fitness

Bike lanes, accessibility and health

The mayoral elections in Ottawa this week were largely defined by transit issues, and nearby Montreal Road, in the community of Vanier, was recently reopened as a complete after three years of construction. As a result, bike lanes and accessibility have been very much on my mind.

I stopped in for the grand reopening of the street; there was a large crowd of people who had come on foot, by bicycles of all kinds, in strollers, or on scooters. The new street features wider sidewalks and separated bike paths for most of its 2 km length, along with improved infrastructure for the bus service.

That’s me! I’m the cyclist in a beige coat and blue knapsack riding away on a separated bicycle path adjacent to an urban street with many small shops and low-rise buildings. Photo by Sarah Kester/CBC

Why does this matter to a fitness blog? Because that street is in a relatively poor part of town, where many people don’t own cars. There are lots of immigrants, kids, many people with disabilities, and the local bus is among the busiest in the city. A complete street like this one means that people can get around more safely.

Surveys have shown that cycling numbers increase significantly when there is safe infrastructure. People will cycle year-round if the paths are cleared. In Ottawa, the number doubled between 2015 and 2020, even though the winter cycling network has only about 50 km of maintained routes. Even if you are a fair-weather cyclist, it is easy to manage at least some trips for 7-8 months of the year if the roads are safe, since the average trip in the downtown area is less than 4 km according to Ottawa’s 2013 Official Cycling Plan.

Other people using wheels also benefit from those separated bike lanes – whether it is little people in strollers or those using wheelchairs or mobility scooters. In fact, I shared a good chunk of my last ride to Canadian Tire with a guy on a mobility scooter.

Transit has been strongly linked to higher rates of active travel and physical activity. However, as Journal of Transport & Health notes, the associated physical health benefits must be weighed against potential health threats. “For instance, in terms of safety from vehicle traffic or emissions, walking and bicycling to transit can be riskier travel options than other modes due to their higher levels of physical and environmental exposure. For this reason, by travel distance, active travelers suffer from injuries and fatalities at a higher rate than drivers. Additionally, walkers and bicyclists may suffer disproportionately from vehicle emissions compared to other modes, particularly during higher-exertion events during which oxygen uptake will be elevated.” But if we had fewer vehicles on the road because there was a viable, low-cost alternative? Game changer!

Commuter cycling and accessibility also has race and gentrification issues. A quick Google search will bring up all kinds of articles, though most focus on the experience of Black cyclists in the USA. I don’t know how much race plays into cycling in my neighbourhood, but there are definitely concerns about this historically working-class Francophone community being gentrified.

One local group is addressing cycling inequities. Vélo Vanier is not-for-profit that loans bikes to residents and recently started lessons for moms after discovering that many women who brought their kids for bikes had never learned to ride themselves. Two recent students were featured in a CBC article; both are recent immigrants from Africa.

Claire Kiruhira from Uganda, left, and Christine Uwamwezi from Rwanda, far right, pose with their Vanier Vélo instructor Denise Inglis. Claire is wearing a white helmet, white sleeveless top and black leggings and seated on her blue bicycle. Christine is wearing a black helmet with bright purple and pink leggings and shirt, standing beside her white bike. Between them stands Denise Inglis, a white woman with shoulder-length brown hair, wearing a pale blue shirt and brown shorts. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

Diane Harper lives in Ottawa. She has become a dedicated commuter cyclist.

fitness

COVID Grumpiness

It happened. After almost 2 1/2 years, four vaccines, masking, avoiding indoor spaces and constant vigilance

Mad-Eye Moody from Harry Potter reminds us about the importance of constant vigilance.

I caught COVID. It could have been much worse. Mostly it has felt like a cold. I haven’t even been taking decongestants for the last couple of days.

I haven’t even missed my on-line ballet classes, but I haven’t been going out, so there has been no walking or swimming. As a result, I am feeling logy and flabby, and I really miss being able to tick off an update in the 222 workouts in 2022 Facebook group, or put my workout times into the Participaction app.

I hadn’t realized until this week just how important activity has become in my life. I usually think of myself as a recent convert to fitness, something I started back when my son was nine so I could be a role model. In fact, my son will turn 29 on his next birthday, and I have been some sort of heart-pumping movement regularly for almost 20 years. For the last few years, it has been 5-6 times a week.

