fitness · health · illness · self care

The Latest Weird Thing About a Stiff Neck

Last year, I wrote about how my neck gets stiff when I am anxious and about how I get anxious when my neck gets stiff so it’s hard to parse which came first.

A few weeks ago, I discovered that there is another factor to consider in the whole stiff neck issue.

For almost 30 years, I have been getting semi-regular headaches that start with pain and stiffness in my neck. I haven’t been tracking them per se but my estimate is that I have them at least once every two months but sometimes I will have several in a month.

I’ve been blaming it on ‘sitting funny’ or not stretching my neck properly or any of a myriad of things that make these headaches kind of my own fault* for not paying closer attention to my body.

However, I recently had some interesting information come my way that puts that stiff neck in a whole different context.

My dear friend M, a GP who has gone back to school to specialize in Neurology,  has been preparing for her Royal College Exams and she was practicing for the part of the exam where she essentially demonstrates the results of her years of study by seeing practice patients. A couple of weeks ago, I was at her house for several days in a row to help her study and on the third day, I had one of these neck-based headaches so I decided to let her use me as a practice patient for the headache section of her studies.

She asked me when the headache came on, where it was localized, and so on. Then she connected my headache to my sleepiness from two days before and my lack of focus the previous day.

The author, a middle-aged white woman with shoulder length brown hair, wearing a black shirt and glasses is not looking directly at the camera. She is sitting in a room with green walls and there is a white door behind her.
I just happened to take this photo the day before my conversation with M. I was participating in a web chat about writing and I was having trouble concentrating. I was tired, I knew I was going to have a headache the next day because of the specific way that my neck was aching. I did some stretches and took some ibuprofen in hopes of warding it off but it didn’t work – it never does, actually but I always try it.

I was expecting her to respond with ‘Christine, you have a headache’ but instead, she said, ‘Christine, you’re having migraines.’**

I’ve always thought of migraines as ‘have to lie in a dark room with a cloth over your eyes’ type of headaches. My headaches are bad but I can (mostly) still function so I never considered that they were anything more complex than an elaborate neck ache.

M says that my neck pain is actually a symptom of the migraine, rather than the cause of my headache. (It’s no wonder that no amount of stretching seemed to get rid of it.)

Timeline graph of migraine symptoms. The background is purple and the timeline is orange. The graph illustrates that there are a few hours or days of symptoms that precede a migraine, the migraine itself lasts from 4-72 hours and there there is a 24-48 hour recovery period.
I had no idea that things like concentration and difficulty sleeping could precede a migraine. This graph was found here:

Learning that I have migraines explained a lot of things, including a certain type of ‘out of phase’ feeling I have beforehand that I recognize as a regular occurrence but hadn’t connected to my headaches. It also explains two feelings I have after my headaches pass. One that I call a ‘headache ghost’ where it kind of haunts me, as if it could return at any second, but it doesn’t hurt any more. And a ‘headache hangover’ where I feel all wrung out, hungry, unsettled and regretful.

This is all interesting to me, of course, but the thing that really sticks is how different I felt about my headache once I called it a migraine.

With rare exceptions, I have always tried to just carry on with my normal tasks when I have a headache. Sometimes it has been awful – intense pain, nausea, disorientation – but I refused to give in to something as ‘small’ as a headache.***

Now that I know these things are migraines, I suddenly found myself giving them the respect they deserve. I’m not saying that I am going to take to my bed at the first twinge of impending migraine but I am planning to take it easier on myself and I may just head to bed instead of fighting through nausea and pain to complete the things on my list for the day.

So, what does all of this have to do with fitness as a Feminist issue?

Fitness, for me, is about learning to take good care of myself and respecting what my body tells me.

Acknowledging that trying to ignore my headaches was dismissing and disrespecting my body’s signals shows me that that is one area in which fitness has eluded me.

I was being hard on myself for not stretching enough (something that helps me feel fit) when that wasn’t the problem at all. I may or may not have been ‘working hard enough’ but I was too quick to decide that I was to blame and I didn’t see the big picture.

And, the fact that I automatically dismissed pain and illness as ‘not bad enough’ because it was ‘just a headache’ tells me a lot about how I have internalized our society’s ideas about rest, laziness, and the notion that you need to earn the right to rest, even when you are sick.

