When university professors Samantha Brennan and Tracy Isaacs started a blog about their resolution to get in shape by the age of 50, it sparked a conversation about what it means to be fit, and who gets to claim the title.
For many of us, milestone birthdays can be a source of anxiety. But for Samantha Brennan and Tracy Isaacs, the approach of the big "five-oh" presented both a target and an opportunity. In fall 2012, the longtime friends and fellow professors at Western University in London, Ont., then 48, set themselves a challenge: They would get into the best physical shape of their lives by their 50th birthdays—and they would blog about it along the way.
Fast-forward five years, and Samantha and Tracy's Fit Is a Feminist Issue blog is still going strong, reaching thousands of monthly readers with its refreshing mix of personal stories and thoughtful posts on what it means to be fit (and how to get there). Our takeaway? If you've ever worried that it's too late for you to get in shape, take heart: Samantha and Tracy are living proof that it's not.
What motivated you to begin this journey toward fitness in your late 40s?
Samantha: I wanted to take charge of how I aged physically, to think about what kind of life I wanted to live as an older person and what would make that possible. When I was younger, my fitness concerns were often based on looking a certain way and my goals were often tied to weight loss. Now, I think about my friend's mom who came on a recent canoeing trip. I want to be portaging in my 70s, too!
Tracy: When I first started the challenge, I had a covert hope that [weight loss] would be the byproduct, that I would have this lean, mean body by the time I turned 50. But over the course of the first few months, I made a conscious effort to get away from using weight loss as a measure of fitness. My goal became an Olympic-distance triathlon before my 50th birthday. I also had the goal of shifting my attitude, focusing on performance and getting the endurance needed to be able to complete that race.
Samantha Brennan and Tracy Isaacs
What challenges have you faced along the way?
Tracy: My first triathlon [the Kincardine Women's Triathlon in Kincardine, Ont.] was a big deal, but the Olympic-distance triathlon was a whole other thing. It was a 1500m swim, a 40K bike and a 10K run—more than three times longer than Kincardine! I'd never ran or biked those distances, even individually. The time management involved in training was also hard; I have a full-time job! But my biggest challenges were probably mental: trying to think of myself as an athlete who had a right to be there. When I finally completed the Olympic-distance triathlon, I finished in the bottom 10, but I did it, and that felt pretty great.
Samantha: For me, it's about the balance of fitting it all in. During our Fittest by 50 Challenge, I was doing CrossFit in the mornings and aikido at night, and I'd arrive at my aikido class sore and tired. Interestingly, [doing] CrossFit helped my aikido, because I couldn't rely on strength or energy to do it—I had no choice but to go slow and focus on the technique. I was also dealing with my partner's parents both passing away. His mother had developed ALS [a disease that attacks the nervous system] and moved to London so we could care for her. I was rowing at the time, and I couldn't keep up with it and be the caregiver I needed to be. Some sports, like rowing, require you to be there at a specific time with a group of people; it's a real commitment. Running was easier for me; I could go out and do it—morning, evening, whenever.
What have you learned about yourselves throughout this process?
Samantha: I need to be in a social activity that will get me out the door to people who expect to see me or that I'm committed to. The social part really matters.
Tracy: I've learned that it feels better to achieve something meaningful than to focus on weight loss as a metric. If you're already strong and fit, what does it matter if you're carrying around a few extra pounds?
The fitness industry can be intimidating. What's your advice for pushing through that feeling?
Tracy: Have people to do activities with. For me, going to running clinics was so important because I realized that there are people of all shapes, sizes, speeds and experience levels doing these activities. It's also important to seek out a place that promotes inclusivity and diversity; the YMCA I joined is great because it's a diverse community with a diverse esthetic, and it doesn't emphasize weight loss as a goal.
Samantha: Find something you think is really fun. Try lots of things—maybe something completely weird. Just do your thing! And remember, you don't have to be good at the thing you love doing. Having fun is more important than being good. Samantha and Tracy's book, Fit Is a Feminist Issue: Our Journey to Fitness at Midlife (Greystone Books) will be released next year.
Fitness bloggers Samantha Brennan and Tracy Isaacs share three tips to help you kick off your health journey.
1. Don't make it about weight. "If you make weight loss your goal and then quit if you don't lose weight, you miss out on all the other health benefits of exercise," says Samantha.
2. Set a scary (but not impossible) goal. "Set your sights high," advises Samantha. "[Goal-setting] commits you and focuses your attention and energy. Pick something a year away and train for it!"
3. Begin with baby steps. "We always want to start big, but starting small and building is more likely to lead to established habits because it's realistic and doable," says Tracy.
Making minor, yet meaningful changes to your lifestyle can help you become a significantly healthier and happier person. Our health expert shares five tips on sleep, nutrition and fitness to help you achieve these goals.
"Why does she look and feel so good? I think I want what she's having!" If you find yourself thinking like this it might be time to adopt some new habits.
No one wants to feel hangry or get hit with a midday crash—but that doesn't mean you have to visit the office vending machine. Instead, curb hunger pangs with these healthier, expert-approved alternatives.
