Archive for February, 2012

2012 vs. 2011

The last year has been a bell-shaped curve for me, in some ways. Certainly my conditioning is back down where it was last year, and I’m pretty sure I’m in exactly the same clothes. But in my head, it’s a sea change.

This time last year, I was so frustrated, so unhappy with derby and my own skills/performance, but unwilling to leave it and spiraling about what to do next. I turned to the gym to “fix” me, made a sort of enemy out of my body, and spent the next 6 months mostly setting really high bars and constantly chiding myself for not reaching them, chasing after league- and team-mates who could then and will always run and skate circles around me. It wasn’t enough that I did what was asked, or that I was improving, or working hard — very hard. I found incredible pain in the unchanging view of people’s backs (when they were even in sight), and in what felt to me like constant failure. It’s a matter of perspective, of course; I was upright, skating, playing, rostered, voted captain. I was still in the game. But I felt, week after week, like someone had made some big mistake in giving me those spots.

So I hit the gym a little too hard, and wound up with a relatively minor overuse injury that nevertheless kept me from doing the half-marathon in May that I’d registered and trained for. I trained through it, but was so frustrated by the way it limited what was still such a new routine, and what I knew was an unsustainable schedule. But I pushed on. Bouts, bouts, bouts. And the combination of derby drama and derby suckage kept pushing me, making me want to hide at a training camp (yay, Blood & Thunder!) until I got stronger. I nurtured that thought often. It was scary, facing that pack every week, wondering what feelings chasing them would bring up.

It wasn’t all unhealthy stuff, though. I did find all sorts of awesome good-for-me things in that time: It turns out that I love to cycle (though not so much the indoor cycle trainer), and I’ve gotten so much out of training with a group of strong, amazing women I met through one of the local bike shops; I had a blast creating and living through MegaDay (a 9-hour training day of boot camp, running, biking, Pilates Reformer, sled sprints, treadmill hills and weights), even though it came from a not-so-healthy headspace; I still love running (slowly) when it’s good (and it’s usually better than I think it’s going to be); and I learned once and for all that I do my best when I have a coach or trainer nearby to push me beyond what I think I’m capable of. And I definitely learned that I have to stay away from the scale when my thoughts start turning on me.

Because I still see myself in two very different, mutually-exclusive ways: the couch potato and the athlete. Unhealthy and healthy, weak and strong, hidden and brazen. That duality is always there, and it means that derby is a constant challenge. Is the athlete showing up today, ready to work? And when she does, then it’s easy to lose focus on *my* goals, *my* pace, and start comparing my skills to someone else’s. One of these things is not like the other. Worst game ever.

So here we are in late February 2012. The draft was kind to me, and I’m more grateful for it than anyone can imagine. And I’m the better for a year of overtraining and a few too many post-practice sobfests. I’m aware now, if nothing else, of how much my own framing of derby situations affect my mood. I learned a bit about how to get more out of shorter workouts. I have a few more tricks up my sleeve with respect to both nutrition and training (and recovery), and I have a much better sense of the landscape of my own brain when it comes to how all this stuff makes me feel — and how damaging bad feelings can be to my training. That’s the biggest lesson of the year, I think.

So here’s to you, 2012.

May you be filled with positive powerful messages, delicious healthy food, pukeworthy awesome training, more/new amazing derby and cycling peeps, and a hell of a lot of fun.

Oh, and bourbon (of course).


Sharing: Hydration and Other Reading

Nothing’s pissing me off lately.  But that shouldn’t keep me on silent – so here are some things I’ve been reading lately related to derby, fitness, nutrition etc.

First, this piece reporting on a new study from the Journal of Nutrition that showed negative effects on mood and cognition for women who are only mildly dehydrated (1.3%). It wasn’t a study on sports performance or weight loss, but task performance. Very, very interesting.

This piece from NPR earlier in the week (Weight Loss Drugs Face High Hurdles at FDA) had me cursing at the radio more than once, in terms of how it frames the country’s weight problem.

More annoyance in the form of a call to label junk food pathogens.  It’s not that I’m afraid of a nanny state (really, where are we drawing the line here between what’s paternalistic/maternalistic and what’s not? Government has that role already. Now let’s get to the substantive objections to the legislation/regulation at hand– because there are plenty.), but I just think this is still focusing on the wrong part of the problem.  You don’t fix a dependence on alcohol by outlawing alcohol, or by figuring out how to medicate their alcohol receptors into blindness, so why are we approaching weight that way? Weight can be both an individual and a social challenge, and despite the fact that it has serious consequences for medical care, it’s not a disease you can drug up or a tumor you can cut out or stitch up, and I’m sick of hearing the medical/health profession talk as if it were.

