fitness · habits · motivation · planning

Facing Forward to Find More Fitness

Despite fitness triumphs in some areas in the past few years (hello, 3rd degree blackbelt), it’s been a while since I have been really happy with my overall fitness level.

I’ll develop some good habits for a while and then life will take another curve. That new factor/time management challenge will team up with my ADHD and I’ll have trouble fitting more than the bare minimum of exercise into my schedule.

And, then, I’ll find myself sliding a little bit further away from how I want to feel, further away from what I want to be able to do.

I’ve been saying for ages that I want to ‘get back’ to how I used to feel and I want to ‘get back’ to  the way my body was. (To be clear, I’m not trying to get back to the body of my youth, just to the one I had a few years ago.)  

Then, this week, I read Cate‘s and Tracy’s terrific posts about acknowledging and appreciating the body you have and about how, when it comes to our bodies, we can’t go back, we can only go forward.

Their posts hit me hard.

In many ways, I am very accepting of my body as it is – I don’t wish that I looked different, for instance – but I have been spending a lot of time wishing I could go back to my strength and fitness level from a few years ago (which still wasn’t where I wanted to be but it was closer than where I am now)

All that ruminating made me think of this quote from Mary Engelbreit.

Image of a mountain road with rocks and trees on the right hand side and blue sky above. White centre text reads 'Don't look back. You're not going that way.' Mary Engelbreit  White text in the bottom right corner reads 'University of Liverpool Online Programmes'
Sure, it’s obvious but it’s not untrue.

And that, in turn, reminded me about how often I have joked that I never want to be like one of those stupid people in movies who always look back when they are being chased and end up falling on their faces (and usually getting caught).

This was all on my mind as we were working on our patterns in taekwondo on this week and Master Downey reminded us to look where we were striking because ‘Where your eyes go, your energy goes.’

That’s when everything kind of came together in my mind.

I’ve been wasting a lot of energy looking back.

I keep looking back at my old self while I move forward. I haven’t fallen on my face, not yet, but it’s a definite risk.

I need to look ahead. I need to send my energy in the direction that I am going.

I need to move my fitness forward, not backward.

I can’t go back to where I was. I can, however, figure out what I want to work TOWARD.

I’m going to stop looking back. I’m not going that way.

A multicoloured background with white text that reads 'Do something today that your future self will thank you for. (from slickwords.com)
This is my new plan.


*They aren’t my stories to tell so I won’t get into details but in the past 3-4 years, several family members have had major health issues and required my help. I am happy to have the flexibility to be able to help them and I am glad to be there for people who need me. Even though I am quite willing to  help (and grateful to be able to), providing this support does take time and something has had to give – my exercise time/energy has often been the thing to go. Thanks to my ADHD, once I get off track a lot of time can pass before I realize what is missing from my schedule.

fitness · motivation

New strategy: Using activity and workouts as a reward

Image description: colour cartoon style drawing of a gold star with a red, blue, and green striped trail behind it and three white four-pointed stars in the background.
Image description: colour cartoon style drawing of a gold star with a red, blue, and green striped trail behind it and three white four-pointed stars in the background.

I’ve long found it interesting that working out, something that makes me feel so good and that for so many of us falls squarely into the category of “leisure,” is so difficult to motivate ourselves to do sometimes. We complain about having no time. We gripe about the weather. We are (often legitimately) too tired. And yet on the other side of it, many of the activities we do are enjoyable additions to our lives.  Luxuries even.

I’m a big believer in strategizing ways of developing new attitudes or tricks to get me to do things that I in some larger sense want to do but for some bewildering reason also avoid or resist doing. Working out falls into that camp for me from time to time, and I’ve incorporated a number of “life hacks” to get me moving. I’ve blogged about quite a few of them: working out with friends, working out with a trainer, working with a coach.

But my latest is a really simple head game. Now, I know it’s hard to play games with yourself because you kind of know what you’re up to. But it’s working. The game: use workouts as rewards for doing other things that I’m avoiding. Imagine: the workout as a carrot not a stick.

As I mentioned the other day in my post about friends and mutual motivation, we all have things we don’t want to do. For most academics who teach, grading is that thing. And ’tis the season! I have found that I can push through a stack of papers if I know that, at the end of it, I get to go for a run or a training session or a yoga class.

