Wealth and Fitness Privilege

I went skating at the local lake this week. I live in Ottawa, where skating is a big deal. In addition to the Rideau Canal, we have many community rinks. COVID has changed the rules around skating though, and it is particularly hitting those who are least likely to have other options.

Just a few minutes from my house is the poorest community in Ottawa. There are many immigrants, and one of the largest Inuit communities outside Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut. A check of the City’s listing of skating rinks shows only two for the entire area, compared to the four in my neighborhood. These community rinks are supported by the City, but the communities need to request them, and maintain them. I suspect that there are fewer rinks because fewer residents have skating traditions, money for skates, and the time or energy to spend hours scraping and watering the ice. Meanwhile, my favourite rink, at my kids’ old public school, has a permanent change facility (not a seasonal trailer), boards, and a chilled pad so the ice is available in the shoulder seasons at the beginning and end of winter.

Even larger facilities are not shared equitably. Last April, one of the City arenas was converted into a temporary shelter for the homeless, because the usual facilities had been forced to reduce the numbers of people they could accommodate. In July, a local parent lobbied to have the shelter so it could be kids could play hockey. He did back down after public outrage. In contrast, the only indoor arena in the poor neighborhood has also been closed for months to serve as a respite center for the homeless and those with precarious housing. No-one has raised a peep.

The City has asked that people who don’t live within walking distance of the Rideau Canal stay away this year. Unsurprisingly, the communities that border this gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage site are wealthy. The lake I skated at this week is bordered by private homes on one side, and no trespassing signs on the other. Parking is extremely limited, assuming you have a car. Although it is in walking distance of that poor community, I have only ever seen white, middle class or wealthier people skating there.

Skating in Ottawa is an example of systemic bias in access to facilities. It’s not necessarily deliberate ill-will. That shelter is much needed, and it serves some of the many vulnerable who live right in that community. The City and the National Capital Commission have reminded residents that there are places to hike or ski in many suburban areas; but that’s not the same as the Canal, and those skiing and hiking spots aren’t available in densely-populate poor communities. Everyone is welcome to set up a community rink, if they have the time and energy to organize a group to make the application, and then maintain it. And the lake is open to anyone who cares to go, if you know someone who lives nearby and happens to mention that it exists at all.

So what to do about it? I have no idea. That is the challenge of trying to make systemic change. Things like subsidized sports and school programs can help by at least introducing kids to sports and fitness activities, but without a community that makes fitness a priority for all its citizens, it will be hard for them to stay fit for life.

Woman in black skating on a path on a lake, with trees and houses in the background

Diane Harper is a public servant in Ottawa. She is lucky enough to live in a really nice, walkable neighbourhood.

Guest Post · winter

You can fit fitness into almost anything (Guest post)

by Diane Harper

I belong to an experimental archaeology group that focuses on the early Middle Ages in Northern Europe. What does this have to do with fitness? Surprisingly, it is a great way to move our bodies and test our strength. When you work the blacksmith’s bellows for hours, or gather wood for cooking and chop it by hand, you work muscles in ways you never do at your office job. A friend and I have been working on some additional fitness-related experiments. She made a replica of a “backpack”, and I have been testing out theories on how bone skates were used. 

Bone skates have been found in various places including the Viking site in York, England. They don’t have blades, so they don’t work like modern skates; rather, they were strapped onto the feet, probably with leather thongs, and the skaters may have used with poles to propel themselves along. We know this because there is a woodcut from 1555 showing skaters using a single pole. Last weekend, my friend and I headed to the nearby lake to test our our equipment. We had a lovely walk through the woods (leather-soled shoes can be quite chilly), and at the lake I strapped on my skates and “skated” up and down a section of cleared ice. The motion that I find most efficient is very similar to classic cross-country skiing. I have two wooden poles tipped with pointy pieces of pig bone. They give me a little bit of grip on the ice to improve my forward momentum, but they definitely aren’t as good as proper ski poles with a metal point.

