vegan, plant-based “milks” as well as cereals are usually fortified with B12, and you can also get it from B12 supplements.

That’s just one factor. We’re not born knowing what constitutes a well-rounded diet that meets all of our nutritional needs. Whether you opt to eat a vegan diet or not, the simple fact is that whether your version is healthy or unhealthy depends entirely on the specific choices you make.

 

fitness

Looking for an indoor activity that’s good for you? How about knitting?

knit veggiesIt’s winter and you want to hole up inside and hibernate until the thaw comes, right? There are all sorts of things we can do inside — curl up with a good book, play Scrabble with the family, cook up some thick soup and bake bread, catch up on the seasons of Mad Men you missed when things got too busy two years ago.

But if you’re looking for an indoor activity that, researchers say, is really good for your health, try knitting. Yes! You heard that right: knitting is good for you!

I’m a knitter.  I do it because it lowers my stress level the way repetitive activities are known to do. I go into a sort of meditative state when I knit. But lately, I’ve been worried about my left hand and a strange, new-to-me pain that shoots up to my elbow. There are lots of reasons to worry about mobility in the hands, but the first thing that I feared was that I might need to give up knitting.

And that would just completely change my happy vision for my life when I’m a very old woman. I have always pictured that time of my life as revolving around books and yarn, tea and cake. You see, I don’t have lots of time for these things at the moment (well, maybe for the tea and cake), so the luxury of time to knit and read is something I feel I’ll have earned by the time I’m in my eighties.  So that pain lurking around in the left lower arm and hand threatened my very future.

How relieved I was to read this article about “The Health Benefits of Knitting.”  The author, Jane Brody, is a knitter herself, and yes, she covers the usual ground of stress relief from repetitive action:

Once you get beyond the initial learning curve, knitting and crocheting can lower heart rate and blood pressure and reduce harmful blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

And you produce a tangible product as a bonus — socks, sweaters, afghans, hats, mittens, scarves, shawls — the seasoned knitter has knit them all. That, the author says, can boost self-esteem (“look what I made!”).

Those benefits have prompted the Craft Yarn Council to launch a “Stitch away Stress” campaign to go along with National Stress Awareness Month. But those benefits aren’t all.

Brody points out that knitting can help people quit smoking by giving them something else to do with their hands. And trust me, if you’re spending time knitting something, you don’t want it to smell like smoke, either. Keeping the hands busy can also stop people from mindless snacking.  From personal experience, I can attest too that I’m less likely to reach for potato chips when I’m knitting not just because my hands are busy but also because I don’t want to touch my handiwork with greasy fingers.

A study at the University of British Columbia found that knitting helped with the treatment of anorexia nervosa:

38 women with the eating disorder anorexia nervosa … were taught to knit found that learning the craft led to significant improvements. Seventy-four percent of the women said the activity lessened their fears and kept them from ruminating about their problem.

Not only that, the focus that knitting involves has been found to help people manage chronic pain. And people with depression found that it helped with their mental anguish. According to the study, “the brain can process just so much at once, and that activities like knitting and crocheting make it harder for the brain to register pain signals.” Read more about this research on the therapeutic value of knitting at the Stitchlinks website.

And finally, to my great relief, Brody reports that:

I’ve found that my handiwork with yarn has helped my arthritic fingers remain more dexterous as I age. A woman encouraged to try knitting and crocheting after developing an autoimmune disease that caused a lot of hand pain reported on the Craft Yarn Council site that her hands are now less stiff and painful.

I don’t know if that niggling pain is the beginning of arthritis, but it’s good news that knitting can help with dexterity. Fingers crossed that I my future self will still be able to use those needles! And there’s some suggestion that knitting, like Sudoku, can help keep the mind sharp into the later years of life. Also good news!

Of course, it’s not quite the same as getting off the couch and going for a run or taking a yoga class, but the health benefits of knitting are such that, if you’re going to stay on the couch, it’s a pretty good option.

Maybe this winter I’ll finish that second sock I’ve been working on since 2014.

 

fitness · training

Life Happens, Plans Change, and That’s Okay

Change of Plans Plan A Plan BI’ve done something uncharacteristic of me this summer: I signed up for two Olympic distance triathlons and then I withdrew.  Yep, Tracy of the “if I said I’d do it I’m doing it” mantra has bailed on Gravenhurst in July and Bracebridge in August.  Following my own gut feeling and my doctor’s gentle advice, I had to face up the facts: I just do not have it in me to train for these events.

