Vicarious snowshoeing– if I can’t go, I can at least report…

The weather in the Northeast has been extra-frigid for the past few weeks, with a brief warming interlude this week.  In Boston the highs were in the single digits, which is… cooooold.  We had also just gotten more snow, so outside was sparkly-white and… coooold.  But this is what gear is for, right?

I have been stuck inside with pneumonia.  But I did get email from my friend Michele, who was intrepidly planning an outdoor snowshoeing expedition.  And she gathered together a group of ten well-outfitted folks for the trip.  They dubbed themselves the “Tundra Ten”.  Yes, Canadian friends, we know it’s way way colder there.  But it was fun and motivating all the same.

Here they are, ten geared-up maids all in a row:

Ten showshoers, all in a row, outside in the woods.
Ten showshoers, all in a row, outside in the woods.


Here’s a shot with a little more detail:

Ten snowshowers, leaning out from their row.
Ten snowshowers, leaning out from their row.

This reminds me a little bit of another intrepid group:

The children from The Sound of Music, singing and leaning, in formation.
The children from The Sound of Music, singing and leaning, in formation.

As far as I know, there wasn’t any singing on their snowy hike, but here’s what they had to say about it.

Rachel: It was 3 degrees this morning (that’s -16 Celsius, my friends), with a windchill of hello, Antarctica. Maybe it was 5 by the time we hit the trail. I expected at least some last minute “yeah, I went outside and came right back in, staying here” messages, but there were none. Nobody even complained she was cold. Hard core. And the power of movement!

The weather was cold enough that you had to treat it with respect. I like that, when you have to think about your environment and not be too nonchalant. It doesn’t only happen in winter — there’s the same slight anxiety with anything that’s pushing your limits a little. That said, with appropriate dress and pretty constant movement it wasn’t hard to stay comfortable, and the sun-shimmered snow was gorgeous. Totally worth it!

Sandra: I’ve always loved cold weather, snow, shorter days, and the whole winter season in general. Being out in the cold really makes me happy. I also love that I know so many women who want to get out there in the cold and will invite me along (I’m usually the slow friend). Michele did a great job of organizing us and everyone just spoke up about what they needed or had to share. About 2/3 of the way through, I was in “are we there yet” mode but I was more tired than cold at that point. It was nice playing in the woods with such a fun group of people!

Jenny:  It was my first time snowshoeing with borrowed snowshoes and poles. And what a blast.  I wasn’t sure that I’d be warm enough but with my hand warmers and feet warmers and a wool neck warmer I was the perfect temperature. I was in the back so I didn’t have to break any new trail which was fine for my first time. I’m now considering buying some snowshoes!

Stephanie D: I’ve only been snowshoeing a couple of times, but I jumped at the opportunity to get outside after being cooped up for a couple of days in the snow storm. I was admittedly a little nervous about the extreme temperatures that were being predicted, but with a little planning in regards to clothing and gear – focusing on layers and skin coverage – I really wasn’t cold at all! It was fantastic to get together with a group of fun and like-minded individuals and to enjoy all the snow we have. Finding ways to get outside really makes all the difference in enduring such a long winter season in New England.

Bonus bargain gear note: Susan A won the prize for best price/value mittens:  $18 from a hardware store.  Here they are:

Axeman outdoor mittens, in yellow leather.
Axeman outdoor mittens, in yellow leather.

Since then, we’ve had a serious warming spell with rain, washing away the snow.  Today is back to winter cold– it’s 14 F, or -10 C now.  I’m on the mend, and hoping expecting to get back out there for wintry woodsy fun.  Until then, I can at least read about it…

What have you been doing during the period of frigid cold (if your neck of the woods has experienced it?)




fitness · health

Waiting it out on the sidelines of fitness

This week I write to you from my arm chair and ottoman, sitting grumpily on the sidelines of fitness activity.  I’m bummed to report that I have pneumonia.  I got sick with a cold December 22, traveled to see family for the holidays, and came back to Boston sicker.  I went to my health care provider (a wonderful physician’s assistant named Lauren, who works for Family Practice Group in Arlington, MA.  I love them.)  Lauren checked me out, gave me an inhaler for wheezing and cough syrup for the cough, and said I should come back if I’m not starting to feel better in a few days.