I’m still feeling grumpy about my COVID, but I am celebrating I was a good role model to two very active kids, and looking forward to getting moving again, very soon.

Me in better times, wearing a yellow cap and red goggles, in the water at a sunny beach.

advice · camping · fitness · habits · nature · self care

To Get More Active, Inconvenience Yourself

I went summer camping with 5 friends recently. We went biking, swimming, kayaking, and hiking—regular outdoor physical activities one might do while in The Nature.

During this time, I noticed how often we were up and moving around to do simple tasks and chores throughout the day, even when we weren’t out out doing the recreational exercise activities.

When we wanted to go to sleep, we had to put up a tent. When we wanted to make a fire but ran out of wood, we had to scavenge or head to the conservation office to buy more. When we wanted to brush our teeth, it was a walk or a bike down the path to the loo. Whenever I misplaced bug spray or sunscreen, I was up rummaging around to find what I needed.

A campfire at night with wood on the ground
There’s exercise to be had in scavenging for firewood!

Not everything was within easy reach when you are camping: there’s often a little added effort to find, get, or make whatever you need. Without all the conveniences of home, we were moving, walking, bending, and stretching in short bouts all day long.

Like most people, I often establish habits and use tools that maximize convenience and comfort when I am at home. How much more physical activity might add up in my days if I intentionally made things slightly less easy for myself? What if I chose to knead bread without the mixer, walk to my mailbox rather than stop after my commute home, use one tissue box at a time rather than plant them in many rooms of the house?

Wall-E holds a plant next to a spaceship
Wall-E Theatrical release poster (fair use)

The animated Disney movie Wall-E tells a story of how, in the future, people have every luxury thanks in part to the machines they invent; consequently, they become totally inert and lazy. The moral of this cautionary tale is that excessive convenience and comfort will diminish our ability to think and act and move for ourselves.

Of course, my tent-trailer and Coleman stove camping experience was still relatively easy and convenient, but I realized that adding some purposeful inconveniences in my daily life could lead to a little more physical activity that I might not even notice.

What are some small inconveniences you maintain for a little more physical activity each day?

fitness

Heart Health Update

It has been over a year since I checked in my heart health and cholesterol, and my aim of managing without medications. In news that will surprise exactly nobody, I failed. But that’s okay.

I have been learning to cook and enjoy more meatless meals. I have switched to whole wheat breads and pastas as part of an overall effort to increase my fibre intake. I probably have more salt than I should because I can a lot of my own vegetables when they are in season, but I’m okay with that because I like growing and preserving food too much to give it up.

I am not as diligent about eating late any more, because I often struggle fit food in before dance class, especially now that I am going to the office semi-regularly.

I started taking cholesterol medication; even at a low dose, it was enough that my blood pressure meds were cut in half. Better living through chemistry!

I am still fat. I am also very active. And I am as tall as ever, which the technician at my most recent bone density scan says is a good thing.

Me walking to work in the snow, wearing a blue hat and with my glasses covered in melted snow.

In summary, I’m doing as well as could be expected. I could probably do a little better, but the extra effort isn’t worth it to me. I may remember to check in again at some point in the future, but likely only when there is a major change.

How about you dear readers – have you tried to fight off some aspect of aging but now are at peace with it?

Diane Harper lives in Ottawa. She is starting to look forward to retirement so she can do more things she enjoys.

fitness

Donating my Vagina to Science (the Dubious Science of Winter Vagina)

Recently, the Toronto Star published this article on “winter vagina” and the general reaction from other FIFI bloggers was FFS(!). The author had a similar reaction, thankfully. But he did cite other articles about the “condition” so I had to Google.

It turns out lots of journalists think that winter vagina is – if not exactly a thing – an easy way to get published at the expense of some cheap laughs about yet another way to make women feel insecure about their bodies. I will not link to any of those posts because I can’t stand the idea of them making money off such clickbait.

Vaginal dryness is a real thing, but it is not a seasonal issue. The British National Health Service states the menopause, breastfeeding, childbirth, lack of arousal before sex, certain contraceptives and cancer treatments can all cause vaginal dryness. And another expert, Canada’s own Dr. Jen Gunter, points out that vaginas function quite well in all seasons. ‘The vagina maintains a steady temperature because it is inside your body and human body temperature only rises with the outside temperature when someone is suffering from heat stroke.’