Here is a closeup of my feet, wearing homemade leather shoes, strapped to a pair of  flattened cow bones. 

The advantage of the bone skates is that some snow or slush doesn’t hinder progress as much as it does for modern skates. The disadvantage is that I am rarely able to get a good glide; mostly I just shuffle along. This is largely an equipment problem. My skates are still rough on the bottom, even through they are becoming smoother with repeated use. I need to smooth them more, and may even try waxing them to reduce the friction. Still, I stay nice and warm, and I get to look fabulous in a dress and fur-trimmed hat. Wool may take longer to dry than modern microfibres, but it stays warm even when wet. Even my feet were warm on the skates, because the bone kept them up off the ice. We were out for almost two hours on a cold, blustery day.

Image – two masked women in medieval clothing, walking in the woods.

Diane Harper loves to experiment with historical cooking and crafts.


Sam does the most Canadian thing ever

Huffington Post says, “You’re not Canadian until you’ve skated through a forest in the dead of winter.”

And while I’m not ready to go that far, forest skating did feel pretty Canadian.

Being able to skate at all feels very Canadian to me. I learned to skate when I started school, just after moving to Grand Falls, Newfoundland, Canada from England. My father learned with me but shortly after that I was zooming around the rink leaving him behind. Like most Canadian kids, I skated with school for physical education classes, trundling over to the rink carrying our skates. I took figure skating for a few years until it got too fancy, dance-y, and frilly.

Later, with my own kids, I started skating again. I’m not very good, a bit wobbly, but I still love it. When we were on sabbatical in Australia and New Zealand, and we wanted to feel competent at a sport, we went skating. They have ice rinks, they rent skates, and there we felt like stars on ice. Our average Canadian skating ability put us in pretty elite group at a family skate in the southern hemisphere.

But back to skating in the woods this weekend, without kids, not in a skating rink. Instead, outdoors! The woods! My favorite place to be.

See Arrowhead Ice Skating Trail In Muskoka Allows Canadians To Skate Through The Forest.

What is it? It’s an ice trail through the forest. So cool. They’ve flooded a road connecting campsites and they maintain the ice surface with a zamboni.

There’s an outdoor fire place where you change and outdoor lockers to store your boots.

I loved the woods which seemed to block the wind. Previously my outdoor skating had been on open lakes, ponds, and rivers and so wind was definitely a factor.

The slight inclines, both up and down, presented a new challenge. I’d never skated up or downhill before. Also, no boards to hang on to when you’re taking a break or retying your laces.

There was a great range of ages. Lots and lots of little kids but also some speedy senior citizens whipping around holding hands.

Jeff and I ended up skating in part because our cross country ski plans were set back. We arrived at the park on the day of the Muskoka Loppet, a cross country ski race, and all the ski trails, the easy ones anyway, were in use.

So we skated for a bit instead.

Some evenings they light the trail with by tiki lanterns so you can skate through the woods after dark. I’d love to do that!




Guest Post

The most cerebral sport I’ve ever tried (Guest post)

Photo by ©Jessica Plance
Photo by ©Jessica Plance

Fall brings the start of classes, and for me a welcome return to my favorite university class of all. Not the ones I teach, but the student wellness course I take. In the olden days, students had a couple of required PE classes that consisted mostly of running around the track. The country club atmosphere now means students can meet their wellness requirement by exploring activities from billiards to horseback riding, yoga to rock-climbing. As a faculty member, I can join a student ice skating class with personalized coaching for a negligible fee.

A few years ago I was suffering from hip and knee pain, was diagnosed with arthritis and got sent to physical therapy. There I was forbidden to continue running, at least until the pain and swelling in my knees went down—and possibly forever. When I complained about this sad fate to my child’s preschool teacher, she suggested I take the ice skating class she also teaches, on the theory that it’s a no-impact sport that uses lateral movement to build leg and hip strength. I’m from Texas, where my only exposure to ice was in drinks, so I was an utter beginner at skating. And on my first trips to the rink, I noticed that there were few people over 30 on the ice, and that the skaters who were as old as me had years and years of experience behind them. The few adults skating were clearly the result of a selection process that discouraged the inept. I braced myself for a steep learning curve.