I went back a few days later, feeling much worse.  Turns out, I have pneumonia.  That word is scary– it conjures up images for me of Dickensian figures in inexorable decline, headed for the hereafter.  The reality is, for people who are lucky enough to have general good health and good insurance (like me), pneumonia means antibiotics (along with probiotics to help restore gut flora) and time– time to rest.  And rest some more.  And keep resting.

It’s shocking to me how much rest I need right now.  I am sleeping 10–11 hours a night.  I get up, make coffee and toast.  I look over email and do some (very late) morning online reading.  Maybe I do one light chore, like 3 minutes of dishes, or folding 5 items of clothing and putting them away.  Then I’m tired again and have to go rest again. Seriously.

It’s getting better each day, and at my followup appointment Friday, my vital signs were much improved, my fevers were over, and I was on the mend.  I asked Lauren when she thought I could cross country ski.  She paused, took a breath, and then said, “well, we recommend you restart light activity in about a week after your vitals/fever have improved.  Cross country skiing is not light activity.  Start with walking around the block.  I think that is going to tire you out next weekend.”

Okay.  Got it.  I need to rest.  So I’m resting. A lot.  This will pass, and I’ll recover completely– this is a great boon and I feel quite lucky.  But it’s also hard, as we are constantly told that the sidelines are not the cool place to be.

caption reads "You don't make progress standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining", Shirley Chisholm.
caption reads “You don’t make progress standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining”, Shirley Chisholm.
Caption reads "Don't sit on the sidelines. Life is either a great adventure or nothing." Helen Keller
Caption reads “Don’t sit on the sidelines. Life is either a great adventure or nothing.” Helen Keller


The sidelines are never portrayed as a happy place.  I mean, look at this guy:


Professional American football player, sitting on the sidelines, head in hands. Not looking happy.
Professional American football player (Walter Payton), sitting on the sidelines, head in hands, not looking happy.


This little girl is by herself on the sidelines of a kids' soccer game. She's featured in an article about how we shouldn't feel sorry for ourselves. Sigh...
This little girl is by herself on the sidelines of a kids’ soccer game. She’s featured in an article about how we shouldn’t feel sorry for ourselves, but instead get out there and experience life. Sigh…


So the big message is that sitting out a round or two and hanging out on the sidelines while the action is taking place is not a good thing.

But of course this is absurd.  In this blog we write a lot about injury, sickness, ability and disability, aging, and other changes that happen in all of our lives.  Taking time out, taking the space and resources and support and company we need in order to make the sidelines a healing place– this is also a feminist issue.

To me, that little girl above doesn’t look unhappy at all.  She’s interested, taking in all the action, and biding her time.  She’ll be getting out there sooner or later.  And so will I.

See y’all back in the game soon.

Two female pro basketball players, about to high-five, when one is coming into the game.
Two female pro basketball players, about to high-five, when one is coming back into the game.



fitness · holidays

My plans for 2018: move, write, reflect, repeat

2017 has felt like a blur and a whirlwind.  I have felt disorganized and caught up short by utterly expected life events and pummeled by unexpected world events.  I’m not the only one– We have all been buffeted about, and many of us  battered by what’s unfolded this year.