We all have those things that we avoid or procrastinate over. And when we compare working out to one of those things, suddenly a 45 minute run or 60 minutes in the weight room or sweating it out in the hot yoga studio seem like the pleasures they are.

If you struggle with motivation to get your activities into your life, try treating them as rewards for completing the tasks that you tend to avoid.

Do you treat activity as a reward or a punishment? If you’re new to treating it as a reward, give it a try and let me know how it goes! So treat yourself to a workout! You deserve it.

fitness

Friends and Mutual Motivation

Image description: Tracy's two feet in robin blue running shoes on a stone slab beside the river, some dry leaves and greenery on the ground, the river cuts diagonally across the frame and you can see stones on the bottom through the clear water.
Image description: Tracy’s two feet in robin blue running shoes on a stone slab beside the river, some dry leaves and greenery on the ground, the river cuts diagonally across the frame and you can see stones on the bottom through the clear water.

A few weeks ago I got into a mutual motivation session on social media with my friend, Serene. I posted something about getting out for a run at lunch time. Serene said, “Go, Tracy, go!” That was enough to kick me into gear. When I got back I posted a series of pics with the status line: “Photo evidence that if Serene says go, I go.”

Serene then felt obligated to go to the gym later that day for her workout (I think she said, “OK now I have to drag my ass to the gym.” And she did.

We kept it light and fun, with me coming back with “Serene, now tell me to get going on grading those papers. You seem to be effective at getting me to do stuff I don’t really want to do.” Academics really, really struggle with grading papers. Ask any of us. It’s hands down the worst part of teaching.  Further evidence of it’s bottom ranking was Serene’s comment, “Anyone who thinks that working out is the hardest thing to make themselves do has never met grading.”

Too true. Indeed, in addition to Serene’s prompting, I think I went running that day at least in part to avoid grading.

So what happened there? What happened was a little exchange on social media got Serene and me out the door to do our things. She reported back later: “Update: definitely one of those days where your workout sucks no matter what you do, but I did it!”

I find friends are really great motivators, and it’s awesome when the motivation is mutual. After I posted earlier this week about my pull-ups, I had a few people message me to say that my post motivated them to give them another whirl. This is another example of the way we can motivate each other. I see you, my friend, do something awesome and it makes me think that maybe, just maybe, I can do that awesome thing too.

Another way: workout dates with friends. Sunday morning long runs with Anita and Julie were the mainstay of my running training for the longest time (until Anita went to the UK for a year and Julie started suffering with foot troubles and has had to turn to spinning for a bit — waiting!). Knowing we had a commitment to meet up with one another was mutually motivating for all concerned. It also got us through the tough runs, when things became difficult and we wanted to quit. We’re always less likely to quit when we’ve got friends counting on us.

And lately, I’ve been meeting up with friends at the early hot yoga class on Saturday mornings. I love activity dates so much.

Do you and your friends engage in mutual motivation? How?

fitness

Accidental Personal Record

I didn’t want to do another half marathon but I promised. My partner signed me up for the Army Run in Ottawa. It was a marginally consensual sign up. But he was excited and I figured it would all be okay. 

The summer was busy and hot at the wrong times. I hate running in the heat. I didn’t train much. Neither did he frankly but he has that particular combination of base fitness and stubbornness that he can do just about anything he puts his mind to. So as the date approached, I knew that 21.1k was not going to happen for me. 

The event gave me the option of dropping down to the 10k and I took that instead. I thought I’d just take it easy and walk as much as I needed. It was going to be an obscenely hot day for September anyway. I had zero expectation. 

The event itself was huge. And you know what? It was super fun. It’s not just a Canadian Forces thing. It’s in support of wounded soldiers and they had a place of honour in the run. The city really owns that run. The Prime Minister ran the 5k (in 23 minutes !!! ). The Minister of Defence ran the Commander’s Challenge, the same run my partner did. It was the 5k and then the half. There were a couple of other Ministers running other distances too. There were kids and moms carrying kids and strollers and basically every combo you can imagine running 5 different events storming the streets of downtown. 