But there’s some uplifting reading, too:

A great piece at Derby Life: Am I Really an Athlete? (from Luludemon) – on being your own kind of derby-playing athlete.

And another from the Harrisburg Examiner, If Derby Were Easy (from Kristie Grey) – along the lines of my “shut up, little voice”, and how so much of derby is a mental challenge.

And on the homefront, we’re heading into another draft at the end of the week, this time for home teams. I’m so brand-spankin-new to this league, I shouldn’t have any expectations here–nobody even knows who I am. I don’t even know the teams well enough to know where I ought to be. I’ll be content no matter what happens. But I can’t help having some hopes.

No Pass, No Penalty

So I didn’t end up making the league’s WFTDA charter / AB team, and that’s totally ok with me. Though I would love to practice with that group on a regular basis, I’m not playing at that level right now. But still — so glad I went through the tryouts, and I’ll look forward to doing it again in May or June when they repeat the assessments. The environment was demanding and pushed me to work harder, and I’m grateful for that experience.

But even more than that, it was an experience that again confirmed how great a fit this league is for me.

Something Completely Different: Just Do It

My recent posts have been driven by a certain rantiness related to body image and media messages about women’s bodies and shame: one that I could neither contain nor fully articulate. The feeling has been brewing for the last couple years, renewed every month when the new Women’s Health magazine landed in the mailbox. I could swear that it was once full of general healthy-living tips and recipes, and now it seems more an instruction manual on how to attract men. And it makes me want to retch and throw things every time I see it, because it’s really just Cosmo with the word health sprinkled throughout its pages. I continue to be frustrated by the failed promise of most health & wellness magazines/books/websites, wanting to buy something none seem to want to sell: positive messages about women’s health and fitness. I want the best of Runner’s World, Outdoors, Yoga Journal, Clean Eating, Blood and Thunder, and what Women’s Health used to be. But the ad-driven nature of the media industry makes that an impossible dream, I think.

Anyway :-/

When that Herbalife/McDonald’s image came out a few weeks ago, I lost my shit, seriously. I wanted to write about how body size/appearance and health don’t have that much to do with each other, about how we need to stop making assessments and assumptions about other peoples’ bodies, and about how the constant push of the BMI as a metric for health shames women rather than helping them; that it feeds into the same negative body image messages associated with visual media/advertising.

I admittedly ran off those rails; I’m not a health science writer, but I felt like I needed to make some reference to the arguments I was shorthanding. It’s hard to rale against these things without some specific criticism, which I didn’t take the time to make. Instead, I took a ride on the scope creep train and got lost in grumpyville. So this week, it’s back to the more familiar place of writing from feelings.


Heading into our league’s A/B team tryout process this week, I was fairly sanguine — at least about my expectations. I joked that I was treating it as a sort of workshop: a chance to practice and play at a higher level, to actually scrimmage, and to be seen. As a new girl (again, sigh.), I haven’t been seen much by coaches or other skaters, and that’s a disadvantage going into the home team drafts as well. I’m a transfer with some low-level bout experience, and was just starting to find my position in a pack when I moved. But I’m not fast, and my skills and the value I bring to a team aren’t necessarily noticeable right away. I know the game well, I study high-level play, and I see a lot, even if I can’t articulate it immediately. I’m generally more comfortable on skates than in shoes and I’m a hell of a wrecking ball when I connect, but I’m still battling 40 years of conditioning not to get in peoples’ way or knock them down. I’m still learning. I listen and follow instructions in practice, but struggle to act as quickly in the heat of a jam. But perhaps most importantly: I have waited many years to be ready to take on something this intense and demanding and fulfilling, and just being able to play — at all — is a challenge and a triumph and I take it very seriously. Fuck age and weight both, this is when I’m ready. Not when I was 25 and thinner, not when I was 35 and running more regularly, but now. It is what it is, and I’m done waiting in the wings.

Life is too short not to believe you’re worthy of every opportunity that comes your way — that’s the thought that passed through my head as my body cooled down and recovered from the first tryout session. Were there moments I doubted myself? Certainly, and that’s when I’d tell that little voice where to stick it. Again and again.

Move your feet, take a lap, look what you’re already doing — revel for a moment in what your body is capable of. Then get back out there, try things, don’t think. Just push a little more, and open up to whatever’s next.

I’d intended to hold off on posting until the whole tryout process was over, but I’m not that patient. I’m going to move forward regardless of where I end up, and that’s what matters, truly.

Charts and and Metrics (kindly fuck off)

Inspired in part by @Snotdok’s post,  Hippocrates and Hypocrisy: Unhealthy Healthcare (and in part by this piece on some new obesity research), and by my own continuing interest in the subject of health, wellness and fitness (vs. fatness), I offer this rant.