In December I wrote about turning inward, slowing down, and giving in to the season.  In part I was inspired by a short and sensible book called The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy, written by two smart, sensible, feminist Canadian academics (of course!).  Here’s a bit about it from an article in Inside Higher Ed:
…the discussion focuses on the links between time, commitments and personal stress, and emphasizes trying to achieve a sense of “flow” or “timelessness,” which presents as creativity (and productivity). How to get into the flow? Avoid or eliminate to the extent possible environmental factors that interfere with creativity, the book says. Protect “a time and a place for timeless time” and continually remind yourself “that this is not self-indulgent but rather crucial to intellectual work.”
I really like this approach to professional life.  I also know that this is not open to most people, and I feel grateful and lucky to be able to make use of a few of their suggestions for making my work environment a more creative and timeless one.
But this also struck a chord with me about my active movement life.  What bliss!  Imagine a timeless bike ride, or swim, or walk in the woods!
Usually we shoehorn in activity, giving up sleep and/or putting off household tasks, a move that makes us pay later.  Instead I’m toying with the paradoxical idea of planning my timelessness– setting aside time/money for things I really want to do and experience, among people I enjoy moving and chatting and stretching and pedaling and sweating with.
Herewith my scheduled timeless event plans for 2018:
  • March cycling trip to Arizona with Janet, Steph, and Kathy
  • Early June Bikes Not Bombs charity ride in Boston (with whomever wants to join me)
  • Late July PWA Friends for Life charity ride in Toronto with Samantha, Sarah and friends
  • Early September (Labor Day) weekend bike ride with Rachel to VT from Easthampton MA (and back, too)
In order to be able to complete and enjoy these flowy and physical experiences, I will:
  • Go to yoga twice a week every week
  • Ride trainer twice a week every week (yeah I need more than that, but I am committing to this right now)
  • Ride outside once a week, weather permitting, or xc ski or snowshoe, different weather permitting
  • Do everyday movement on teaching days– e.g. park far (like, really far) away from office every time I drive to campus
  • Track all of this activity honestly
  • Reflect and write on how things unfolded  compassionately

So that’s what I’ll be doing.  It won’t go smoothly.  These things never do.  But it will go, and I will spend time in it, record it, reflect on it, and go back to it, over and over again.  Repetition is the soul of life.

I know that’s not the saying.  But it seems true enough.

What about you?  What do you want from your body and your activities and your movements and your timelessness in 2018?

eating · fitness

Comfort eating– it’s not gonna kill you, and may even be beneficial (says science)

The holiday season is in full swing now, replete with holiday foods.  At my sister’s house, this means a big ham, loads of cookies, pimento cheese for crackers, and other really rich foods that we don’t eat much of other times of year.

The holiday season is also hectic.  For me this means parties and fun holiday events, the frenetic pace of turbo-grading, getting ready to fly to see family with a large checked bag of gifts (trying not to forget my toothbrush), and then hanging out with them, not in my home eating and activity environment.

Enter comfort eating.  I kind of hate this term, because it’s super judgy.  I mean, we eat.  Food comforts us sometimes.  We enjoy that feeling of satisfaction from eating the food.  What’s the problem?

Health and medicine folks often talk about comfort eating as eating in response to loneliness, anxiety, and sadness.  The idea is that comfort eating represents a mis-match of sorts:  we feel a certain way, but our response is confused.  Instead of eating, we should (according to one of three gajillion websites on this):

  • phone a friend (or text if phoning is even more stressful)
  • relax and stretch
  • write in a journal
  • sleep
  • rant
  • make a list
  • breathe

Right.  Oddly enough, plopping down to write in a journal seems like a less feasible and efficient response than a brownie when I’m at yet another party, overtired and under-exercised.

But it’s comfort eating!  It’s so bad for you!  You MUST find something else to do, as it will kill you in the end.  I mean, this is serious– so serious that the internet is filled with all sorts of lists containing every possible thing you might do INSTEAD of eating something to comfort you.  And their ludricrousness is in proportion to the panic that the very idea of comfort eating provokes. Like this:

A big list, saying DO THIS instead of snacking, with sublists-- need something to do?, and are you really hungry?.
A big list, saying DO THIS instead of snacking, with sublists– need something to do?, and are you really hungry?.

Someone must be really worried about what might happen if people got it into their heads that comfort eating was a viable response to, well, discomfort in their lives.  And the idea that I should do ANYTHING– including learning 10 yoga poses or cleaning out my closet– rather than eat a donut says more about the list-makers than the comfort eaters themselves, don’t you think?

Is comfort eating  all that bad for us?  As usual, the answer is complicated.  But a new study came out this month by UCLA researcher Janet Tomiyama and her colleagues, concluding that

“Comfort eating—irrespective of consuming high-fat/sugar food—may be associated with reduced (my emphasis) mortality in older adults because it may promote greater body mass, and greater body mass is associated with lower risk of mortality (me again with the emphasis) in nationally representative samples. Interventionists might consider both beneficial and detrimental aspects of comfort eating across the lifespan.”