Dr. Gunter has an entire hilarious blog post devoted to debunking winter vagina (and another on the related problem of summer vagina). She knows a lot about vaginas and winter: “I’m not a winter vagina expert because I am the Internet’s favorite gynecologist. We Canadian girls just really know how to take care of our snow forts, that’s why our national animal is the beaver.”

So if this is so thoroughly debunked, why do I want to contribute to the winter vagina “science”? For the shopping and swimming, and avoiding my overheated office, of course.

You can buy winter vagina leggings here or a winter vagina backpack here. Both are made by Mounds of Venus, which specializes in nipple and vagina art. Or wool underwear like this:

According to Health.com, underwear like these from Smartwool.ca will help you winterize your vagina because “wool doesn’t hold on to moisture, so it can dry quickly and has a temperature-regulating effect. These panties are perfect for keeping your nether regions toasty warm while wicking away the crotch sweat you produce in your overheated office building.”

Apparently long hot baths are bad for our winter vaginas, but there is no info on what happens with a cold dip. So far my vagina hasn’t suffered any ill effects, but I’ll keep you posted if that changes.

Diane walking into the St. Lawrence River as snow falls, trying to get her vagina ready for a swim.
fitness

Can You Be Too Flexible?

Flexibility is something that most athletes aspire to, but until recently I never thought about there being a problem with it. After all, I spend a fair bit of time stretching and trying to increase my mobility; most of my athletic friends do the same.

My daughter, however, struggles with hyper-mobility. According to the Hypermobility Syndromes Association, hypermobility is most common in childhood and adolescence, in females, and Asian and Afro-Caribbean races. It tends to lessen with age. In many people joint hypermobility is of no medical consequence and commonly does not give rise to symptoms. Hypermobility can even be considered an advantage, for example athletes, gymnasts, dancers and musicians might specifically be selected because of their extra range of movement.

That describes my daughter pretty well. She is Asian and aspired to be a dancer. When she was learning to dance en pointe at 12, she took a good year longer than her classmates to master the skill. That was because she needed time to develop foot muscles strong enough to compensate for her loose ligaments.

Young woman with black hair, wearing a black leotard and white tutu, standing en pointe with one leg above her head

Still, that mobility looked pretty cool on stage. She could move effortlessly into the splits, then side splits, them touch the floor with her head from that position.

Now that she is no longer dancing for hours every day, she struggles with joint pain. Despite being very fit by most standards, she needs to do even more exercise to strengthen her muscles since her ligaments don’t do their job properly. So far, the promise of symptoms lessening with age has not materialized, so she will be getting advice from her physiotherapist on a home gym set-up so that she can do weight training in the basement.

While she does that, I will be reflecting on different bodies and how they work. This blog has often commented on the common stereotypes of fat/unhealthy and thin/fit, and how both can lead to poor health outcomes for people. I knew that there are injury risks with almost every sport, and stretching before and after exercise is one way to minimize those risks. Until my daughter started suffering, I had no idea that it was possible to be in pain because your body is naturally so stretchy.

Lesson learned. I’ll add this to my growing list of gender analysis considerations, my list of ways that something can affect different people in different ways – some good, some neutral, and some bad, depending on the individual and their circumstances. It has been a good reminder on the importance of checking my biases, and not making assumptions about anyone else’s health or fitness.

fitness · health

Pushing for Equality on World Health Day

The World Health Organization (WHO) has designated April 7 as World Health Day and calls for us all to reflect on health, the conditions need for good health, health care, and access to that care.

The theme for 2021 – Building a fairer, healthier world – is about recognizing that good health and good health care is something that everyone deserves, not just some people in some places.

This is, obviously, a complex issue. We could (and do!) have a lot of discussions about what ‘health’ means and we could (and do!) discuss the myriad of ways that bias and prejudice affect access to health and health care, even in the wealthiest parts of the world. But the complexity of the issue doesn’t mean that we cannot begin to address it.

I like how the World Health Organization has structured this year’s campaign to both acknowledge the inequalities and to call on the world’s leaders to improve access to health care.