I should start by saying I have a tendency towards more data when it comes to health. I would be the first to volunteer to plug myself in to a Star Trek-style full-body diagnostic, with everything from hormone levels to dietary intake. I’d go through it every morning, seriously. I’d love to see and think about the connections between numbers and feelings. But much of that data can be distracting, too.

I yadda yadda yadda-ed all this last week, but I want to rewind:

UnWellness Central
We’re living in an unhealthy time in American history. We have a troubled food culture, a strong industrial food lobby, a lot of stress on the family food budgets, and it seems like the toll it all takes on the average person is just getting higher.  The fact that shows like The Biggest Loser even exist — that there are thousands of people piling in to try out for it every cycle for how many years now? — is just one example of that toll. Health care providers might suggest cost-related measures, I’m sure, to demonstrate the state of our lifestyle-related health problems. We have a huge diet industry in the U.S. as well, but it doesn’t seem to have made a dent in our health problems, in spite of the increasing emphasis in our media on beauty and physique (see: women’s supposed “health” magazines). I’d have to look at the various statistics much, much more closely, but I would suspect that even if our median isn’t creeping upwards, that those on the high end are rising (not that I like the BMI as a measure, but just how long has the NCHS tracked 50+ as a separate category?).

We live in a culture of polar opposites when it comes to nutrition and physical activity; fast food on every corner and a new USDA plate image that recommends half our dinner plate be made up of fruits and vegetables. Just which one of the fast food joints is supposed to offer that plate? The fast food dominance is not unaided by government, either… but I’ll leave that to others to make those arguments. So back to those opposites: on one end of the spectrum, the popularity of sports like ultra running seem to be rising, and kids’ sports training ramping up to the extent that surgeons are seeing a rise in career-ending injuries to pre-teens. And at the other end, bariatric surgeries are increasing in frequency and obesity continues to rise in children.

But this was supposed to be a post about the BMI chart, our obsession with numbers, and why all those metrics — but particularly the BMI, as a measure of individual health — draw way too much focus for our own good.

Why BMI?
The arguments against the BMI as a measure of individual health are well-stated elsewhere. BMI = Body Mass Index, “a measure of body fat based on height and weight that applies to adult men and women,” according to the NIH.  Simply put, BMI is used by physicians and other health care providers as a proxy for measuring body fat, by dividing weight by height squared (kg/m2) (converted for pounds and inches in the U.S.). That mathematical formula is a rough proxy indeed, as even NIH says that it can over- or under-estimate body fat for athletes and less active people, respectively. The BMI is a measure of mass. Muscle is more dense than fat, so while someone can build muscle and lose fat, if they remain at the same weight their BMI would remain the same. It’s agnostic of body fat, and not an indicator of a person’s fitness or of health or wellness — and it was never intended to be used as such.

The formula itself was created around 1850 by the brilliant Belgian mathematician, astronomer and statistician Lambert Adolphe Jacques Quetelet – and appropriately named The Quetelet Index. Dr. Quetelet was not a health professional and he was not interested in fat or health risk. He was fascinated by the idea of using statistics to draw conclusions about societies – and the “average man.” Some of us will remember the 20th century figure portraying the average family as having 2.4 children. Not only was his formula not health related, it was never meant to be used on individuals, only on populations. — Jon Robinson, PhD, MS, the HAES Files

To an information-obsessed person like me, this just doesn’t compute. Why continue to use a metric that’s so poor?

So what *are* the best measures of health?”  Good question. Health — that’s what we really want to measure, isn’t it? Not girth, not mass, not even body fat, necessarily, but overall health, regardless of weight. Maybe fitness. But we’re measuring individual health; my health. What’s comfortable on me, in terms of body fat % and activity level, may not be comfortable on you. I play roller derby with a BMI of… ok, maybe I’m not ready for that much revelation. It’s not where I want to be, but I do it, and I enjoy the hell out of it, and I’m going to keep doing it in part to build a healthier body.

Outputs vs. Inputs (and I’m not talking about Calories)
BMI and weight are also measures of outputs — results — rather than the inputs of behavior/practices, and I’m slowly coming to believe that putting so much focus on those outputs is misguided. How useful are those goals in motivating a person’s training? The BMI charts set a “normal” range for weight, establishing singular goals for weight loss. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard friends say “I’m going to do X/Y/Z, drop 30/50/100 pounds before summer/the reunion/next year, and then it’ll be so great!”  We all know people who say that. We are people who say that, maybe. I have a friend who has struggled through numerous weight management programs, beginning each time with the goal of getting back to a certain number on the scale; talking always about “dropping the weight” as if it’s something both surgical and final, as if it’s a finish line. Not about a 10% reduction, but a reset or return to some perfect point on the scale where guilt and shame were banished.