Yes.  this.  I had to read it through carefully again myself.  Here’s the deal.

We know that people of every age engage in comfort eating.  It reduces stress responses. There’s also some evidence that it may contribute to poorer metabolic health (i.e. insulin resistance, increased risk of type 2 diabetes, some other conditions as well).

Less research has been done on the effects of comfort eating in older adults (generally this means over 50).  Tomiyama and her group’s results are surprising to the general public, as they show both lower all-cause mortality risk for comfort eating among older adults, and  they show that high-fat/high-sugar content consumption doesn’t increase the risk:

…regardless of how much high-fat/sugar food participants consumed, greater comfort eating was related to lower odds of all-cause mortality because it was associated with greater body mass,(my emphasis again) which may be important for longevity in older adults.

The paper itself is pretty interesting, so check it out here if you like.  They raise a bunch of questions, too, like:

  • What are the psychological and physiological effects of comfort eating via meals vs. snacks?
  • Are the stress-reduction effects of comfort eating (e.g. reduced cortisol production) more important for health in later life than earlier in the lifespan?
  • Do older adults tend to comfort eat healthier energy-dense foods than younger people do? If so, why?

Of course, as they say, all this is strictly academic… What does it mean for us at this time in the winter season?  Not so much.  We do what we do, and you do you– I’m not offering any advice at all.

But science is saying clearly in this case that comfort eating– a ubiquitous, feared,  much vilified practice– may actually play some adaptive health role for older people.

Of course we can all own our particular eating practices, and can tell people to mind their own beeswax if they try to steer us away from the cookies and toward the celery, citing health concerns.  But it doesn’t hurt to have science on our side.










fitness · winter

Welcoming winter– a solstice walk

Today is December 21– winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere (congratulations on the summer solstice, friends Down Under!) But here, especially in New England where I live, it’s the time of deepest darkness.  Usually I dread, resist, and do battle with the decreasing light, cursing the darkness until it starts to ebb and we get more sun.

This year has been different.  I’ve almost welcomed the dimness, the purples and indigos of the sky.  Even the long shadows at noon, with the dark yellow light, haven’t made me sad or resentful.  This year, the dimming down has fit in with my need to slow down psychically, physically, emotionally.  And I must say, it’s felt like one advantage of slowing down has been that there’s time and space to notice more.

I’ve noticed my need to be with friends, and spent more time with them this fall.

I’ve noticed how much I love to hear live music, and have been to some concerts.

I’ve noticed how much I like quiet sometimes, and have been nestled all snug in my bed earlier than usual.

I’ve noticed my need to commemorate the season, with others.

So, I organized a winter solstice walk today.  Two friends, Kim and Nina, who were free before sunset (which was 4:15pm today) came with me to Lone Tree Hill, part of the Belmont Conservation Lands.  We took a leisurely walk through partly snowy woods, down a tall tree allee, along a big meadow, and back down again.  Here we are:

Catherine, Kim, and NIna, all bundled up in winter clothing for a winter solstice walk.
Catherine, Kim, and NIna, all bundled up in winter clothing for a winter solstice walk.


I’m wearing my head lamp, which we needed on the way back.

The beauty of the day is hard to describe, and these pictures won’t do it justice, but here’s trying:

Walking at dusk is slow; you have to pay attention to your footing, and make sure you take the correct turns through woods.  We lingered, and I was sorry to leave.

Tomorrow there will be more light.  I’ll welcome it for sure, but am really glad I got to experience the shortest day with friends, in the woods, and now, with you, dear readers.

How do you feel about the shortest day, which is now behind us?  Are you enjoying your longest day?  Let us know.

fitness · nutrition

Meat vs. veg: when headlines can be misleading (or actually not true)

A couple of weeks ago, a new study came out, comparing forms of vegetarian diets with forms of meat-eating diets; the study itself is found here.  Probably all readers of this blog are automatically a little skeptical when they see a splashy headline with new, strong advice that goes against the prevailing wisdom in fields of health and nutrition.  Not that the so-called “prevailing wisdom” is always wise, or even prevailing– there’s lots of dissent and several conflicting theories about nutrition and health.