Changes in my life of late have left me physically and emotionally depleted.  Renald moved away from London to pursue his dream of retiring on our sail boat. That’s great for him, and I’m in theory quite supportive of it because he’s 9 years older than I am and he’s worked really hard for many, many years.  Liveaboard cruising requires good health and physical energy.  Waiting at least five years until I can even think about retiring with him just seems ill-advised.  No one can know what five years out will bring.

So we bought a condo, sold most of our rental properties, purchased a St. Francis 50 catamaran (our dream boat, truly), and in May Renald went down to George Town, Bahamas and sailed the boat up to Annapolis, which is where I am as I write this post. It’s the starting point for my only extended summer vacation (just under two short weeks) and we’re heading up the coast towards Long Island Sound and Martha’s Vineyard and Newport in a few days. But for most of the summer (and the next few years) we will be a part and that is a huge change that is taking some adjustment. So there’s that.

Then there is the new job. As of July 1st I’m officially going to be the Associate Dean (Academic) in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities. I’m on vacation at the moment. My first day in the office is July 6th. I’ve had a few different administrative roles at the University so far, including serving as Chair of Women’s Studies and Feminist Research from 2007-2011 and most recently as Graduate Chair in Philosophy.

I admit that I enjoy admin work. It makes me feel as if I’m making a contribution to the University. And I like that it enables me to work with lots of others who care about making a contribution because usually those people have values that extend beyond caring only about themselves. I can respect that and it resonates with me. And at the same time starting a new job with a lot more responsibility is stressful.

And the book is due at the publisher on July 31st. A book contract with a good press that’s enthusiastic about your project is the most exciting and wonderful thing in the life of any writer. And as the deadline inches closer, my stress over it increases. It’s not that I don’t think we’re going to finish. I’m at the stage in the writing process where I feel as if every word I write is shit. This is normal. It’s as inevitable as the five (or is it four) stages of grief.
As if moving, starting to live apart from my partner, and beginning a new position at the University one month before our book is due at the publisher aren’t enough, I’ve also been feeling exhausted much of the time and sleeping badly. This got so bad that my coach recommended I get some blood work to see if anything was up.

Now, part of this is I think because I planned my spring events badly, doing too much too soon with not enough time in between events. I did the Around the Bay 30K on March 29th after a winter of training with a group. And then just 5 weeks later I ran my first marathon at the Mississauga Marathon on May 3rd. I survived ATB well enough even though I didn’t love it. But with the rest and recovery, I actually didn’t have enough time to feel super ready for the marathon.

I know that everyone says they don’t feel ready and it’s a normal thing to feel jitters before trying something new. But I still believe that, in fact, I wasn’t adequately prepared. I would have had a much better day if I’d down-graded to the half. I contemplated it and my coach even recommended it at one point (because I sounded so tentative and she said that’s not a great head-space to take into a new distance).

The marathon wiped me right out. Not just on race day. Not just for a week after. Or even two weeks. No, for a solid month after the marathon I felt exhausted. Getting out of bed for early morning swims, which used to be a routine thing that I enjoyed, became impossible. Even short runs challenged me.

And the bike? Forget it. My fear of the bike intensified and I looked upon it with dread. That may be a different issue altogether (see my recent thoughts on the bike here), but it factors into the result: I wasn’t doing the triathlon training required to prep myself for an Olympic distance in Gravenhurst in mid-July.

I got excited about the Niagara Women’s Half Marathon and had a fabulous time. But overall, I’m not feeling motivated to train for Olympic distance triathlon this year. The energy isn’t there and the desire has left me.

So when despite the bloodwork coming back all fine my doctor recommended that I ease up this summer so as not to let the stress of these big changes wear me down further by forcing myself to do activities that feel more depleting than energizing right now, I decided to follow her advice.

It’s been difficult for me to feel 100% okay about this since it makes me feel like a quitter in some ways, and I hate that feeling. But at the same time, I’m trying to learn a gentler approach.  I’m an advocate of doing less (see “On Doing Less”) but usually with the hidden motive of getting more done in the long run.  This summer, it’s about doing less, period. Not to ultimately achieve more, not to rest so I can throw myself back into things with a vengeance. No. This summer it’s about easing up because that’s what I need to do. Drop the big races, let up on training, get back to yoga, sleep more, all those good things.

The funny thing is that as soon as I decided to do that, my energy bounced back a bit. I got out for a track workout with the triathlon club last week and have also been doing 3K as fast as possible, since that is the distance of the run portion of the Kincardine Women’s Triathlon on July 11th.

Far from thinking about the KWT with dread, I’m really excited about it.  That is not how I was feeling about Gravenhurst and Bracebridge, both of which are exciting races in beautiful locations.

