fitness · habits

More on movement rituals

For those of us who observe various forms of the Christian calendar, today is Easter Sunday. I’m a church lady, so the week of Easter is always busy for me every year. I buy pita and baba ganoush and lamejuns (Armenian sort-of pizzas; a recipe is here) and all kinds of yummy foods for my church’s Maundy Thursday dinner; I live around the corner from a great Armenian bakery and food store, so it is my happy errand to do.

Then comes Good Friday service, and on Saturday I help with brass and silver polishing in the morning, followed by helping get the church set up with lilies for Easter Vigil that evening. I rush home, then rush back for the service that evening. We have a little reception with bubbly beverages and nibblies, then I go home after 9pm.

Sunday morning is the main event, with a full court press of children in pastels running around, lots of sweets at the festive coffee hour, and the church filled with sights and sounds and folks I haven’t seen since Christmas. It’s one of my yearly rituals.

You can tell from my story that I like rituals. They are comfortable– familiar and predictable and soothing. Okay, maybe they can get monotonous, but I don’t usually mind monotony (at least in this context). There is also evidence that rituals (religious, personal, etc.) can provide provide us with feelings of more self-control over our behaviors.

Feelings of more self-control over our behaviors… Doesn’t that sound great?

This spring has been more than usually hectic for me– I took on an extra course for teaching, I’m serving on my university’s tenure committee, and recently became one of the wardens (yes, that’s the term) of my church. This is, in short:

TOO MUCH
too much. way too much.

I’ve noticed that, as my workload has increased and my stress level along with it, I’ve turned to some rituals in my movement. I do a gentle or restorative yoga ritual (well, youtube video, but ritual sounds nicer) every evening before bed. I make sure to move and walk and seek out stairs in my day.

I’ve also paid attention to a couple rituals for self-care lately. I have been turning off the light in my bedroom by 11:30pm. I have made time for a quiet coffee in the morning, even when I’ve faced a very long day. That’s what I’ve been managing.

The ritual of Easter weekend is almost over. I like immersing myself in it, but I don’t mind when it’s over. The rituals I engage in every day and every week (movement-wise, spirituality-wise, self-care-wise), support me day in and day out. I’d like to develop a few more.

Dear readers, what are your rituals or special habits that are soothing, or grounding, or motivating, or pleasing? Movement, self-care, whatever– we’d love to hear from you.

Movement Ritual
fitness · trackers

My (fake-o) FitBit won’t make me fit, but it’s not its fault

I’m very late to the party, but I have finally gotten a FitBit.  Mine is a fake one ($29.95 on Amazon), and it does count steps, more or less.

Why did I get this gadget? Mainly, I want to know how active I am in my regular weekly routine; I haven’t been cycling much (yet), so walking has been much of my cardio-ish exercise.

So what have I learned after a week with Fake-o-FitBit?

First: My activity patterns tend to fall into one of three categories.

  1. working from home, I don’t get in many steps (3000-4000ish?) until I make a deliberate plan to take a walk.  I sort of knew this, but having the data makes a stronger impression.
  2. Teaching and running around on campus, I get in many more steps than I expected (6000-7500ish?). Still, it doesn’t feel like much of a workout.
  3. Any day in which I plan a walk somewhere (or am traveling—airports are great for lots of step accumulation) seems to rack up more than 10K steps, all told.

This is very useful information for me, because it’s telling me that if I want to be more active on days I’m working from home, I have to schedule it.  Maybe this is obvious to everyone else, including me, but somehow having the numbers in front of me makes the situation clear.

A week of steps...

During the summer, I tend to cycle very often—riding around town from place to place, doing errands, etc.  I also take longer road rides alone or with friends. So, that activity takes care of itself. But if I’m not on two wheels and want more activity out of my day, I have to make a plan.

Second: step counts don’t tell me how hard I’ve worked physically.  Duh. But again, I needed to experience the week and see the data to conclude that substantial cardio fitness for Catherine will not automatically happen through just stepping a lot.