1. Swap: Microwave popcorn for cauliflower popcorn
Even light microwave popcorn can be loaded with sodium, trans fats (which raise bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol) and artificial colours and flavours, says Kelowna, B.C.–based registered dietitian Tristaca Curley. Instead, cut a head of cauliflower into bite-size pieces, then roast in the oven with some olive or coconut oil and sprinkle with sea salt flakes. This low-calorie, folate- and potassium-rich sub is a satisfying twist on that movie-night favourite.
Photography by Angus Fergusson
2. Swap: Store-bought gorp for DIY trail mix
Ready-made trail mixes can be full of sugar and salt, so create your own snack of walnuts (the nut with the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids), unsalted sunflower seeds, dried apple bits and unsweetened shredded coconut. Add chocolate chips for an extra hit of sweetness. "For a tart superfood top-up, add golden berries, which resemble golden raisins," says Toronto-based registered nutritionist Joey Shulman. "They're lower in sugar versus other small berries, and they contain linoleic and oleic acids, which help with fat oxidation." Or add resveratrol-rich mulberries for their antioxidant punch.
3. Swap: Potato Chips for kale chips
"Regular chips contain trans fatty acids, the bad fat that can lead to heart disease and elevated cholesterol," says Shulman. "This superfood alternative is loaded with vitamins A, C and K." Tear kale leaves into bite-size pieces (discard thick stems), toss with olive oil and salt, then roast until crisp.
4. Swap: Salted pretzels for roasted chickpeas
Sure, pretzels may be low in fat, but they're loaded with salt and have no real nutritional value, says Curley. For a crunchy alternative, try oven-roasted chickpeas. These legumes are high in fibre, protein and iron, making them an ideal "fill me up" snack. Toss together chickpeas, olive oil, sea salt and your favourite spice (think smoked paprika, ground cumin, cayenne pepper or garlic powder), then roast until golden brown and crunchy.
5. Swap: Cheese crackers for a seaweed snack
Most crackers are processed carbs laden with artificial colours, preservatives and other additives. "In their place, top a sheet of nori with some canned tuna, smoked salmon or a meat alternative, like grilled tofu," says Curley. The seaweed is super satisfying and guilt-free: There are only five calories per sheet. Plus, sea vegetables are full of vitamins A and C, calcium, iodine (essential for metabolism) and iron.
6. Swap: Chocolate pudding for avocado and cocoa pudding
Chocolate puddings can be drowning in high-fructose corn syrup. For a healthier treat, mash an avocado, then stir in two tablespoons each of cocoa powder and hemp seeds and a quarter cup of honey, says Curley. This pudding is low in sugar and a great source of monounsaturated fats, vitamin C and fibre.
7. Swap: Granola bars for energy balls
Granola bars can contain as much sugar, fat and refined carbs as a chocolate bar. "Instead, stir together a cup of oatmeal with half a cup each of nut butter, hemp seeds and dried fruit," says Curley. Maple syrup or honey will help it stick together. This homemade option is high in fibre and protein, low in sugar and free of additives.
8. Swap: Chips and dip for hummus and carrot or zucchini coins
Processed foods like chips can raise blood sugar, triggering a release in insulin, which then lowers blood sugar. In the short term, these highs and lows actually increase cravings; in the long run, they can lead to weight gain. Try this clever swap from Curley. Using a mandoline or a sharp knife, slice carrots or zucchini into coins. Toss with olive oil, salt and pepper, then bake until golden brown and crisp. Serve with a side of hummus. (Brownie points if it's homemade!)
9. Swap: Banana chips for a loaded banana
This snack is often coated in sugar and deep-fried to give it crunch, so choose a fresh banana, which is glycemic index–friendly, suggests Curley. (Foods with a low-GI value are digested more slowly, so they won't cause a spike in blood sugar.) Top the banana with two tablespoons of your favourite nut butter, then roll it in hemp seeds. "You'll get a slow, steady rise in your blood sugar, so you'll feel full for longer," says Curley. Plus, this satisfying switch-up delivers potassium, protein, iron and omega-3s.
10. Swap: Chocolate-covered almonds for apple rings with nut butter
Almonds are a great snack, but when they're coated with chocolate, they turn into a treat. For a healthier option, slice a cored apple into rings. Top each slice with natural peanut, cashew or almond butter and sprinkle with hemp seeds, which are a great source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids. "Apples are loaded with fibre and vitamin C," says Shulman. "Look for unprocessed nut butters; they're rich in good fats, which contain essential fatty acids such as omega-3s and monounsaturated fats."
In this excerpt of her new book, Arianna Huffington explains how getting enough rest is a must—for long-term health, yes, but also for keeping the weight off, doing well at work and even for better skin.
It is industrialization, for all its benefits, that has exacerbated our flawed relationship with sleep on such a massive scale.