I don’t know if this expression is localized but here in Newfoundland and Labrador when something is awful we’ll say that it’s not ‘fit.’  As in, the weather’s not fit to go out in, or that clothes is not fit to wear to the party, or, that someone is not fit to talk to.

Even though I didn’t know I was having migraines, I knew I was having really bad headaches but because I thought I brought them on myself, I didn’t rest the way I needed to.

And that’s not fit.

For the record, over the next few months I will be doing some tracking to see what my triggers are and to see just how often my migraines actually occur. And I will be going VERY easy on myself every time one happens.

*Is blaming ourselves for our ailments wise or helpful? It hasn’t helped me so far, I tell ya. I mean, I get that recognizing behaviours that lead to issues can identify actions to take but I wish we could all detour past the blame and just get to the action part.

**NOTE: M is able to make this diagnosis, of course, but she is not my doctor so I have also brought this information to my own doctor for follow-up.

***Yes, I hear how ridiculous this is. Heaven forbid I take things down a notch when I am ill in any way. Yes, I get on my own nerves. SIGH.

aging · fitness

Listen to your body … when it whispers

Why does it all feel so HARD right now?  

I texted that to my business partner earlier this week, and from what I can see of the world around me right now, I’m not the only one feeling this way.

Last month I wrote about yin yoga, and how when I laid down in silence, I suddenly felt my body ache and tug at me. How had I not noticed that I was powering through my workouts and workdays so hard that I was actually physically hurting? At the end of that post, I wrote something about needing to slow down and listen to my body. A friend read the post and texted me “I think it’s unfinished — I think you are saying listen to your body when it whispers.”

She was right, and for the past month, I’ve been trying to really listen.  The yin class reminded me of how important it is to do the basic guided meditation thing of body scanning — what does your big toe feel like?  the front of your shin? — and even more, to scan what’s happening all over for me.

Physically, the scan turns up a lot of reasons for my bone weariness. I had a flu-cold thing, and am traveling for work a lot, and had a stretch of time where I didn’t have a day off from work for 22 days. And like Susan and Sam and pretty much everyone else in the known universe (except Tracy,!) I find the darkening days mean I just want to hole up in the blankies. In fact, I did just that last Sunday — tucked the kitten under my knees, made a bowl of popcorn and binged several episodes of Outlander without moving.

As I keep scanning, there’s another layer.  The work stuff that feels hard feels like one of those watershed moments — where I’ve reached a threshold of what I can do, and there are opportunities for deep learning. If I fight it, everything gets scratchy — and if I listen hard to what it’s teaching me, my work moves to the next level.

When I scan again, I also realize the obvious:  I’m having what is something like my 490th period of all time.  I started in October when I was 12. I’m 52 and have never had a baby.  At roughly 12+ periods a year for more than 40 years I have menstruated… well, probably more than 99.9% of the women in all of history.

I keep trying to act like this cycle of night sweats and frequent periods and surging PMS doesn’t phase me.  But it does.  I’m almost 53.  I’m tired.  It’s wearing.  And when I listen, I know that’s it’s part of why I feel so slow, so heavy, so constrained.  (And cranky.  Don’t forget cranky).

Right now, my body is just not supplying the boundless energy that makes my neighbour — a yoga teacher — shake her head and say “you work out more than anyone else I know.” I really don’t — but I’m usually pretty consistent. But in the past few weeks, I haven’t had a single vigour-ish workout that felt good — the few short runs I’ve managed to force myself into are plods, and I find myself slowing down in the middle of the weekly spin classes I’ve made it to. I renewed my membership at the Y in September and I’ve been exactly twice. Last week, I signed up — and paid for — two classes that I didn’t even go to. My body is telling me SOMETHING.

What am I hearing when I listen to the whispers? Slow down, move differently, listen to the invitation to learn something, make something new.

Slowly, I’ve started to accept that there is something about the current hormonal and cyclic flux of my body that craves vitamin B and sleep and rest and fresh air more than sweat and deep exertion. I heard a CBC podcast a couple of weeks ago about a Chinese tradition of “sitting the month” after giving birth — basically, giving yourself the space for your body to truly recover from birth, to transition to the next phase of your life.  I took that as another invitation to recognize that there is some kind of transition happening that I need to listen to.