Third: It was totally worth $29.95 to get this information. Yes, I kind of knew this, but I respond well to data (even likely inaccurate and over-counted info from a possibly-pirated step counter).

Not that I’m planning on throwing it away, now that I’ve learned some things. I’ll keep wearing it and sync’ing the info to see if any different patterns emerge.  It seems like Fake-o-FitBit will help keep me honest and aware of what I am and am not doing each day.

Fake-o-FitBit won’t help me set my fitness goals and physical activity schedule. That’s not what it does. I have to do that my damn self. Which I will. But it does help me see what counts as sedentary/meh/more active for me in daily two-legged movement. That’s worth the price.

Thanks, Fake-o-FitBit!

Thanks, Fake-o-FitBit! (Photo by Manuel Cosentino on Unsplash)

Dear readers, how do you use step counters?  Do you find similar categories of activity? How do you use the data?  I’d love to hear your experiences.

fitness · martial arts

March ends with more new things: Catherine discovers Qigong

March is almost gone, but to fill the March sadness void (and also exercise ennui for me), I’m trying yet another new thing. Sam wrote about how the Fit Feminist Team is trying new things, Not to be competitive, but I seem to be in the lead here, with parkour class, aerial silks yoga, and now a 2-hour Qigong workshop I went to on Saturday.

Why am I doing this? Really, the answer is that I am looking for different sorts of movement in my life these days. I have been feeling the need for more strength and agility and flow. Also I want to feel solid and stable– I want to feel my feet under me, my legs solid, my back strong, and my core engaged. This way I can use my upper body to lift and grab onto things, swing me or hold me in place, help me balance, and other things. Like leaping, for instance:

I happened upon the Qigong workshop, through Artemis, my local studio. Jules, one of my favorite instructors, was teaching it. I knew basically nothing about it. So here’s an intro blurb in case you’re in the same boat:

Qigong can be described as a mind-body-spirit practice that improves one’s mental and physical health by integrating posture, movement, breathing technique, self-massage, sound, and focused intent. There are likely thousands of qigong styles, schools, traditions, forms, and lineages, each with practical applications and different theories about Qi (“subtle breath” or “vital energy”) and Gong (“skill cultivated through steady practice”)

Qigong is credited with all sorts of beneficial and even therapeutic powers. Here’s what one website has to say about it:

Physically, slow gentle qigong movements warm tendons, ligaments, and muscles; tonify vital organs and connective tissue; and promote circulation of body fluids (blood, synovial, lymph). Thousands of studies have shown qigong effective in helping to heal life challenges ranging from high blood pressure and chronic illness to emotional frustration, mental stress, and spiritual crisis.

Hmmm… Thousands of studies? I took a look at the PubMed database and found loads of studies, including this one, suggesting benefits of Qigong and Tai Chi for some of the following:

bone density, cardiopulmonary effects, physical function, falls and related risk factors, quality of life, self-efficacy, patient-reported outcomes, psychological symptoms, and immune function.

Okay, so there’s evidence that Qigong is good for what ails ya. That’s nice. But what is it like? I found it to be different from yoga in that we were mainly standing in place, doing body and arm movements, syncing with the breath. They were done slowly and repeatedly. Even though the movements were (mostly) slow ones, we did generate some heat. You can definitely work up a sweat doing Qigong. But it’s also meditative, focusing on the breath and body movements. The names of the movements are poetic and descriptive. We did movements called:

  • King draws his sword
  • Cat gazes at the moon
  • Gather the sun and press the earth
  • Double hands hold up the heavens
  • several others

Some of the things I liked about these movement patterns were the ways they used my whole body. For some of them I was raising up, lifting my heels, arms in the air, balancing and holding myself up. We did lots of arm movements, which were slow, but involved control, focus, and attention to detail (some of the movements required thought). They also provided opportunities for grace. I loved one movement where we crossed our wrists in front of our navels, began a sequence, and then replaced the wrists to their original position, fluidly and elegantly.

Elegance– that’s really what I took away from Qigong. It’s meditative, it’s physical, and it’s elegant in its simplicity and efficiency of movement.