Doing politics on the run. The PM and the Minister of Defence

I just set out to do my best. Not a record, just survive really. And then, there it was, 10k in 1:13.20. A personal best by accident. 

I told my partner I’d do the half next year. It always seems so possible from this perspective. 

Who else has tripped over a personal best?

Sweaty white middle age woman in a green tank top looking pleased with herself.
Do I look smug? I was smug. And sweaty

Weekends with Womack

The Case for Riding in the Rain (at least in summer)

This week I was about to depart for a road ride, when I looked out the window and the weather looked downright unpromising—gray, some storm clouds, a little breeze, and very humid in that it’s-about-to-rain sort of way. There was a weather advisory, predicting thunderstorms after 3pm. And it was 12:45pm already. Hence my dilemma:

stay-go

But then I thought, you know, there are a bunch of reasons to embrace riding in the rain. So, in accordance with Samantha’s rule of six, herewith six reasons to ride in the rain (at least when it’s warm outside).

Number one: Riding in the rain is badass.

badass

This fact is documented in The Rules for cyclists. I quote from their explanation below:

…Those who ride in foul weather – be it cold, wet, or inordinately hot – are members of a special club of riders who, on the morning of a big ride, pull back the curtain to check the weather and, upon seeing rain falling from the skies, allow a wry smile to spread across their face. This is a rider who loves the work.

Number two: Riding home in a rainstorm is likely to increase your speed, provoking an impromptu high-intensity workout.

cover-rain

On my rainy ride this week I totally hauled it both out and back. On the way out I was trying to get to my turnaround point before the first drops hit, and then on the way back was trying to see if I could beat the rain home. I didn’t, but by then I was in the mood for some serious cranking, so I got a most excellent workout.

Number three: If you’re a) not in a hurry, and b) into accessorizing, riding in the rain presents you with intriguing gear options.

There is a saying (which the internet says is either Swedish or Norwegian) to the effect that “there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing (or bad gear)”. In addition to the usual rain pants/rain jacket combos around, I found a number of rain-protection garments and accessories for those willing to stand out in the commuter crowd. You can be little red riding hood in this:

cycling-hood

Or you could try this:

rain-screen

And of course, for those rain classicists, there’s the handlebar-attached umbrella.

unbrella

She doesn’t look very dry, but it’s quite the snazzy setup.

Number four: Riding in the rain gives you an opportunity to engage in exercise of attitude adjustment through force of will, a skill that will come in handy in other situations.

Life presents us with lots of irritations and minor challenges: traffic, noisy neighbors, extra work assignments, clogged sinks, etc.  Raining on one’s bike parade seems like one of those irritations. Especially on a long ride, it can feel like this:

negative

Of course sometimes the rainy weather really gets out of hand. My friend Pata blogged here about a particularly wet and muddy trek on her 2012 cross-country ride with her partner; here’s what she faced that day:

pata

However, barring washed-out non-roads and torrential downpours (by the way, they got saved by a good Samaritan in a red pickup truck), a rainy ride can be rather pleasant.

positive

Number five: Riding in the rain is easier than riding in the snow.

Now that we’re well into June, many of us may have forgotten this:

snow

That’s actually a picture of a side street in Boston in February. There was no bike commuting, much less road riding, for weeks, except for a very few intrepid (read foolhardy) folks with studded tires or fat bikes. So in comparison, a little rain is nothing to fuss about. And remember, it’s warm outside…

Number six: Riding in the rain is a good excuse for singing in the rain. This is guaranteed to make your day sunnier, no matter what. What’s good for Gene Kelly is undoubtedly good for you, too.

gene

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).

motivation

I Did It! Reflections on Achieving What Once Seemed Impossible

possible_imageOn Sunday morning I ventured out with two other women, Anita, whom I’m training for a half marathon with, and Julie, whom I know from my 10K training group last winter and who is now in Anita’s half marathon group at the Running Room.

The run was an LSD–short for “long, slow distance”–20K at a leisurely pace with 10-1 run-walk intervals. We committed to a pace that was supremely conversational.

That meant 2.5 hours of chat.  Within the first breezy, chilly 5K of the morning, Julie told us about a friend who completed an Ironman this summer. So impressive!  Hardly imaginable. “But she always knocks herself down by saying she finished near to last,” Julie said.