Right now, I’m giving myself permission to do things that aren’t running and pushing myself hard, finding different ways to move, being open to things that feel like mystery. A few weeks ago, I spent 2 hours “ecstatic dancing,” moving my body in yoga clothes and my bare feet to an eclectic blend of music, ranging from bhangra to thrash to classical orchestral to tinkly sitar music. A week later, I went to a yin workshop for a friend’s birthday that included live music whose vibrations were intended to attune us to the vibrations in our bodies as we held deep connective poses.  Both of these things sound “flaky,” but they connected me to my body again.

Ten days ago, I embarked on a 21 day challenge with another friend, to each change one habit.  He’s limiting his sugar intake to one thing a day, and I am trying to shift my habit of mindlessly snacking after 8 pm.   Unless I’m eating out with people and we’re eating late, I ingest nothing but water or mint tea after 8 pm.  It seems simple, but the number of times I’ve almost put leftover dinner in my mouth when I’m cleaning up the kitchen, or felt the impulse to make popcorn or eat crackers and butter after 930 is… well, every day.  But I have adhered to it, and I feel better every morning.

Scanning and listening.

Last Saturday, I went to an all day meditation workshop with my cousin.  She lost her young son a year and a half ago and has been on her own transition journey of living with grief, creating her next self.  We spent a long time talking about what happens when you start to listen to what’s aching under the surface — in your soul and in your body. Most meditation practice teaches you how to be both present to and not pushed around by pain — sitting with it, it flows through you. When you don’t acknowledge pain — physical, fatigue, emotional — it persists until it breaks you.

I’m letting myself acknowledge fatigue, and the effects of darkness and hormones, and letting myself dwell in it.  Not to hide under the blankies, but to listen for what it’s offering, what the transitions are leading to.  And it feels right to nest in it.


Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who lives and works in Toronto.  Cate blogs here the second Friday of every month.  And other times when she has something to say. 


training · Uncategorized

If not Rest, then at least Active Recovery, Right?

Cat in lotus position (cartoon).
Cat in lotus position (cartoon).

Sam has blogged about the importance of rest days. More than once in fact (see here and here).  When I was mostly into weight training and not much else, I had a good handle on rest days as necessary for giving muscles time to repair and, more importantly, to build.  I understood that without adequate rest, I was at risk of overtraining.

That’s not to say that I always respected that knowledge. I get into things. And then I have difficulty taking adequate breaks. It’s one of these tendencies I need to stay aware of. I’m more likely to want to do something than nothing, even if it’s walking to work or taking in a yin yoga class.

The body responds to this stress by rebuilding the bridges between the fibres, because the body doesn’t much like to be disturbed. You see, the body is a funny combo of industrious and lazy. It likes to stay occupied with rebuilding things, digesting things etc. but it also likes things to stay the way they are. It’s like a busy little bee that nevertheless has its favourite flower route. The body’s goal is homeostasis — keeping everything running on an even keel. The body repairs itself to be slightly stronger than it was before, so that next time it will be able to manage the stimulus more effectively.

You don’t really need to remember this; but what you do need to remember is that the building-up and recovering from trauma part happens between, not during workouts.

– See more at:

The body responds to this stress by rebuilding the bridges between the fibres, because the body doesn’t much like to be disturbed. You see, the body is a funny combo of industrious and lazy. It likes to stay occupied with rebuilding things, digesting things etc. but it also likes things to stay the way they are. It’s like a busy little bee that nevertheless has its favourite flower route. The body’s goal is homeostasis — keeping everything running on an even keel. The body repairs itself to be slightly stronger than it was before, so that next time it will be able to manage the stimulus more effectively.

You don’t really need to remember this; but what you do need to remember is that the building-up and recovering from trauma part happens between, not during workouts.

– See more at:

Lately I’ve learned about something else: active recovery.  What is active recovery? According to this post at Built Lean:

Active recovery could be defined as an easier workout compared to your normal routine. Typically this workout would be done on off day from training. Generally an active recovery workout is less intense and has less volume. For example, a trainee worried about body composition goals could do active recovery by taking a brisk walk on an off day.

When defining active recovery, context comes into play. To a marathon runner, jogging at a slow pace on an off day will likely have little impact on their ability to maintain intense workouts on their scheduled training days; in fact, it ultimately may help their fitness goals.

You’re supposed to feel better, not worse, after you do something that counts as active recovery.