It also seems to make people happy. Here are some people doing qigong:

There are Qigong classes at yoga studios near me. I will be checking them out. Will this new form of movement become a regular part of my rotation? It’s too soon to say. But I’m intrigued on multiple fronts.

Have you or do you do Qigong (or Tai Chi)? What do you think? What does it do for you, and for your other forms of physical activity? I’d love to hear from you, dear readers.

fitness · weight stigma

Reducing anti-fat bias among doctors: will a little more knowledge help?

Here’s some good news: medical schools are (finally) paying attention to the fact that their students have a bunch of false beliefs about their fatter patients, which contributes to bad medical care. Johns Hopkins and NYU medical schools created some special 3-4 day courses devoted to better understanding obesity (a term I hate, but they use it, so I will use it here when I have to). Their goal is to help future doctors care better for their fatter patients.

For those who love references: you can read a news article about the NYU study here, and the actual NYU here. For the Hopkins study, there’s a JAMA article about it here, and the Hopkins study in more detail is found here.

Okay, now that the bibliography is done, here’s what the studies discovered about medical students’ beliefs and attitudes toward fat patients.

tl:dr version: lots of future doctors falsely believe that body weight is largely controllable. They also have negative feelings and attitudes toward fat people– a significant percentage think fat people are lazy or don’t make good decisions. Possibly as a result, they are less empathetic to their fat patients. This translates into bad medical care.

Here’s my deeper dive: from studies we know that a large percentage of 4th year medical students believe that lack of willower is an important contributor to obesity. The Hopkins study looked at 6 medical student cohorts who had taken a 4-day course on obesity. Before the course, here is what the students believed:

Across cohorts, 89% of students agreed or strongly agreed that obesity is a disease (range, 85% to 92%), and 89% of students believed it was behavioral (range, 82% to 92%). At the same time, over 90% of students agreed or strongly agreed that obesity results from poverty (range, 90% to 97%), and 57% believed that obesity is primarily genetic (range, 51% to 62%). Finally, 74% of students agreed or strongly agreed that ignorance contributes to obesity (range, 70% to 79%), and 28% had the opinion that people with obesity were lazy (range, 21% to 38%). 

This is appalling but not surprising. The NYU study found similar negative attitudes and false beliefs:

More than half of medical students rated unhealthy diet (62.0%), physical inactivity (56.3%), and overeating (52.1%) as very important contributors to obesity. Only 26.8% of students rated genetics or biological factors as very important. Lack of willpower was rated as less important than genetics or biological factors, but over 40% of students considered it [lack of willpower] to be at least a moderately important cause of obesity.

These disheartening results hold for practicing doctors as well. The NYU study cites this information:

In a survey of US primary care physicians, genetic factors ranked below physical inactivity, overeating, and high fat diet as important causes of obesity. More than 30% viewed patients with obesity as weak-willed, sloppy, or lazy, over 50% viewed them as awkward, unattractive, ugly, and noncompliant, and only 50% of physicians rated genetic factors as a very important cause of obesity.

So, we have a situation in which physicians and future physicians have false beliefs about human metabolism and controllability of body weight. Medical schools (and hospitals and medical associations and patient groups) are aware of this fact, and are trying to educate these populations to give them correct information and a solid knowledge base from which to view their patients more equitably and justly.

But the problem is: knowledge doesn’t seem like it’s going to make things better. In a followup survey, the Hopkins researchers asked the medical student cohorts how (if at all) the course changed their views about obesity. More than 50% of the respondents reported no change at all. 30% reported positive changes in their views. The rest reported either no change or more negative views over time.

As the NYU study authors put it in the last line of their article, “Research about the most effective methods for teaching the basis of obesity and reducing bias is sparse, however and more studies are needed to identify best practices.”

Yeah, I would say that’s right. So, what’s missing here? Some researchers say this: we don’t know how to teach people to be empathetic with others, especially about fatness. You might think that doctors or medical students who have struggled with body image and dieting yo-yo weight changes would be more empathetic toward their fat patients. But no– the data show otherwise.