My new summer goal is as modest as they come: work on getting my 10K as close to 60 minutes as possible.  Other than that, I want to enjoy myself with the swim training, workout with weights, and get to the yoga studio at least once a week. I’ve got the hybrid bike out for commuting, and it’s a pleasant ride on the bike path from my condo to campus.

But this week, I’m on the sailboat. I’ve got my running shoes and my resistance bands, but I’m not forcing anything.  I’m sure that’s not the most inspiring attitude. Those who are into The Grind will be disappointed. I’ve had some grief for expressing this whole “doing less” idea because lots of people think they already do less and need to push themselves to do more. That may be. But if my spring is any indication, sometimes more can turn into too much. And when that happens, there’s nothing wrong with re-grouping and making some changes.

Weekends with Womack

Colds and exercise: working through it vs. waiting it out

Colds are annoying.

sniffles

There’s never a convenient time for them; either you’re super-busy and have to cancel or reschedule a bunch of commitments, or you’re finally free to do something fun (like ride, or hike, or swim, or go to the beach), but you can’t because you’re feeling logy and stuffy-headed.

logy

I’m bummed because: 1) my spring semester has finally ended; 2) the weather is very fine and great for fun outdoor activity; but 3) I just came down with an awful cold. So, 4) I don’t feel like moving at all right now.

But I was wondering: what kinds or amounts of exercise can I and should I do while I’m sick? I decided to ask the internet.

One of my favorite science and health writers, Gina Kolata, weighed in on the subject a while ago here.  It turns out that there are very few studies that have investigated the effects of colds on exercise. Kolata talks about one of them below:

The first question was: Does a cold affect your ability to exercise? To address that, the researchers recruited 24 men and 21 women ages 18 to 29 and of varying levels of fitness who agreed to be deliberately infected with a rhinovirus, which is responsible for about a third of all colds. Another group of 10 young men and women served as controls; they were not infected.

At the start of the study, the investigators tested all of the subjects, assessing their lung functions and exercise capacity. Then a cold virus was dropped into the noses of 45 of the subjects, and all caught head colds. Two days later, when their cold symptoms were at their worst, the subjects exercised by running on treadmills at moderate and intense levels. The researchers reported that having a cold had no effect on either lung function or exercise capacity.

“I was surprised their lung function wasn’t impaired,” Dr. Kaminsky said. “I was surprised their overall exercise performance wasn’t impaired, even though they were reporting feeling fatigued.”

He said he also tested the subjects at different points in the exercise sessions, from moderate to intense effort, and found that their colds had no effect on their metabolic responses.

So, inasmuch as we can learn something from one study, this one suggests that having a cold doesn’t necessarily have to slow us down. But does exercise actually help us get better any faster? Kolata discusses this, too:

Another question was: Does exercising when you have a cold affect your symptoms and recovery time? Once again, Dr, Kaminsky and his colleagues infected volunteers with a rhinovirus. This time, the subjects were 34 young men and women who were randomly assigned to a group that would exercise with their colds and 16 others who were assigned to rest.

The group that exercised ran on treadmills for 40 minutes every other day at moderate levels of 70 percent of their maximum heart rates.

Every 12 hours, all the subjects in the study completed questionnaires about their symptoms and physical activity. The researchers collected the subjects’ used facial tissues, weighing them to assess their cold symptoms.

The investigators found no difference in symptoms between the group that exercised and the one that rested. And there was no difference in the time it took to recover from the colds. But when the exercisers assessed their symptoms, Dr. Kaminsky said, “people said they felt O.K. and, in some cases, they actually felt better.”

In this study, exercise didn’t seem to have any effect on duration or intensity of colds, but it might make some people feel comparatively better.

The Mayo Clinic is a little more conservative in its advice about exercising while sick. Their website suggests that if symptoms are “above the neck” (e.g. sniffles, headache, etc.), it’s fine to exercise, but if symptoms are “below the neck” (e.g. coughing, chest congestion, upset stomach), it’s better to rest until those symptoms subside.

The past two days I’ve been home in bed. I’ve watched approximately 14 hours of Downton Abbey episodes, taken in lots of fluids, slept 11 hours a night (plus naps), and done nothing much. I have both above- and below-the-neck symptoms (stuffy nose, headache, plus coughing).