I confess that I still fall short with rest, simply because I have so many things that I’m trying to fit in and I can’t quite imagine what a day without exercise of any kind feels like. But active recovery? I can get on board with that.

Much of what I read about active recovery recommends low to no impact activities, such as swimming, cycling, walking, yoga, or foam rolling.  But you know, any of these (well, perhaps not foam rolling, but I’m not even sure of that) can be gentle or intense.  I’m not sure who I’m fooling when I try to sub in a very demanding 90 minute Iyengar yoga class as my active recovery day.  And my triathlon swim training is not active recovery. It’s an intense workout.

So I need to check myself and watch out for my tendency to want to keep at it and do everything at a high level of intensity all the time.  I have recently “counted” both yoga and swim training as active recovery. I’ve even counted easy but long runs.

And I’m ratting myself out right here and now by saying that the fact is, I do not have a rest day.  Sundays are my prescribed rest day for the Lean Eating Program, but I have my long run with my 10K training group on Sunday mornings.  It’s easy, but it’s long. And I don’t feel as fresh as a daisy afterwards. And my schedule of workouts resumes promptly at 6 a.m. on Monday mornings.

How do you do rest and active recovery? I’d love to hear from people who do a better job at it than I do.


The puzzle over too much sleep


While most, or at least many, of my friends are making resolutions to get enough sleep in 2014, I’m doing okay on that front. I regularly sleep 7-8 hours a night. See Zzzz, Sleep and Fitness and Sleep is a feminist issue for past musings on sleep.

Sometimes I joke that my ability to fall asleep is my super power. I can fall asleep just about anywhere, anytime, and for any amount of time.

I once shared a hotel room with another feminist philosopher and after brushing my teeth, putting on pyjamas, and turning off the light I said “night, night.”

She said, “that’s it?”

Turned out she needed to do lots more in order fall asleep. Relaxation exercises, television, stretching, and lots more. Luckily none of it kept me awake. Truth be told, other than crying babies, not very much can.

It’s a bit of a family trait. In times of stress or difficulty, I sleep more, not less. But I can’t top my brother who had the funny habit of falling sleep in the dentist’s chair.

Last week friends were busy sharing this story, How Sleep Deprivation Decays the Mind and Body, but I wondered about the other end of the spectrum.

The Atlantic piece on sleep deprivation quotes a researcher on sleep.

“Definitely, we know that sleep deprivation leads to depression, high blood pressure, weight gain, heart disease, and probably mortality,” he said. People that regularly sleep those seven and a quarter hours have been shown to live longer than those who routinely sleep less or more. He added that lack of sleep disrupts other systems in the body.”

I get the “too little” sleep bit but the “too much” part of the story fascinates me. Presumably people who sleep more aren’t making themselves sleep more. They’re doing it because it feels good. And alarm clocks are bad, right? It’s a puzzle.

Sometimes I worry that I sleep too much, a problem I don’t even dare mention among my overworked and insomniac colleagues, especially those with small children. I’ve read a few times that sleeping too much can be just as bad as sleeping too little. But I’m an intuitive sleeper and if my body wants to sleep more, that can’t be bad, can it? Surely, that’s just a sign I need more sleep.

On Huffington Post Dr. Michael Breus takes on my question, asking Can You Really Sleep Too Much? Really?

“A number of studies also show that sleeping too much increases the risk of diabetes and metabolic disorders, including metabolic syndrome. Some research suggests that long sleep poses similar levels of increased risk as short sleep, while other studies indicate the diabetes risk to long sleepers is even greater. Cardiovascular problems, including high blood pressure and heart disease, are also linked to both insufficient sleep and prolonged sleep. An investigation that included data from the Nurses’ Health Study on more than 71,000 women showed that long sleep duration was associated with increased risk of coronary heart disease. Research shows that abnormal sleep duration — long or short — may nearly double the risk of some cardiovascular disease.”

Of course this is just correlation, not causation, and it might be that unhealthy people need more sleep, rather than that excess sleep causes ill health. Still, it worries me.

The most alarming of the “too much sleep will kill you” stories I’ve seen is from BBC Health in 2002, Too much sleep ‘is bad for you’

Eight hours’ sleep a night has long been touted as the ideal length of time to spend under the duvet but new research suggests it could shorten your life.A study that included more than a million participants found people who sleep eight hours or more died younger.