So how do you teach people empathy? There are actually programs to teach physicians empathy for their patients. Knowing that how a primary care provider responds to us emotionally is a strong influence on how well they treat us (medically and personally) gives us a little more power in an area of life where people are relegated to the status of passive, silent patient. And if we’re up to the task, advocating for ourselves and others by calling out lack of empathy and calling for more empathy training might make going to the doctor less daunting and unpleasant. Here’s hoping…

Doctors walking down a hallway, rearview. Photo by Unsplash.
femalestrength · fit at mid-life · fitness · habits

Some things that make me feel great about my body (this year)

This week I’m super busy and super-stressed about being super busy. But, I am also feeling pretty good body-wise. That is, I’ve been doing more activity and more types of activities that have gotten me out of my winter movement doldrums. Infusing my physical life with some novelty has been refreshing; it’s almost like spring has come early. Well, almost…

Sam posted about some of us trying new things, and for me it’s not over yet; more new things may be in the offing. Stay tuned to the blog for details.

Last year this time I posted about 6 things that make me feel great about my body. I’d like to update the list to reflect what’s happening this year.

Yoga is sill on the list, definitely. Last year I wrote this:

Hanging out in downward facing dog or wide legged forward bend, I feel strong, stretched out, grounded, engaged with my muscles.  In shavasana (corpse pose for resting on the mat at the end of class) I connect with the floor, feeling my limbs and back and head and belly all sink into relaxation and stillness.  And when I get up to leave I feel grateful for the body I have.

Last summer I discovered yin yoga, and it’s added enormously to my enjoyment of yoga, my enjoyment of my body in stillness, and my enjoyment of my body stretching and experiencing shifts from that stretching. I love it.

I also wrote last year that I loved primping and poufing and prettifying myself from time to time, especially focusing on my hair. This year, I’d say I’m not so into that. I do like wearing clothing that feels comfortable, sleek, with pretty colors, and accessorized with more color. What I want more this year is comfort and ease in the clothing on my body.

Walking was on my list last year. But in September 2018, I sprained my ankle, and was in physical therapy for a long time. I’m a lot better, but these days am preferring the gym or the yoga studio to loads of walking. Paying attention to where I still need more healing seems like not a bad thing. Also, working on strength and flexibility through different exercises is where my happy place is (for now).

Cycling was and is and will always be on my list of things that make me feel good physically. But these days I’m letting myself spend more time on other activities before turning to cycling more. Now that spring is here and temps are rising, I’ll be outside on two wheels a lot. It’s been a nice change of pace, however, to try out other ways to move and work my body.

A new addition this year has been weight training. I’m still in the early stages of working with a trainer, but so far I love it– working with free weights feels elemental and pure. I really enjoy how I can tune in to my body when deadlifting, benching, etc. I am still in the process of putting it in place in regular rotation, but I’m getting there.

Finally (and I’m not putting out a content warning, but I will talk about my eating here):

I have had to change some of my eating habits because of a health problem (I had pancreatitis recently). This different way of eating in response to and because of that diagnosis has resulted in my feeling a lot better than I had in a long time. I’ll blog about this sometime, complete with content warning. But for now, let me just say that some health-enforced changes have resulted in my body feeling a lot better. Yay!

Are you doing anything that is making you feel luscious, yummy, energized, comforted, serene, on fire, ready for anything? Let us know– we’d love to hear it.

Two pairs of legs in blue tights intermingled-- I don't know what activity this is, but it seems like a happy image, so here you go.
Two pairs of legs in blue tights intermingled– I don’t know what activity this is, but it seems like a happy image, so here you go.
fitness · yoga

Gonna fly now (sort of): aerial silks yoga and me

Last week was my spring break. I wasn’t traveling anywhere warm, so I decided to create my own heat through some new physical activities. I blogged about parkour class already, and am here to testify that you can work up a serious head of steam in a one hour class. 

Another class I’ve had my eye on has been aerial silks yoga. It’s basically yoga done with or in a silky nylon hammock that’s suspended from the ceiling. There are also loop handholds for more acrobatic moves.  