I was a slow learner, but with a patient and encouraging teacher, the process was addictive. I don’t jump or spin (yet), but I’ve gotten good enough that I don’t worry about falling. I can do crossovers and 3-turns, swing rolls and spirals. Lynne Tirell has written about the discipline demanded by ballet, and I’ll cop to becoming obsessed with the school figures that are no longer a compulsory part of competition because TV audiences couldn’t stand the tedium.

Skating is the most cerebral sport I’ve ever tried. If my body is tired, I can still skate; if my mental focus is off, there’s no hope. First, there’s relearning the laws of physics. And then, like dance, there’s keeping track of where all the body parts are in 3-dimensional space. Early on, I thought that if I could just learn to skate forward and backward, I’d be well on my way to mastery. But no—each move has to be learned individually, for inside and outside edges, forward and backward motion, right and left foot. Eventually, I’ll worry about intangibles like grace and creative expression, too. Skating requires—and builds—strength, flexibility, balance, and aerobic fitness. More than those, it’s the cumulative skill set that opens up new ways of moving on the ice. For me, that deep range of skill separates skating from a sport like running. It adds to the challenge and, therefore, the attraction. Learning a new move feels much more like training my brain than training my body.

I’m lucky to have access to a rink and a teacher, which would be expensive if I weren’t working at a university that keeps the ice frozen year-round. The cost of the equipment for skating is not prohibitive, but the cost of access is—as it also can be for swimming, golf, or downhill skiing. And skating fits perfectly into my daily academic schedule, since I can do it on campus, without needing to change or shower.

Learning to ice skate as an adult is rare but worthwhile. It seems different from learning as a child. After years of running and biking and sitting at my desk, skating has revealed poor biomechanics, posture, and strength imbalances. The perception of risk is different, too. My knees feel fragile, and I’m more cautious about falling than my younger class peers. (And the risk is real: every semester, it seems, someone falls, breaks an arm, gets a concussion, is carried off by EMTs.) But at the same time, the speed I can get on ice skating blades and the awareness of risk provide a rush that I can’t get from running or yoga.

The gender dynamic can’t be ignored. For a long time, I was just skating—sometimes on hockey blades and sometimes with figure skates. Hockey skates are faster and more maneuverable; figure skates are more stable but permit greater precision at slow speeds. Only recently have I needed to choose to pursue one style rather than the other. I’m not attracted to playing on teams, so that was the deciding factor. My university has a highly ranked women’s hockey team, but even so, on any given day, the number of men on hockey skates is greater than the number of women, and only rarely does a guy show up wearing figure skates. At the same time, there are guys who don’t play hockey and are devoted to working on tricks and moves that would be best done on figure skates—but they don’t want to be perceived as figure skaters because of the gender overtones. If I had a young daughter who wanted to figure skate, I would have serious reservations about the gender-conformist costumes and moves.

A few years ago I would not have thought that ice-skating would be a sport I would seriously consider. Hockey seemed too aggressive and figure skating too, well, feminine. I didn’t like the thought of taking time for something I was not already somewhat good at. (At least good enough to stay off the ground!) Although good skaters look graceful, I was skeptical that, starting as an adult, I could become that accomplished. As a feminist, I should have known better than to buy into these doubtful presumptions! I enjoy skating, and I enjoy how my body feels because of the skating.

Skating feels like flying. The absence of friction on the ice is freedom from the constraints of  ordinary physics.

©Jessica Plance
©Jessica Plance

Evelyn Brister is an associate professor of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology. Her research areas are philosophy of science, social epistemology, and environmental decision-making, and she has recently been working on integrating applied critical thinking throughout the university curricula. A passion for ice has not displaced a passion for trees, so walking in the woods still figures highly in her universe.

body image · Guest Post

Do These Pants Make My Butt Look Big? Hockey Equipment and Body Image (Guest Post)


I love to skate. I grew up figure skating, but when I started to teach power and hockey skating classes nearly a decade ago, I got myself a pair of hockey skates– and I loved them! Since then, I’ve always wanted to play hockey, but it took me up until a few months ago (when I moved to Halifax) to actually gain the courage to give it a shot.