However, in the case the comparative benefits of vegetarian diets, compared with meat-eating ones, there is prevailing wisdom:  vegetarian diets are generally better for us on multiple health and nutrition fronts.

Just to provide one (of hundreds) of standard reports that support the health benefits of vegetarian diets, check out this World Health Organization report from the International Agency for research on cancer.  Here’s the bit that gets at the meat of the matter:

After thoroughly reviewing the accumulated scientific literature, a Working Group of 22 experts from 10 countries convened by the IARC Monographs Programme classified the consumption of red meat as probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A), based on limited evidence that the consumption of red meat causes cancer in humans and strong mechanistic evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect. This association was observed mainly for colorectal cancer, but associations were also seen for pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer.

So, meat is probably carcinogenic to humans.  Well, that’s not good. Of course, real science and real science policy are nuanced, so here’s their summary recommendation:

These findings further support current public health recommendations to limit intake of meat,” says Dr Christopher Wild, Director of IARC. “At the same time, red meat has nutritional value. Therefore, these results are important in enabling governments and international regulatory agencies to conduct risk assessments, in order to balance the risks and benefits of eating red meat and processed meat and to provide the best possible dietary recommendations.

This is not really news, but of course good to hear from a knowledgeable and trustworthy source.

But then comes this new study, which was reported like this:

Caption: New study shows a vegetarian diet is associated with poorer health
Caption: New study shows a vegetarian diet is associated with poorer health


What?  How could this be?  Here’s what the news report said:

Interestingly, while there were positive benefits associated with vegetarianism, the group concludes the following: 

Overall, our findings reveal that vegetarians report poorer health, follow medical treatment more frequently, have worse preventive health care practices, and have a lower quality of life… Our results have shown that vegetarians report chronic conditions and poorer subjective health more frequently.

They also discovered “significantly higher” incidences of cancer in vegetarians, as well as increased rates of anxiety disorder and depression, although they note that this is inconsistent with other research. They did point out another study which shows an increased risk of mental disorders in vegetarians. In general, vegetarians suffer from more chronic conditions and take more medication than even occasional meat eaters. 

Wait a minute.  Did the study REALLY show all this?

No.  Not if you’re asking me. Or, rather, not if you’re asking some friends of mine who are much more familiar with the research on vegetarianism than I am (thanks, Angus and Bob!)  One sent me a laundry list of problems with the original Austrian study.  Here’s his list:

Problems with this study include:

  • Small sample
  • Questionnaire-based
  • Lack of distinction between vegetarians for ideological reasons (e.g. animal suffering and environmental reasons) v those that may be vegetarian on medical advice or due to self-treatment due to pre-existing health conditions
  • Many data points are subjective (self-declared)
  • They make some weird claims (a Veg diet is ‘related to’ less frequent alcohol use)
  • There are a huge number of confounders given the association of other factors related to veggie diets – I don’t think they are able to fully account for these – especially given sample size.

The other friend sent me these comments:

  • First, there is — as the authors suggest — evidence pointing the other direction with respect to each of their specific conclusions. So that should adjust our confidence level a bit.
  • Second, it’s pretty plausible that because foods aren’t fortified in a way that assumes that people are going to eat vegetarian or vegan, some less health-conscious vegetarians and vegans are going to suffer from nutritional deficits that will negatively impact their health. It isn’t clear how much of the effect this would explain, but it helps us think about the fact that there are political realities that are relevant to these nutritional studies. 
  • Third, the authors don’t consider the fact that some people may be switching to vegetarian vegan diets for health reasons — that is, because they have some health issue they are trying to address via dietary change, which suggests that they may well be less healthy than the average member of the population to begin with.
  • Fourth, and most importantly, the authors of the study lump together strict vegans, vegetarians, and pescatarians. Given that many vegetarians and pescatarians eat diets that are still fairly heavy in animal products, it wouldn’t be surprising if any health benefits of a strict vegan diet were invisible in the data.
All of us immediately thought that this was an underpowered study whose results were questionable in large part because of the odd (to us) was the researchers chose to divide up the study groups:  vegetarians; sometime meat-eaters who eat lots of fruits/veggies; regular meat-eaters whose fruit/veggie intake we don’t know about; meat eaters who (probably, but who knows) eat lots of meat.
And as for the results, all of us know that there are lots of confounders here— that is, there are lots of explanations for the data that involve known factors that have nothing directly to do with meat/veg intake.
You may still be wondering:  what’s the most healthy way for me to eat?  Hmmm.  That’s a hard one, in fact too hard for any one study or even group of studies to answer.  We’re all working on eating in ways that seem healthy-to-us based on the best scientific evidence available, taking into account our constraints of taste, cooking abilities, time, money, culture, physical activity needs, ethical principles, etc.  No one has all the answers.  But I do have an answer to this question:  do we now have good reason to think that  vegetarian diets now associated with poorer health?
One word: NO.
One word: NO.