This obsession with BMI and weight and a certain image of what healthy looks like? It’s fed by those so-called health magazines, featuring ever-smaller women with ever-smaller bathing suits (ever-more photoshopped) on its cover. The  focus on body ideals throughout the media as well as in medicine (and now, in surgery) sets people up for reaching/not reaching the end, w/o enough attention on the details — when it’s the details that matter. Surgery, fasts, etc. are all about getting you to a result, skipping over not some mythical “hard part”,  (as if near-starvation while maintaining exercise isn’t hard), but the practice of healthy habits that should be at the forefront. Let me say that again:  It’s not the BMI goal that’s important, but the healthy habits. Praise and revel in those habits, because that’s what you’re doing right now, and that’s what should matter. If you only make the BMI matter, then slippage means failure, and that awful cycle again.

My point: we should let go — at least a bit — of the big end goals and cures, and focus on enjoying and appreciating what all of our bodies can do. Get us through the day, go for a walk, ride a bike, play with our kids, run, do yoga, and on and on.  Focus on what you do for you body and what it does for you. Ignore the pictures on the front of the magazines, ignore weight and BMI and body fat % and anything other than how you feel and what you’re doing. Are you running now/more/faster/further? Are you sleeping better? Are you living the life that you want to live???  That should be your yardstick, along with the practice of those healthy habits.

That said, I still believe that some assessment/data can be helpful to creating good health. But the trick is to make them more a part of your habits, and less about setting goals. I’d like to speed up my lap times on the derby track, and I’m working on both strength and endurance in the gym, and pushing every time we practice those laps, to make that happen.  Will reducing body fat % and/or overall mass help as well?  For me, yes. So it’s helpful to check in with that data periodically, to see whether the work I’m doing is changing those numbers, too. But I have to do it that check-in carefully, and quickly move on before I start thinking of it as a yardstick for virtue.

BMI and Shame
The use of the BMI has limited positive uses in health care.  Though it might be useful at the margins, it’s a poor measure of an individual’s health. What about the negative uses or effects of the BMI? For one,  it’s a polite way of shaming fat people.

Diagnoses of overweight, obesity etc. are now most commonly based on BMI.  BMI is raised as a value-neutral metric, but it’s not. Label someone obese, and you’re shaming them, piling on all the baggage of what society believes about overweight people. And that baggage and accompanying shame can trigger a horrible downward spiral that anyone who’s ever struggled with their body image can relate to. Shame is unproductive as a motivational tool, and yet the food and diet industries are practically obsessed with it. Even the Federal government isn’t above shaming as a tactic in dealing with public health:

“Hence, in dealing with obesity, public health officials have exhorted us to exercise, recommended changes to food labelling, advocated the banning of trans fats in restaurant food, issued dietary guidelines, and set forth exercise recommendations, all of which – as the authors note with keen insight – rely at one level on shaming the people they are trying to help.” – XXL: Obesity and the Limits of Shame  (foreword)

Measuring Health and Wellness

Health and wellness should be our primary focus, but how should we define and measure them? There’s no easy index for measuring wellness, or the big picture of an individual’s health. So what’s the best measure of your overall health?  YOU. What do you want to be able to do? What kind of life you want to live? Are you actively living, enjoying your community and the world around you? It seems like that’s what we should be measuring, somehow.

I’ll end with this example: I recently re-discovered cycling over the summer, on a comfort/hybrid bike that I really only bought to be able to ride to the market in the summer or out to the garden. It’s cute as heck, and I bought equally cute panniers to be able to carry produce home from the market; I really only thought about it in the cute and fun and minimally active category.  But over the course of a couple weeks’ vacation in Northern Wisconsin last summer, casual rides increased to a 40-mi trip one day, and I was hooked on the feeling of being out on a bike, going from town to town — even on that “comfort” bike, which is actually not comfortable at all on long rides.  I ended up buying a road bike in the fall on something a little more than a whim and a sale, and joined a women’s cycling group soon after. With the guidance of a local bike shop’s competitive cyclists, I enjoy both the cycling group work and the fun that we have riding (and eating and drinking!!) together. I might also do some sprint triathlons with it, but I’m not aiming to win any medals — high-level, competitive cycling is not the life I have in mind. My vision for a healthy life includes 50-60 mile group rides with my women’s cycling group on any given weekend, maybe a century ride every couple of years, and always a good cold beer afterwards. Comfort and my own endurance matters to me; BMI doesn’t. It’s the same with derby: I want to be fast enough and quick enough to do what I need to do on the track for my team, but I don’t need to weigh in under a particular mass or body fat percentage, and setting those goals only holds me back from my best work.  Working on my speed and agility is productive, and may lead to a drop in body fat; but those BMI charts and other metrics just aren’t part of my goals anymore.