Their phrasing about the unequal access to the conditions for good health applies just as much to changes needed for health care in remote villages as it does those needed to assist a marginalized person seeking health care in a wealthy city:

This [inequality] is not only unfair: it is preventable. That’s why we are calling on leaders to ensure that everyone has living and working conditions that are conducive to good health.  At the same time we urge leaders to monitor health inequities, and to ensure that all people are able to access quality health services when and where they need them. from the World Health Day website

Image description: a poster with a light blue background featuring a  sketch of an exclamation mark enclosed in a circle. The black and white text reads "hello world.  we agree that health is a right, not a privilege. it's time to build a fairer and healthier world for everyone everywhere." The World Health Organization logo is in the bottom right corner of the image.
Image description: a poster with a light blue background featuring a sketch of an exclamation mark enclosed in a circle. The black and white text reads “hello world. we agree that health is a right, not a privilege. it’s time to build a fairer and healthier world for everyone everywhere.” The World Health Organization logo is in the bottom right corner of the image. Source: https://www.who.int/campaigns/world-health-day/2021

While their campaign extends to equity in health care of all kinds, there is also a special focus on access to resources and treatments to fight COVID-19.

From their website: “COVID-19 has hit all countries hard, but its impact has been harshest on those communities which were already vulnerable, who are more exposed to the disease, less likely to have access to quality health care services and more likely to experience adverse consequences as a result of measures implemented to contain the pandemic.

Image description: a black background featuring a  sketch of a blue exclamation mark enclosed in a circle. The black and white text reads "hello world.  we must make covid-19 vaccines tests and treatments available to all. it's time to build a fairer and healthier world for everyone everywhere." The World Health Organization logo is in the bottom right corner of the image.
Image description: a black background featuring a sketch of a blue exclamation mark enclosed in a circle. The black and white text reads “hello world. we must make covid-19 vaccine tests and treatments available to all. it’s time to build a fairer and healthier world for everyone everywhere.” The World Health Organization logo is in the bottom right corner of the image. Source: https://www.who.int/campaigns/world-health-day/2021

There are lots of groups and activists who have been raising awareness and taking action on these issues throughout the world. Still, the general perception is that health (and access to proper health care) is an individual issue/problem or accomplishment. In that system of thinking, individuals are blamed or judged for their health status.

I hope that this campaign and others like it helps more people to see the systemic issues and misguided policies that fuel the inequalities in health and health care around the world.

Since this issue is so complex, and since the call is to world leaders rather than to individuals, it seems difficult for one person (especially those of us with little political clout) to take any action to make a difference.

But, just like with any change, we have to start small.

If you know of a resource, a petition, or an organization that is seeking change in access to healthy living or working conditions for people anywhere in the world, or if you know of one that is working for change in health care access, please share it in the comments so others can find out about it and take whatever action they can.

dogs · Sat with Nat · walking

Nat on outsourcing motivation

Recommended Soundtrack: I wanna be your dog by The Stooges

I’m not great on making a training plan and sticking with it. When it comes to activity I’m more a go-along with whatever folks are up for. Yoga? Sure! Cycling? Yup! Walk? Uh-huh!

So when my beloved decided he wanted to up our step count when walking our dog, Lucy, I agreed. I offered that we could add 1 block to all our walks, short coffee break and our typical 30 minute morning, lunch & evening walks.

It totally worked. In August my average step count jumped from under 7,200 to 11,500. Partly this is because as Lucy gets older she can go on longer walks. The other part is my beloved’s joy in counting and metrics. He really loves hitting goals.

One night, after dinner and a glass of wine, he asked if we could go for another walk. He hadn’t hit 10,000 steps. I pointed out that 10,000 was an arbitrary goal. He laughed and shouted “Join me in meetng this arbitrary goal! Achievement is as meaningless as the goal BUT IT IS ALL WE HAVE!”

Of course he was being overly dramatic. Many times our common goals are based on best guesses and gut feels. I’m not much for tracking metrics or goals so I’ve happily handed over all of that to my partner. He’s a greyhound who needs a rabbit to chase.

The other being I’ve outsourced my motivation to is our resident gremlin, Lucy. She, like Gollum, both loves and hates our walks. She needs the movement but would rather do high intensity frisbee intervals than walk. But she’d rather walk than lay about.

Lucy, the wonder dog, sits attentively watching the photographer who may gift her with walksies or treats.

I find I don’t have the cognitive or emotional depth for self discipline but I can say “yes” to the asks for walks. Like the dog, I’m just along for the ride these days and I am 100% ok with surrendering to the process.

What do you do to stay motivated to keep moving?

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.