You know how sometimes you hear a thing and it makes something in your head go “click”?  I heard myself in Julie’s friend.  Not the Ironman part. The part about knocking myself down.

I ran a 10K race!  But I could have done it faster.

I did an Olympic distance triathlon! But I almost came in last.

Even though I tried to be positive whenever I blogged about my races over the past little while, and I always ended on an upnote about how “at least” I did it, I’ve never truly allowed myself to soak in the magnitude of my physical accomplishments over the past little while.

The closest I got was my birthday post, where I talked about how far I’ve come since we started the blog. But I don’t think even there that I fully appreciated what the two Olympic distance triathlons actually mean for me.

It’s not about where I placed. It’s about finishing what I started.

Here’s some perspective:  Sam re-posted my first 5K race report from two years ago (October 2013).  The day I did that 5K, 5K was the longest I’d ever done! I felt nervous as hell–and the race didn’t even have timing chips!  I’d been running less than a year and the very thought of ever doing triathlon was about as remote the possibility that I may one day climb Everest (ZERO–no desire and I don’t understand why people do that).

When I dipped my toe into triathlon with my first Kincardine Women’s Triathlon in the summer of 2013, it lit a fire in me, but Olympic distance?  Impossible.

But that impossible goal supplanted my pre-triathlon fittest by 50 goal of running a half marathon. I re-jigged my training, started swimming with a coach, and even joined a triathlon club.

Before the snow from our polar vortex winter of 2014 melted, the impossible began to come into view.  I told my coach that was the distance I wanted to train for. I made public declarations about my intention.

When I was at my computer, instead of working, or even procrastinating from work on Facebook, I read and re-read websites detailing the summer events within driving distance of London.

By the time the first flowers of spring were in bloom, I’d committed to Bracebridge in August and Lakeside in September. For me, paying the money meant no turning back.

I trained.  And trained. And trained. I hauled myself out of bed for 6 a.m. swims in Sharon’s Creek.  I forced myself to ride the road bike (here is where I would normally add in some kind of complaint about how much I detested it and how little progress I made, but I refuse to go there today). I ran as early as possible to avoid the heat of the day.  Once, I came home from work at noon and did a brick workout to test my capacity to run in the noon heat just in case I ever happened to be doing that on race day (and I did, in Bracebridge).

So that’s triathlon. And I’m feeling awesome that I did it.

About running.  Back in the spring when I did the 10K in the Forest City Road Race, I watched the half marathoners with awe.  It seemed unfathomable to me that anyone would be able to complete 21K.

Then, after a little coaxing from my friend, Anita, the goal just didn’t seem all that out of reach.  She wanted someone to run the Toronto Waterfront Half with her on October 19th. I checked my calendar.  Available. I signed up (remember: once I pay, I’m there!).

With just over a month between the Lakeside Olympic distance and the Toronto half, I had a month to shift my attention to running. I love the long chatty runs. But a couple of weekends in a row I had to do long ones — 18K — by myself. And I did.

Which brings me to last Sunday, on our leisurely 20K, chatting and watching our pace and logging the distance one step at a time.  What once seemed impossible had the character of an unhurried coffee date with friends. Yes. 20K. Like going for coffee.

I’m really liking this thing–this thing of doing the impossible.

What have you done that once seemed impossible?  I’d love to hear about it! If you can’t think of something, how about making a decision to work towards a new, seemingly impossible goal?

You’ll feel kind of pumped once you do it.

 

 

competition · health · motivation · training

How Do You Measure Your Fitness Success?

Beach with the word "success" written in the sand.What measures do you use to determine your success at becoming more fit?  How to determine whether we’re approaching our “fittest by 50” goals is one of the things Sam and I have pondered right from that first Facebook conversation that got us started on this challenge. The challenge, in case you’re a new reader, is to be the fittest we’ve ever been in our lives by the time we’re 50.

It’s not as if either of us was a varsity athlete back in our university days or anything, but we’re taking the challenge seriously.  How do we tell we’re approaching our goals?