Still, maybe some movement is in order. Tomorrow I will take a nice walk in this park after church with Dan, knowing that, well, it can’t hurt…

Screen Shot 2015-05-16 at 9.20.58 PM

body image · diets · eating · Weekends with Womack

Struggles and strategizing: back at the beginning, again

I struggle with my weight. It’s been a lifelong drama, with many supporting players: relatives, doctors, well-meaning (and not-so-well-meaning) friends and boyfriends, teammates on the many sports teams I’ve played for, nutritionists, therapists, you name it. Sometimes there’s relative peace—when I’m active, social, well-rested, not too-too busy in my work life, and my relationships are on an even keel—life is calmer and I worry less about it.

Lately, as menopause has announced its presence in my life (I’m sorry, but who thought this was a good idea? evolution, you’ve got some ‘splaining to do) the struggle has resurfaced. My sleep is interrupted, and I have less energy (but more mood swings—yay) and my cravings for sugar and carbs are at an all-time high. Add to this a heavier-than-usual workload this semester and 108 inches of snow in Boston (and by the way, it’s snowing again now—argh) and it’s no surprise that my average baked good consumption is up, and I’ve gained weight.

Samantha, Tracy, Nat and the guest bloggers have written loads about the failures and perils of diets—they don’t work in the long-term and contribute to lowered self-esteem and increased weight. I know this, too—my research areas are obesity, eating, and health behavior change. And yet I keep flirting with the idea of dieting again. For me, diets are like bad ex-boyfriends—I’ve forgotten the pain and suffering they imposed, how the relationships failed or even backfired. I just remember how good-looking or charming they were, full of seductive promises that “this time, it’ll be different”.

So what am I to do about being back in a state of weight-panic THIS time? Here are three things I’ve done this week. I’ll report back later on to let you know what’s happening—what is working, what I’ve jettisoned, what other responses I’ve adopted, and how I’m feeling.

1. I bought a book.

For an academic, nothing is more reassuring than book purchases, especially when one is confused, frightened, stalled, or in need of comfort. Just the thought of reading books, especially in a comfy study or library, is reassuring.

library

The book I bought is Gretchen Rubin’s “Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of our Everyday Lives”. The New York Times Well Book Club is running an online discussion, which caught my eye this week. Partly out of academic curiosity, and partly out of need to do something, I got the book and checked out the online discussion.

There are loads of books with loads of theories about behavior change, and of course this blog has talked about many of them. When I actually get around to reading this book I will fill you in. For now, all I’ve done is taken the quiz to set the stage for where I fit in Rubin’s behavior-change taxonomy. From there she has lots of suggestions for tailored strategies to optimize effectiveness.

Now, I have no particular expectation that this book is better or more effective than others; I will report back on my experiences later on. But for now, just owning this book feels like it’s helping me regain a little more perspective, which is good.

2. I’ve stopped eating sugary foods (at least for now).

While talking with a therapist about my energy levels, cravings, menopausal moods and general dissatisfaction with life on planet Earth these days, she suggested that maybe stopping eating processed sugar for a while might result in improvement of my overall mood and well-being. Just to be clear, I’m not talking about stopping eating these:

apples

but rather, stopping eating these:

bakery

For now.

I’m on day 3 of the no-baked-goods-and-other-sugary-stuff plan, and will report back on what I’ve done and learned.

3. I’ve changed primary care doctors.

This was a very big move—I’d been with the same doctor since 1998, and value familiarity, loyalty, and the deep knowledge base she has. But I never felt comfortable talking about my weight with her, and dreaded what she had to say, which never felt supportive. We squabbled about calcium and vitamin D supplements, and frequency of mammograms (she disagreed with the USPSTF recommendations which I wanted to follow). I would delay physicals in order to avoid being weighed.  Again, even though I know how bad the effects of weight stigma are on women in healthcare settings, it still took me a long time to act.

The first meeting with my new provider was eye-opening: she spent an hour with me (unprecedented in my experience), and we talked about weight, activity, menopause, sex, etc. in ways that felt positive and centered on my goals and needs.  I told her that I was willing to be weighed for my yearly physical and also when there was a medical need for complete accuracy (say, if this was a surgery pre-op visit).  Otherwise, I said I really didn’t want to be weighed, that it was a deterrent to my seeing her  She agreed, and we moved on smoothly.

Here’s how I handled the scale issue with the nurse (who I saw before the provider came in). She introduced herself and said, “I need to get your weight and height”.  I responded right away with “I’m not going to get on the scale, but I’m happy to tell you my weight; I weighed myself this week.”  She said okay.  When we got to the scale, she said, “you’re not going to get on the scale?”  I said no, but then told her my weight.  Then she asked, “are you willing to have your height measured?”  We both laughed, and I said yes indeed.  It turns out I’m the same height as the last time I was measured.