We sacrifice sleep in the name of productivity, but ironically, our loss of sleep, despite the extra hours we put in at work, adds up to more than eleven days of lost productivity per year per worker, or about $2,280. This results in a total annual cost of sleep deprivation to the US economy of more than $63 billion, in the form of absenteeism and presenteeism (when employees are present at work physically but not really mentally focused). "Americans are not missing work because of insomnia," said Harvard Medical School professor Ronald C. Kessler. "They are still going to their jobs, but they're accomplishing less because they're tired. In an information-based economy, it's difficult to find a condition that has a greater effect on productivity.
Sleep disorders cost Australia more than $5 billion a year in health care and indirect costs. And "reduction in life quality" added costs equivalent to a whopping $31.4 billion a year. A report, aptly titled "Re-Awakening Australia," linked lack of sleep with lost productivity and driving and workplace accidents. In the United Kingdom, a survey showed that one in five employees had recently missed work or come in late because of sleep deprivation. The researchers estimated that this is equivalent to a loss of more than 47 million hours of work per year, or a £453 million loss in productivity. And almost a third of all UK employees reported feeling tired every morning. Yet, though awareness is spreading, few companies have given sleep the priority it deserves, considering its effects on their bottom line. In Canada, 26 percent of the workforce reported having called in sick because of sleep deprivation. And nearly two-thirds of Canadian adults report feeling tired "most of the time."
It turns out that women need more sleep than men, so the lack of sleep has even more negative mental and physical effects on them. Duke Medical Center researchers found that women are at a greater risk for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and depression. "We found that for women, poor sleep is strongly associated with high levels of psychological distress, and greater feelings of hostility, depression and anger," said Edward Suarez, the lead author of the study. "In contrast, these feelings were not associated with the same degree of sleep disruption in men."
As women have entered the workplace—a workplace created in large measure by men, which uses our willingness to work long hours until we ultimately burn out as a proxy for commitment and dedication—they are still stuck with the heavy lifting when it comes to housework. The upshot is that women end up making even more withdrawals from their sleep bank.
"Let's face it, women today are tired. Done. Cooked. Fried," wrote Karen Brody, founder of the meditation program Bold Tranquility. "I coach busy women and this is what they tell me all the time: 'I spent years getting educated and now I don't have any energy to work.' "
Just as sleep is universal, so is the belief that we don't have enough time to get the sleep we need. But we actually have far more discretionary time than we realize. The key is taking an honest look at how we spend it. In her discretionary time, for example, Sherry Turkle, professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, has been using TV as a reward, letting herself watch shows such as Mad Men, Homeland, and The Americans after working on her book. "I felt like I earned these elegant treats," she told me. "I remember saying 'Orange Is the New Black is mine' after I finished the 'Friendship' chapter of Reclaiming Conversation. As I worked on the 'Romance' chapter, it was House of Cards. I wouldn't have said, 'I'm prioritizing television drama,' but what strikes me is that I never said, 'I'm prioritizing sleep.' "
That's the case for millions of people around the world, despite how high the costs of sleep deprivation are. The incidence of death from all causes goes up by 15 percent when we sleep five hours or less per night. A 2015 CNN.com article based on the latest findings by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, provocatively titled "Sleep or Die," discussed the connection between lack of sleep and an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and obesity. In other words, getting enough sleep really is a matter of life and death.
And even when it doesn't kill us, sleep deprivation makes us dangerously less healthy. Dr. Carol Ash, the director of sleep medicine at Meridian Health, points out that even losing an hour of sleep per week—which many of us do without a moment's thought—can lead to a higher risk of heart attack. Even the switch to daylight saving time can temporarily disturb our sleep patterns.
A lack of sleep also has a major impact on our ability to regulate our weight. In a study by the Mayo Clinic, sleep-restricted subjects gained more weight than their well-rested counterparts over the course of a week, consuming an average of 559 extra calories a day. People who get six hours of sleep per night are 23 percent more likely to be overweight. Get less than four hours of sleep per night and the increased likelihood of being overweight climbs to a staggering 73 percent. That is due in part to the fact that people who get more sleep produce less of a hormone called ghrelin—the "hunger hormone," which increases our appetite. The sleep-deprived group also had lower levels of the hormone leptin, the "satiety hormone," which lowers our appetite. In other words, cutting back on sleep is a fantastic way to gain weight. Other research points to the role of sleep in the production of orexin, a neurotransmitter that normally stimulates physical activity and energy expenditure but is reduced when you are sleep-deprived.
The bottom line? When we're not well rested, we're not as healthy. And it shows. In a Swedish study, untrained participants were asked to look at photos of both sleep-deprived and well-rested people. Participants judged those in the sleep-deprived group as "less healthy, more tired, and less attractive." An experiment in the United Kingdom tested the effects of sleep deprivation on a group of thirty women. Their skin was analyzed and photographed after they slept for eight hours and then again after sleeping six hours for five nights in a row. Fine lines and wrinkles increased by 45 percent, blemishes went up by 13 percent, and redness increased by 8 percent. In other words, we wear our lack of sleep on our faces.
The Sleep Revolution, $35, by Arianna Huffington.