There are all sorts of possibilities.  One way, easy for runners, is to go by race times.  This is easier for me, since I just started recording race times last year. Harder for Sam, whose 40-year old self ran 5K in 25 minutes. See her post, “Fittest by Fifty! Who’s the Competition? She Is!”  I’ve now got a baseline for my 10K. I did it in 70 minutes and 40 seconds last weekend. Aiming for under 70 minutes in my next race on April 26th.

And of course, it’s really the triathlons that I’m into.  So aside from times, there’s also distance.  I may not be able to go a lot faster, but I can go farther!  And I can do different things.  Swim-bike-run.  I’ve embraced the Olympic distance triathlon as my major fittest by 50 goal.

Time and endurance over distance are not the only measures, however.  What about resting heart rate? Lean body mass?  Strength (i.e. how much can you bench press? dead lift? squat?)?  My difficulty using these as comparisons over the course of my whole life is that I’ve not been tracking these stats for long.  I know that today I have a very low resting heart rate (59 beats per minute) and good blood pressure (I forget what it is, but my Dad took it for me when I was in Mexico and he was impressed).

I have no idea what my lean body mass is at the moment, but I do know that my clothes are fitting differently and better since I started the Precision Nutrition Lean Eating program back in January.  I have no doubt that if I keep up the workouts and follow the healthy habits, I’ll become leaner over the next few months.

I’m also stronger, though not necessarily stronger than I’ve ever been because I was very seriously obsessed with weight training as a graduate student back in the late 80s/early 90s.

I’ve started to include other measures of success, tailored to my struggles. It’s a big success for me that I am no longer obsessed with food and weight. These are huge wins, accomplished through my commitment to intuitive eating, starting in January 2013.  I was nervous that PN LE might mess with that a bit, but in fact it’s been an entirely positive complement because in effect, they promote intuitive eating (eat slowly to 80% full).  Bolstered by their nutritional habits, I feel as if I’m finally introducing the principle of “gentle nutrition” that is part of the Intuitive Eating approach recommended by Evelyn Tribole and Elise Resch. See their 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating, here.

This change in attitude and approach has had a dramatic impact on my sense of accomplishment and self-esteem.  I’m actually passionate about the physical activities I enjoy these days, and confident in the food choices I’m making, both in terms of quality and quantity.  I don’t obsess over what to eat and when. I’m much more in tune with what I need. And I’m even open to experimenting with different foods and different choices.  It’s been a positive experience and we’re just three months into it!

So for me, these kinds of measures of success figure prominently in my fittest by 50 challenge. If I can head into the next decade feeling confident, energetic, enthusiastic about what I’m doing, and motivated to push myself a bit without going overboard (see my post “On Doing Less” to understand why I’m cautious about going overboard), all without being obsessed about food, weight, and exercise, I will feel I’ve achieved a good measure of success.

Throw in respectable finishes in a couple of Olympic distance triathlons and a sub-70 minute 10K, and I will feel totally confident that, were I be able to travel back in time and challenge myself in my twenties, thirties, and early to mid forties, she’d have a tough time keeping up!

Upshot: there’s not just one measure, but many.

How do you measure your fitness success?

[photo credit: S.M.A.R.T. Fitness Training]

motivation

With Spring Comes Hope!

Spring wildflowers. Photo by Julie Callison.  From http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/photos/spring-pictures/#/spring-landscapes-wildflowers_33685_600x450.jpg
Spring wildflowers. Photo by Julie Callison. From http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/photos/spring-pictures/#/spring-landscapes-wildflowers_33685_600x450.jpg

Yesterday I had an idea born of a kind of weariness that’s come from all of our (including my own) grumbling about this endless winter.  The idea was this:  from now until at least the end of April, I’m only going to post about empowering, positive, optimistic, and hopeful things.

To me, that’s the spirit of spring.  We get to wash away the winter blahs and blues.  People get a fresh energy in their eyes, in their gait.  The sounds of birds replace the beeping of snow plows in reverse.  Instead of treading warily on slick ice, we step with confidence onto bare pavement.  Instead of keeping our heads down to brace from the wind, we begin to notice the new life all around us.  Faces turn to the sun. You get the idea.  Renewal. Optimism. Hope.