The yoga studio with an array of yoga hammocks, mats underneath them.
The yoga studio with an array of yoga hammocks, mats underneath them.

I went to a beginner class, required before attempting serious flipping around. I was the oldest person in the room by at least 25 years, I think. I was also the heaviest. I checked out the weight limits for the hammocks— they can hold 1000 pounds. Yay engineers! 

There seem to be two ways the silks function in these classes:

1) as a hammock. There’s helpful instruction for getting in and out of it (including backflipping with legs going over the head, feet landing on the ground. I tried it and it actually worked). You sit or lie down, with legs in many different configurations. For restorative classes the hammock turns into a cocoon, which may or may not feel soothing (I didn’t particularly enjoy being closed inside, but many people love it). 

One of my classmates lying in a purple yoga hammock.
One of my classmates lying in a purple yoga hammock.

2) twisted or bunched up, serving as a seat or swing or bind. We did downward dog this way, swinging forward and backward , then sat on the silk swing and lifted our legs to hang upside down. The instructor gave clear and very specific step by step instructions,  demoed the more complicated-looking moves, and came by to help us, making adjustments.

Some classmates getting into hammocks, with the one on the right bunching up hers.
Some classmates getting into hammocks, with the one on the right bunching up hers.

Some things I liked:

  • the novelty of using the hammock for movement 
  • Hanging upside down
  • The intense core exercises (at least in principle…)
  • Flipping around generally 

Some things I didn’t like:

  • The swaying motion of the hammock—I tend towards queasiness and sometimes felt vaguely so. This is common in their classes, and they have Altoid mints strategically placed all over the studio. Popping one took care of it for me.  Again YMMV. 
  • The lack of yoga-ness in the experience. Of course, it was my first time, so I was more preoccupied with getting this leg over there or making sure my hands were properly positioned on the silks than cultivating mindfulness. But, it just didn’t seem geared toward the body awareness I get in yoga classes. 

In the ropes yoga classes I’ve taken at Artemis, my local beloved studio, there’s a lot of instruction and demo to help you use the ropes to get in position. But once you are in position, the focus turns to the body— where you are in space, how you can choose to shift in small ways to feel differently, and how you might respond internally to the physical state you’re in. This is really why I love ropes yoga— it takes over some of the work my body usually does so I can shift my awareness and explore gravity, weight, weightlessness and the feelings those things provoke. 

I bought a two-class pass for aerial silks yoga, so next time I’ll try out their deep stretching class.    Will report back.

Readers, have you tried aerial silks yoga?  Ropes yoga? What do you think?  I’m feeling more than meh but less than whee.  I’d love to hear about your experiences.

fitness · nutrition

In remembrance of eggs past, or: not bad egg news again!

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the breakfast table: eggs are in the news again, and this time the news ain’t good. This week the nutritional research ouija board people once again asked the eternal question:

The ouija board, asking if eggs are good or bad.
The ouija board, asking if eggs are good or bad.

And the answer (for this week) is:

The ouija board, asking if eggs are good or bad.
A woman in front of a purportedly crystal ball, seeing the badness of the dietary cholesterol found in eggs.

Many readers of this blog know that this is definitely not my first eggs rodeo. I follow egg news very closely and make sure Fit is a Feminist Issue followers are always informed of the latest in good-egg-bad-egg research. Here are some of my previous forays into ovo-journalism:

The new US dietary guidelines, or just tell me– are eggs good or bad this year?

Fake egg news? More on the eggs-good-eggs-bad controversy

Tracy has also written often on food morality: not demonizing foods, avoiding all-or-nothing thinking about nutrition.

Okay, time to give y’all the 411 on the newest egg nutrition results. There is a serious question that nutrition researchers have been wrestling with for decades: what, if any, relationship is there between dietary cholesterol intake and mortality risk? The answer is (as it always is in real science, especially nutrition science): it’s complicated. Here’s some background from the New York Times coverage of the new study, that came out in JAMA on Friday:

Eggs are a leading source of dietary cholesterol, which once was thought to be strongly related to blood cholesterol levels and heart disease. Older studies suggesting that link led to nutrition guidelines almost a decade ago that recommended consuming no more than 300 milligrams of cholesterol daily; one egg contains about 186 milligrams.