All these years, I’ve avoided playing hockey because I was skeptical about finding equipment that would fit my curvy, short, and muscular body. I was afraid that if I did manage to find equipment, I wouldn’t be able to skate with the extra bulk on my already bulky body. And I was terrified that I was going to look ridiculous with all that equipment on. I imagined that my body in hockey equipment would look more like the Michelin Man (yup, that big puffy tire mascot), than a hockey player.

Deep down, I told myself that it would be less embarrassing and easier if I just lost some weight before I started playing hockey. Ugh… my feminist-self is embarrassed that I felt this kind of body shame!

Waiting to lose weight before trying a recreational sport (or living your life!) is silly. I know. But, it still took me years (of not losing weight) and moving to a new city (where nobody I knew would get to see me playing in full hockey gear) to finally try something that I didn’t think I had the “right” body shape for.

When it came time to actually buy the hockey gear, it turned out to be less embarrassing, but way more challenging than I had imagined.

I curbed some of my embarrassment by bringing a hockey-gear-shopping buddy. I told her that her job was to make sure that my butt didn’t look “too big” in my hockey pants—ha! But really, she was the moral support that I needed. It was nice to have someone on my team when exposing myself and my body to the sales guys at the sports store. With her support, it felt easier to tell the sales guy that something didn’t fit and to explain what I needed for my body. (Telling the teenaged sales guy that “my boobs and butt are too big for this gear” felt less embarrassing with my friend’s support). Most of all, it helped having my friend there to tell me just how exciting my new hockey adventure was going to be. She told me that I looked like a hockey ninja with all my gear on. And it helped.

Finding gear that fit me properly was a different story. Before I started I Googled “best hockey equipment for curvy women” and nothing came up. I wasn’t that surprised. I don’t look anything like the men or women I’d seen playing hockey.

Here’s what I learned about hockey equipment: In general, the men’s gear is too long for my body. The women’s gear is too narrow. Most stores don’t carry that many options for women’s gear, anyways. Some children’s gear (like the XL hockey pants) fit okay, but the straps and padding on most of the other children’s gear are way too small. I haven’t been able to find should pads and chest protectors that fit my shoulder to boob ratio. It seems that to women’s chest protectors don’t have cup size options. Nor have I been able to find elbow or shin pads that are short enough, while providing good coverage with straps that are long enough to go around my arms and legs.

I’ve chatted with some of my teammates about this. And some of them had similar problems with finding hockey equipment. If there are any hockey gear manufacturers reading this, how about you make some equipment for differently shaped women!?

In the end, I settled on some combination of men’s and children’s hockey gear. Still, none of my gear fits me perfectly, but it will have to do—because I’m excited to play!

On the ice, I adjusted pretty quickly to wearing hockey equipment. The hardest thing to get used to was wearing a helmet with a cage. For the first few games, the cage made me feel nauseous, but at least I could skate.

My concerns about what I look like in full hockey gear are fading. In the beginning, however, I did catch myself checking out my reflection in the rink glass a few times. But the more I play and the better I get, the less I give a shit about what I look like.

And it turns out that no one else cares about what I look like either. When I finally let some of my friends come to watch me play they didn’t think that I, or anyone else, looked ridiculous or out of place. To them, we all looked like hockey players, because we were playing hockey.

Surprisingly, I still don’t know what I look like in my gear. Because it doesn’t matter.
What matters is that I get to play. And this little hockey ninja wishes that she hadn’t waited so long to try playing in the first place.

Angel is a postdoc at Dalhousie University. She completed her Ph.D. at the University of Western Ontario. She is a feminist philosopher. She is also a skater— and the rink is where she feels most at home.
Follow her on Twitter @APetropanagos