The calendar says it’s spring even if the weather didn’t get the memo.

So consider this post a heads up. If you need a lift on Tuesdays or Thursdays, you can count on me for the next little while to do my best to provide you with one.

For today, I’ll just leave you with this amazing National Geographic webpage that I found when I punched into a search engine: “images spring flowers garden.”

You can find it here.  And here’s another sneak preview:

Photograph by Inne R Hardjanto, My Shot Tulips at Keukenhof Garden near Lisse, Netherlands.
Photograph by Inne R Hardjanto, My Shot
Tulips at Keukenhof Garden near Lisse, Netherlands.

 

Enjoy!

 

athletes · fitness · Guest Post · motivation

Lessons From Spinoza (Guest Post)

LadyDay SpinozaLast week, I walked from Benedictus Spinoza’s birthplace in Amsterdam to his grave in the Hague, a journey of (on the slightly indirect route I selected) some 75 or so kilometres (50ish miles). It took me two full days. By the time I finished the first day, my legs were wobbling and my feet were blistered. By the time I finished the second day, each step made me cry.

Why would someone undertake a walk like this? I did it because I love Spinoza’s thought, and I admire Spinoza the man. In a way, I wanted to seal my relationship with Spinoza with a kind of grand gesture. This isn’t the first time. I celebrated my 40th birthday by getting a Spinoza tattoo. Now, I’m 44 — the same age at which Spinoza died, as it happens — and living in the U.K. for a year, which makes it easier for me than it usually is to travel to continental Europe. It occurred to me to visit Holland’s various Spinoza sites. As soon as I realized that the whole geography of Spinoza’s life fit into a walkable distance, the idea of doing the walk became an idée fixe for me.  The two things that particularly appealed to me about the idea were that such a walk would be both an embodied activity and a meditative activity, and that it would be difficult. Both of these themes are central to Spinoza’s thought.

In a way, it is surprising that Spinoza, the great 17th century rationalist philosopher, has anything to contribute to our ideas about embodiment. Some other prominent philosophers of the period — most notably Descartes — regarded the body as a mere vessel for the mind, and blamed the body for the errors of the mind. Our minds, on Descartes’s view, are (in some sense) infinite and transcendent. Perfection is at least in principle possible for them. Our bodies, on the other hand, are finite and corruptible. Worse, they can corrupt the minds to which they are intimately joined. For Descartes and his followers, carnality — embodiment — is to blame for our evil thoughts, our irrational thoughts, our errors, and our sins. One of his most influential followers — Malebranche — therefore argued that to be virtuous one must make oneself as much like a corpse as possible.

Spinoza was different. He regarded the mind and the body as just two ways of thinking about the very same thing. For Spinoza, the body isn’t some flawed vehicle we’re stuck in — it actually is us, just as much as our mind is. Indeed, the body just is the mind, but thought of as part of a physical system rather than as part of a system of ideas. Like most philosophers, Spinoza offered instructions on how to become wiser. His advice was the opposite of Malebranche’s. Where Malebranche says “Make yourself like a corpse,” Spinoza says, “No! You’re an organism, a living, breathing, complex organism operating in a system that involves tons of other organisms. The path to wisdom is understanding those systems in all their complexity.”

Thus, we find Spinoza offering the following sensible tips:

…to make use of what comes in our way, and to enjoy it as much as possible (not to the point of satiety, for that would not be enjoyment) is the part of a wise woman.* I say it is the part of a wise woman to refresh and recreate herself with moderate and pleasant food and drink, and also with perfumes, with the soft beauty of growing plants, with dress, with music, with many sports, with theatres, and the like, such as every woman may make use of without injury to her neighbour. For the human body is composed of very numerous parts, of diverse nature, which continually stand in need of fresh and varied nourishment, so that the whole body may be equally capable of performing all the actions, which follow from the necessity of its own nature; and, consequently, so that the mind may also be equally capable of understanding many things simultaneously. This way of life, then, agrees best with our principles, and also with general practice… (Ethics IV.45 cor. 2)

* Ok, I admit it. Spinoza says “man” and “he/him”, here and throughout. But isn’t it better this way?

Many sports, not just sports but many sports.