Those who only managed four or less hours in the land of nod were similarly affected but six or seven hours a night was found to be conducive to a longer life. The research, carried out by scientists at the University of California, showed a clear association between long duration sleep and high mortality rates. The report’s author Dr Daniel Kripke, a professor of psychiatry, said: “We don’t know if long sleep periods lead to death. “Additional studies are needed to determine if setting your alarm clock earlier will actually improve your health. “Individuals who now average six-and-a-half hours of sleep a night can be reassured this is a safe amount of sleep.

I’m puzzled.

Off to bed now for my 7 hours!

See also


Why hello rest day! I think I love you


Transitions are hard. Both Tracy and I have blogged about moving from summer mode to the start of a new university year.  (See my Switching gears at the start of the school year and Tracy’s Routines.)

For both of us it’s the end of our research leaves too.

We’re back in the classroom. (Hi, Western students who’ve found our blog!)

I don’t know about Tracy but me, I’m extra tired. My household contains one very serious high school athlete whose alarm goes off during the school year at 5 am for practice of one sort or another. We’re the morning people in our house. Also, we’re the people yelling “Turn down the music it’s  9:30 pm, I’m trying to sleep. But other family members like their late nights and sometimes it seems sleep is lost at both ends of the day.

There is a much earlier start to my days usually during the school term. Partly too it’s saying goodbye to midafternoon naps (perfect when you’re up early running/biking/Crossfitting etc and rowing or doing Aikido in the evening.)

I love this infographic How to Nap and my favourite nap is the caffeine nap. Basically drink coffee, nap before it takes effect, sleep for 20 min and wake up extra bright eyed and busy tailed. The coffee nap is perfect for when lots more work beckons.

I haven’t yet worked out how office napping might go. I’ve got a comfy chair so perhaps I should just bring in a blanket.

More than ever I need my rest day. Saturday I did the Gran Fondo, rowing practice Sunday morning, Crossfit Monday, rowing practice Tuesday, Crossfit and Aikido on Wednesday. Thursday was more rowing practice  and then today NOTHING. Thank God. I do find that recovery time matters more as I get older and that time between efforts matters a lot. I’m going to blog about the science of recovery and my experiences later, I think.

One advantage of my new Friday rest day is that there’s no teaching either! Yes, yes, lots of work to do. Grant application due, chapters to finish, drafts to write, papers to read, letters of recommendation to write. But no exercise until biking with friends (hi Tracy!) and Aikido on Saturday.

Past posts:l-Sleeping-sloths

In praise of rest days

Hello again rest day. It’s been awhile. I’ve missed you.

Aikido · diets · martial arts · Rowing · running · team sports

In praise of rest days

Fridays are my new rest days and I’m liking it. I’m a bit of a weekend warrior (running, cycling, rowing, soccer, AikIdo!) and it’s nice to start out Saturday fresh. Traditionally I’ve rested on Mondays–post weekend–but now I’m doing Crossfit that doesn’t quite work with my schedule.

I’m looking forward to a weekend of active fun. I’m doing test review in Aikido and I enjoy the intensity and focus of that process. My indoor soccer team plays our 3rd game Sunday afternoon and so far we’ve lost one and won one and I’d like to kick the stats back into our favour.

I’m especially happy today that it’s a rest day because I did a bit more than I bargained for on Thursday. Crossfit included rowing and then rowing practice included weights. Too many deadlifts!

It’s also a sleepy, grey rainy day with snow in the forecast.

What does this mean for me? First, I get to sleep a bit later (though not this morning, spouse’s early morning train to Toronto alarm woke me up, followed by a phone call from teenager at basketball practice who’d forgotten a much needed item.) Second, I try to eat very well on recovery days, lots of protein and colourful veggies. And third, I do keep moving but just regular stuff like walking the dog, housework, stretching etc.

In the spirit of feeling good about rest and recovery days, I thought I’d read some other women fitness bloggers on the practice of rest days:

Sit yo ass down! The importance of rest  by Krista Scott Dixon at Stumptuous

What does rest day mean to you? by fitknitchick

Focus on rest days by Fitnessista

How To: Incorporate Rest into Your Fitness Routine by Fitblogger

Enjoy your Friday! I will. Back on the mats at Aikido tomorrow morning.