fitness · skiing

Women to women information? Or just mansplaining marketing about athletic gear?

We love our Fit is a Feminist Issue readers and Facebook followers– they are always letting us know about interesting, vexing, puzzling or useful stories.  One of the latest involves the Womentowomen site for Blizzard skis.  It purports to provide women with needed information so they will feel less intimidated when going to purchase skis.  Here’s their blurb on Facebook:

This is a post from the Blizzard Facebook page offering to help women understand what skis they should buy from Blizzard, and showing a variety of pastel colors of ski offerings.
This is a post from the Blizzard Facebook page offering to help women understand what skis they should buy from Blizzard, and showing a variety of pastel colors of ski offerings.

The responses from women skiers ranged from eye-rolling and sighing to comments that showed that no, they don’t need any terminology breakdowns; they got this.  The main thrust was that Blizzard offers no terminology tutorial in its men-specific or general information sites; why target women particularly when it sells to all levels of skiers of all genders?

I looked a little more at their marketing, and the soft-soap/hand holding approach for women seems popular in their marketing department.  Let’s take a quick look at the copy for two sets of skis, both designed for expert skiers.  First, the men’s skis:

Ad copy for men's ski Rustler 10-- "the ski of choice for those looking to have fun while pushing themselves to ski better and explore all corners of the hill in any snow conditions".
Ad copy for men’s ski Rustler 10– “the ski of choice for those looking to have fun while pushing themselves to ski better and explore all corners of the hill in any snow conditions”.

Yeah, alright!  Let’s do some shredding, dude.

Now to the women’s ski, also designed for expert skiers:

Ad copy for the women's expert ski, including thes snippets: "fun and forgiving, while offering up stability and versatility... confidence inspiring, elevated skiing experience... Who wants to work hard when you can play harder?"
Ad copy for the women’s expert ski, including these snippets: “fun and forgiving, while offering up stability and versatility… confidence inspiring, elevated skiing experience… Who wants to work hard when you can play harder?”

Argh.  Really?  The expert women skiers are supposed to respond to “confidence-building”, “fun and forgiving”, and buy a ski because they don’t want to work hard?

I don’t think this woman is looking not to work hard; do you?

A woman skiing in deep powder at Alta in Utah.
A woman skiing in deep powder at Alta in Utah.

This woman doesn’t need any forgiveness from her skis– she is telling them exactly what to do and is in charge.

A woman in an orange ski jacket carving  turn down the side of a mountain.
A woman in an orange ski jacket carving turn down the side of a mountain.


Of course not all ski marketing treats expert women skiers as in need of confidence-building.  Here’s an ad I would definitely respond to (if I were a downhill skier):

A female skier headed down a very seriously steep descent; the ad copy reads "the Lange RX 110 is for an expert skier who pushes her limits in the steeps."
A female skier headed down a very seriously steep descent; the ad copy reads “the Lange RX 110 is for an expert skier who pushes her limits in the steeps.”

Yeah!  That’s what I’m talking about.  I want to see women skiing down scary steeps, taking air, navigating drops, and pushing their limits.  We want adrenaline rushes (at least in aspirational marketing material) as much as the men do.  Or at least we want it as an option.

So enough already with the namby-pamby “this is easy” and “let us explain this to you” business.  Give us thrills and chills and hard-driving rock soundtracks.  And less pastel-colored gear, while you’re at it.