We ought to play many sports (and eat and drink nice things in moderation and take time out for the theatre and listen to music and do a little gardening…) because our bodies are complex and benefit from a variety of types of nourishment, exercise and stimuli. Not just that — physical variety is important for our intellectual lives because our minds and bodies aren’t really different things at all. Understanding means understanding bodies.

Sometimes, when you’re sitting at a desk for hours, or whizzing around in a car or a plane, it’s easy to make the Cartesian mistake of thinking of the body as a vessel (like the desk, the car, or the plane). But any runner knows how rich that sequence of thoughts are that occur on a long run. They’re not just rich; they’re connected to our surroundings in a much more intimate way than they are when you’re stuck at a desk or on a plane. In those more contained environments, one tends to have controlled thoughts — the thoughts that one plans to have. Here I am at my desk thinking about this task that I have to perform. Here I am on the plane thinking about the article I’m reading. When we confine the body, it’s easy(ish) to confine the mind too.

You can do that to an extent during exercise. I’ve certainly taken runs or walks or bike rides in which I’ve intentionally focused on some problem or another. And, in some ways, we’re way better at solving such problems when we’re exercising. But I challenge you to actually go on a run or walk or ride and never once have your thoughts turn to your environment, on the one hand, and to the rich phenomenology of being in a real live body, on the other.

For me, on my long walk, this meant lots of thoughts about Dutch waterfowl and architecture, and the ubiquity of bicycles in the Netherlands, and the terrible toll of the Second World War on Dutch jewry, and the surprising similarities between rural Northern Dutch culture and the culture of rural Eastern Ontario. It also meant lots of noticing how feet and calves and knees and hips and iliosacral joints feel after one hour of walking, two hours, four hours, eight hours… It meant remembering that pain in itself isn’t dangerous and, so long as you genuinely aren’t in danger, can even be really interesting. When your feet really, really hurt, I learned, it is easier to keep walking than to resume walking after a rest. I relearned (because I first learned this when I was training for a half marathon a couple of years ago) that it is easier to approach a long physical challenge by thinking of it in terms of a collection of small challenges with small rewards. (Once you’ve passed that windmill, you can look at your watch. Once you’ve crossed that bridge, you can have a handful of nuts.)

If you asked me whether my big Spinoza walk depended on physical stamina or mental stamina, I would reject the question as unintelligible. In this instance, at least, physical and mental stamina are two sides of the same coin — a most Spinozist result.

The walk, though, wasn’t just an opportunity to explore firsthand and without distraction the inseparability of embodiment and intellection. It was also a challenge — a chance to undertake a difficult task. I won’t say too much about this. If you didn’t understand the appeal of difficulty, you wouldn’t be reading a blog about fitness and feminism. Part of what makes fitness fun is pushing oneself to achieve a difficult result. Feminism, of course, means undertaking a whole other set of difficulties, more difficult ones usually than are required by our fitness efforts, and alas not always fun.

While it might be surprising at first to learn that Spinoza has useful things to say about embodiment, it should be entirely unsurprising that he understood difficulty. After all, his parents and grandparents were forced from Spain to Portugal to France to Holland by a succession of anti-semitic laws sweeping Europe between the 15th and 17th centuries. Spinoza himself was forced out of the Amsterdam Jewish community, and then wrote one of the most notoriously difficult works in western philosophy despite poverty, ill health and a day job grinding lenses.

Spinoza’s final words in that work remind us why we try to do difficult things. He writes, “all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.” That is, if something is desirable and yet uncommon, it must be hard to get or to do. The difficulty doesn’t make such goals less excellent, though. On the contrary, your willingness to undertake a difficult and rare achievement is evidence of just how excellent it is. Think of it: “All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.” If that isn’t the right motto to repeat as you push yourself to finish a ridiculously long walk, or to shave 1/10 of a second off your race time, or to add a triple axel to your routine, or to score a goal against the toughest defence you’ve ever encountered, then I don’t know what is.

Shannon Dea is an associate professor of philosophy at University of Waterloo. Her hobbies include hiking, doing yoga, missing the swell bike that’s waiting for her back in Canada, and sticking to cockamamie plans once she’s gotten them stuck in her head.