The issue of primary care office visits and weighing of patients is controversial and far from settled.  For what it’s worth, in a US National Institutes of Health document about treating obese patients, one of its recommendations is to weigh them during visits only when it’s medically appropriate.  I’m not here to speak authoritatively about this issue, but I did want to include how I handled my experiences and fears of weight stigma in this environment.

I’m very lucky not to be on any prescription meds, so I don’t see healthcare providers often. But I’m hopeful about my prospects moving forward with this new practice.

I’ll report later on progress, shifts, and lessons learned. For now, thanks for reading.

athletes · competition · fitness · fitness classes · Guest Post · health · motivation

Giving Up Giving Up: On Becoming an “Athletic Learner” (Guest Post)

  • I can’t.
  • I’m going to be no good.
  • I don’t know how.
  • I give up.

Never in my life have I thought of myself as an Athlete. In high school gym class, and later in social activities and sports as an adult, I have always had just enough coordination to pick up the basics, but never enough inherent athletic talent to excel or become an expert.

But the biggest impediment to my non-starter athletic career has been my deep, long-standing fear of failure. Fear of living up to my potential. Fear of letting the team down. Fear of getting hurt and being in pain. Fear of giving 100% that still results in a poor performance.

These fears have been cultivated not within a culture of sports but within academics. High achieving students and faculty have strong intrinsic motivation to achieve excellence, but they work in a demanding culture that can be extremely competitive and heartbreakingly critical. Even if one’s work never makes it to the general public, academic writing and teaching are very much public performances that serve up for scrutiny one’s intellectual talents to colleagues, peers, and students.

The most ambitious and confident folks do well in such a culture—particularly in the face of academic journals with low acceptance rates, single job postings with hundreds of applicants, and students who apparently evaluate teaching effectiveness based on their instructor’s appearance. Self-assurance, along with determination and perseverance—are traits of successful scholars and athletes alike.

And, unfortunately for me, as a recent PhD graduate all that negative self-talk (I can’t, I’m no good, I don’t know how, I give up) had been causing psychological “injuries” from which I was failing to recover. The fear that held me back from pursuing an academic career was not dissimilar from the fear that kept me from joining rec leagues. There were other reasons that I eventually took a university staff position, some perfectly reasonable. Looking back, though, I can admit that, I can’t had started to become I shouldn’t—and my self-talk about improving for the next academic success had become talk about giving up.

However, three years later—as a result of my fantastic “alt-ac” job whose one down side is that I sit sedentary at a computer most days—I’ve decided to become not an Athlete but an Athletic Learner. In the past four months I’ve started cardio-kick boxing, running, and soccer. Recently I’ve been to a yoga class, a step class, and (next week) a Zumba class. I even look like a lunatic walking up and down the stairs of my building when I take breaks.

For every new sport or activity, I try do my research. I focus not on my lack of inherent talent but rather on learning the rules, the strategy, the steps, and the mechanics. I also attempt to understand the implications of these activities for my short and long term health.

Have I failed in Athletic Learning? Well, in the very first game of soccer in my adult life I managed to score not one but two goals in a row on my own team, the ball ricocheting directly off my elbows into our net. (Not surprisingly, after the game I was the one asked to set up a team practice).

Meanwhile, in kick-boxing I still can’t roundhouse kick as hard or as long as others. In the intermediate step class, I could barely keep from getting my feet tangled up. In yoga, corpse pose was pretty much the only position I was 100% sure I had mastered.

But although I’m very, very far from expert status, through these activities I’ve met some new people and re-connected with old friends. I’ve been drilled in soccer by a bunch of sweet, precocious 10-year olds girls (whose mothers are on my soccer team), and I’ve learned a ton about how my body works. These day my lower back is often upset with me, but I’ve also learned that even pain acquired by Athletic Learning is more pleasurable than feeling nothing as a result of doing nothing (which was pretty much all that I was doing previously).

So, this year my self-talk around my lack of mastery of athletics sounds more like:

  • I can’t refuse a new and fun activity.
  • I’m going to be no good at being so hard on myself.
  • I don’t know how I’m going to do this [insert sport], but gosh-darn it I’m doing it anyway.
  • I give up giving up.

I am not, and probably never will be, an expert Athlete. Instead, my plan is to continue striving to be an Athletic Learner. And fortunately, this mental and attitudnal shift has made it impossible for me to fail…because success means that, no matter how poor my performance, I’ve at least learned something new.

cat yoga

Photo by Lisa Campeau, 2011. Reproduced with permission (CC BY 2.0).