I’ve been noticeably more comfortable in recent winters while at the same time
using lightweight gloves more frequently, using my face mask less frequently,
and not using my goggles at all.
Internationally acclaimed environmental activist Sandra Steingraber spoke with my First Day School class this morning. (“First Day School” is Quakerese for Sunday School; I teach the 6th to 8th graders.) Sandra’s specialty is researching and writing about the links between the environment and cancer. It’s truly sobering stuff, which you can read about in her books or see about in the movie Living Downstream to be released next month. I invited Sandra to speak with us because I admire her as an activist, and I hope to emulate her approach in my work as a bicycling activist. She describes herself as a “shy activist” who would rather do the science side of things and support brasher activists rather than be a brash activist herself. And maybe people would rather listen to the science than the rhetoric any maybe people would rather hear it from a shy person than a brash person.
Because of my quest to Blame the Cars for All Badness I was pleased to find the following paragraphs in Sandra’s book Living Downstream:
The even better news [better because environmental causes of cancer are fixable whereas genetic causes are not] is that the synthetic chemicals linked to cancer largely derive from the same two sources as those responsible for climate change: petroleum and coal. Finding substitutes for these two substances is already on the collective to-do list. The U.S. petroleum industry alone accounts for one-quarter of toxic pollutants released each year in North America. This does not include the air pollutants generated from cars and trucks burning the products that the petroleum industry makes…vehicle emissions are linked to lung, breast, and bladder cancers…Investments in green energy are therefore also investments in cancer prevention. In this, it feels to me that we are standing at a historic confluence, a place where two rivers meet: a stream of emerging knowledge about what the combustion of fossil fuels is doing to our planet is joining a stream of emerging knowledge about what synthetic chemicals derived from fossil fuels are doing to our bodies.
…By-products from the burning of fossil fuels are under particular suspicion. Breast cancer, as we have seen, was first linked to potential sources of air pollution in Long Island. Subsequently, associations have been found between exposure to traffic exhaust during puberty and risk of early-onset breast cancer. Perhaps not coincidentally, a growing body of evidence suggests that tailpipe emissions have estrogenic activity. Air pollutants may alter breast density in ways that raise the risk for breast cancer. A 2007 review of the literature concluded that the risk of breast cancer associated with exposure to engine exhaust and other aromatic hydrocarbons is roughly equivalent in magnitude to some of the well-established risks for breast cancer, such as late age at first childbirth and sedentary lifestyle. Corroborating evidence comes from the laboratory: members of a family of combustion by-products called aromatic hydrocarbons—of which benzo[a]pyrene is one—cause breast cancer in animals. According to researchers at Albert Einstein College in New York, aromatic hydrocarbons inhaled by the lungs can become stored, concentrated, and metabolized in the breast, where the ductal cells become targets for carcinogens.
Bladder cancer, too, has been linked in several studies to air pollution. The strongest evidence comes from Taiwan, where researchers found positive associations between air pollution, especially from petrochemical plants, and the risk of dying from bladder cancer. An investigation of bladder cancer deaths among children and adolescents in Taiwan found that almost all those afflicted lived within a few miles of three large petroleum and petrochemical plants.
That caught my attention.
Pranayama, or yogic breath control, taught me that breathing differently can make a big difference in how I feel. I applied an awareness of breathing to my car-free commuting and developed these two mindful breathing practices to increase my comfort walking and biking in the winter.
The basic breath I use is a heat conservation breath. It recognizes my primary heat source is myself. Maximizing warmth is accomplished by simply breathing in and out slowly through the nose. The nasal passage is a longer route than mouth breathing. A slower breath through the longer passage maximally warms the air before it reaches my core. A slow exhale means I’m holding on to the air I’ve just warmed up for a maximal amount of time.
A second technique, the breath mask, is an alternative to wearing a scarf or face mask. I breath in quickly through the nose then exhale slowly through my mouth aiming the warm air upwards. This creates a small cloud that warms my face. By breathing in quickly and exhaling slowly, I feel some heat on my face most of the time. The breath mask is ideal while walking into a headwind– the oncoming wind will blow the warm air you’ve exhaled air back towards you.
Mindful breathing has made my winter walks more enjoyable. If you are looking to increase your own car-free commuting comfort, I recommend giving it a try.
I’ve tried many things to warm my skinny fingers on winter bike commutes. Wool mittens with overmitts are best for the coldest days, but the most interesting heat source I’ve found is my diet. I’ve rediscovered what the Chinese learned ages ago when they classified food as warming and cooling. Science now understands that “warming foods” work in part through better circulation, stoking the internal furnace.
One winter I experimented focusing my diet on warming foods and spices. On my morning oatmeal, I add small amounts of cayenne, cinnamon and powdered ginger– each has its own warming properties. Cayenne in particular is great for improving circulation. At work I keep a shaker of cayenne to add lightly to my lunch and at dinner I may add red pepper flakes or hot sauce. Even small amounts will help. There’s no need to create painful levels of heat. I combined this with centering my winter diet on warming foods like potatoes, onion and garlic. I cut out cooling foods like cucumbers, lettuce and ice water. Now my hands now stay warmer, longer throughout the winter.
You may also rub a little cayenne directly on your fingers and toes before you go out for immediate additional warmth. Add more slowly– it’s possible actually use too much in a result in painful burning sensation.
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Updated August 23rd, 2008. See corrected math and discussion in the comments.
Avoiding hills is often not an option, so I have to re-frame the question in order to answer it: “How I can be comfortable riding in hilly terrain?”.
For a cyclist used to driving, there may be an adjustment about what to expect. A car may (unnaturally) travel the same speed up a hill, across the ridge line and back down it.
Two years ago I was diagnosed with a herniated disc in my back. This caused my sciatic nerve to be pinched, which caused great pain in my legs when I was sitting or standing. I spent a lot of the next two weeks lying flat on my back. After standing for just a few minutes, the pain would become intense again, and I’d need to lie back down.
I’m the sort of person who resists taking medicine, and I found myself taking up to eight ibuprofen a day just to cut the pain and get through it.
Yes, having Sciatica sucked.