Newer research questioned that relationship, finding that saturated fats contribute more to unhealthy levels of blood cholesterol that can lead to heart problems.

The latest U.S. government nutrition guidelines, from 2015, removed the strict daily cholesterol limit. While eating as little cholesterol as possible is still advised, the recommendations say eggs can still be part of a healthy diet, as a good source of protein, along with lean meat, poultry, beans and nuts. Nutrition experts say the new study is unlikely to change that advice.

So what’s new about this study? Here’s what CNN had to say about it:

The researchers examined data from six US study groups including more than 29,000 people followed for 17½ years on average. Over the follow-up period, a total of 5,400 cardiovascular events occurred, including 1,302 fatal and nonfatal strokes, 1,897 incidents of fatal and nonfatal heart failure and 113 other heart disease deaths. An additional 6,132 participants died of other causes.

Consuming an additional 300 milligrams of dietary cholesterol per day was associated with a 3.2% higher risk of heart disease and a 4.4% higher risk of early death, Zhong’s analysis of the data showed. And each additional half an egg consumed per day was associated with a 1.1% higher risk of cardiovascular disease and 1.9% higher risk of early death due to any cause, the researchers found.

Here’s where things get a bit interesting and more complicated. News sources are not consistent in their reporting of these results. The New York Times said this about the results:

The researchers calculated that those who ate 300 milligrams of cholesterol daily — about 1 ½ eggs — were 17 percent more likely to develop heart disease than whose who didn’t eat eggs.

So which is it? Eating 300mg of dietary cholesterol a day, or 300mg MORE of dietary cholesterol (than what?) a day is bad for me? I think the New York Times got it wrong this time.

I went to the original paper, which is long (15 pages, a lot for a medical journal), and has loads of tables with loads of data. In the discussion section (which is always what you want to read when tackling these technical papers), they raise a bunch of issues that bear directly on how to interpret their results, how to understand their results in contrast with eggs-good research results, and what they think is really going on with respect to eggs, dietary cholesterol consumption, and mortality risk:

  • previous meta-studies have been all over the place, finding positive, negative and no correlations between more frequent (more than one a day) egg consumption and risks of death from various diseases.
  • Apparently egg consumption has been associated with low physical activity, smoking, and “unhealthy dietary patterns” (according to the paper). So it’s hard to separate egg consumption effects from these other effects.
  • The associations found between egg consumption and mortality risk were modest, but statistically significant.
  • Researchers claim a dose-response effect of egg consumption, which means the more eggs you eat, the higher the effect.

Their discussion raised some questions for me:

  • Do the researchers think there is a “safe/normal” intake amount of dietary cholesterol? They say the mean intake in the US is 289mg/day, and that taking in 300mg more per day (which would be 1.5 eggs, including half the extra yolk) increases all-cause mortality. But what is their nutritional goal here?
  • When researchers say egg consumption should be reduced, what do they have in mind for its substitutes? Eggs are a big source of animal protein, and lots of other sources have more saturated fat, which has its own scary back story.
  • As always, I am wondering to what extent statistical or research significance translates to clinical or medical significance?
  • All eating happens in social and cultural and economic contexts– if you ask people to reduce eating X, will substituting Y make things better or worse?

What do you think, dear readers? Is this new egg news throwing a monkey wrench into your brunch plans? Are you vegetarian or vegan and don’t care? Is this a reason to increase our vegetarian or vegan eating? Are you inclined to just turn the page and dismiss the nutritional research as a mass of confusion? Should we short-sell egg futures (I don’t know what that means, exactly, but I think it sounds business-y)? I’d love to hear from you.

3 eggs in jars of water-- one bad floater, one so-so lurker, and one good one lying at the bottom of the jar.
3 eggs in jars of water– one bad floater, one so-so lurker, and one good one lying at the bottom of the jar.