6 Month Kidney-versary

Today I have a lot for which to be thankful. I have been blessed in so many ways: an amazing wife, incredible kids, excellent friends, a fulfilling career, a wonderful community, and good health.

I am also grateful that this past year I was able to successfully give the “gift of life” by donating my left kidney to someone with advanced kidney disease. I have worked hard over the last couple of decades to eat right, exercise, get plenty of rest, and practice other forms of self-care. It has paid off. I have always said that one of the best motivations for being physically active and eating right is in order to be healthy enough to help those around you–sort of like the message of the air masks that fall during an unlikely cabin depressurization; I have helped myself first, and then assisted others around me. This has been the focus of my career as a rabbi and now as a personal trainer as well. I never imagined, though, that I would be able to donate an organ (at least, while I was alive)–especially at the age of 58–but all those years of watching what I eat and going to the gym helped make it possible–not only for me, but for the two people and their loved ones who benefited from my donation.

A couple of weeks ago we had a 6-month Kidney-versary dinner here in Cleveland (pictured above). It was great to get the three donors and three recipients and their spouses together. It was even better to see everyone doing so well. I hope that we will continue to get-together as we are able to give thanks for the miracles of modern medicine that make it all possible–along with the outstanding doctors, nurses, and other caregivers. We are now all tied together by a very special bond.

For the first time this year, I feel like I am truly thankful not only for what I have, but for what I am able to give. I look forward to more opportunities to continue on this path…but I do plan to keep my other kidney!

Wishing everyone a happy and healthy Thanksgiving!

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year?

Thanksgiving Dinner

Andy Williams sang, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year….” The holiday season ushered in by Thanksgiving is wonderful in so many ways: family gatherings, festive meals, joyous music, and fun family traditions. It is for many, though, the most difficult time of the year.

The holidays season puts a lot of stress on us. The continued emphasis on consumerism around Christmas and Hanukkah is not only stressful as we try to get the perfect gifts, but it also puts pressure on our financial situation. There is also the potential conflict that arises in families–you know that crazy uncle who always brings up politics! We may also be worried about meeting year-end goals. It is just a very intense time of the year.

I have blogged in the past about how to try to approach the holidays–and Thanksgiving, in particular–in a more healthy way. Last year, we had the added issue of families preparing smaller feasts given the isolation and reduced gatherings necessitated by COVID-19; for many, that is less of an concern this time around. For most people, this final part of the secular year becomes a battle against overeating; it is exacerbated by an extra busy schedule which might make finding time to exercise and get enough sleep challenging.

There are two key factors that I keep in mind as the holidays near.

1. Plan, plan, plan. Typically, my wife and I plan our menus out a week in advance. We know what we are going to have for each meal, create the shopping list accordingly, and thus avoid (mostly) purchasing foods that are less healthful. I plan as well for those days when I know there will be a lot of food around (Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, football games, holiday parties, etc.) so that I eat moderately the rest of the day; at the “event,” I do my best to drink lots of water and set simple rules for myself like “fill the plate one time only” or “skip the sides and save for dessert,” so that I do not gorge myself. As an aside, try to limit alcohol intake as it is dehydrating and often lessens our resolve to follow our rules. I also take a look at my week and day in advance to figure out when I will be able to work out; I am a personal trainer and I also teach fitness classes so this is a little easier for me, but there are days when I have to simply block out the time to make it happen. This time of the year calls for planning.

2. Be kind and forgiving to yourself (and others). It is almost inevitable that we will have a “bad” day. We may go into that holiday party with the best of intentions, totally prepared and planful, only to take one look at the baked salami, pecan pie, and spinach/artichoke dip and it’s all over. It happens to almost every one of us, including me. I do not beat myself up over it; I do not consider myself a failure. I am only human. Instead, I get back on track the very next morning. In the long run, one bad day is not going to ruin our health. What will be harmful is getting upset at ourselves, giving up, and turning one bad day into a bad week, month, or year. Recognize that there are times when we come up short; that is OK, and we just look forward. Be kind to yourself.

Finally, remember that this time of the year is not about obsessing about our eating habits and exercise. This should be a concern (not obsession) all year round. Take into consideration the special circumstances of the holiday season, but do not get overwhelmed. After all, with the gatherings, music, tradition, and treats–no matter what holiday(s) you celebrate or do not–it is really a most wonderful time of the year!

One Year as a Self-Employed Trainer

Champagne

Today marks one year since I left my position as a trainer at the local JCC. I had worked there for over two years and it was the first position I got after my certification. I am grateful for the friendships and experience that I got, and that management was willing to take a risk in hiring an “old guy” like me. Being new to the Cleveland area, it was a great way to connect with the local Jewish community as well.

In late summer 2020, though, I decided that I wanted to branch out and try training privately. It was certainly slow at first, but the pandemic actually helped. Many folks felt uncomfortable/unsafe going into fitness facitilies and either wanted to train virtually or one-on-one at their home. Within a few months it was apparent that I was onto something; there was a need for someone who worked exclusively with older adults, understood their particular needs, was affordable, and convenient. I knew it was a big leap to go out on my own, but I also knew that, as they say in Yiddish, “you can’t dance at two weddings.” In other words, it is difficult if not impossible to grow a new business while still employed somewhere else. If I wanted to At Home Senior Fitness to thrive, I would need to give it my full attention. November 15 was my last day at the JCC and I have not looked back.

I am really happy to report that I have a full book of clients. I am working with a great group of older adults and am gratified to see the progress they are making. I have clients from as far west as the Bay Area in California and as far east as Ashkelon in Israel. I am training virtually, in-home (within 5 miles of my home), and leading a regular fitness class on-line three times/week. My clients range in age from 58 to 93. Some are quite agile and active; others are recovering from strokes and other serious health conditions. A hallmark of At Home Senior Fitness is that the program is never “one size fits all;” each client has a fitness plan designed especially for them that will keep them safe, injury-free, and working toward their goals.

The biggest news is that I was recently tapped by a local publication for older adults to be their “expert” on fitness. I will be a regular contributor with a column appearing in each issue. This is really exciting and a great opportunity to expose many seniors to the idea of keeping fit as we age. I will share more details as I am able.

I look forward to what the next year will bring. Stayed tuned for more exciting announcements about what is planned for 2022.

Finally, a big thank you to my clients and to all those who have supported me on this journey (especially my patient wife!). You all give me a reason to be up and at ’em each day!

Fast Walking Accomplishes More than Just Cardio

this Guy speed walked it in under 2:20!!!

The most recent issue of IDEA’s Fitness Journal has an article that sheds light on the benefits of walking fast. I have blogged in the past about the benefits of walking, and doing so at a pace that elevates the heart rate. This article reports on the findings of a recent study out of England published in Clinical Rehabilitation on a totally different aspect. It shows that people who are trained to walk at a fast pace after a stroke are more able to multi-task.

The theory is that those who walk more slowly put more thought into each and every step; this limits their ability to focus on other things while they are walking. On the other hand, those who walk more quickly get into a kind of rhythm or cycle that becomes almost automatic; this frees up their brains to be able to concentrate on other things at the same time. The research is important because our brains are called upon to multi-task all the time; safely walking requires our brains to chart a course, avoid obstacles, stay balanced, etc. Of course, if you want to walk and chew gum at the same time that is a whole other matter!

This article reminded me of an interview on NPR I heard with the author of Choke: What The Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To, Sian Beilock. Beilock did research into why athletes (and others) “choke;” for example, if a golfer is two below par and simply has to sink a 2-foot putt, why is it that sometimes they “choke” and keep missing the hole? The ability not to choke has to do with having practiced something so much that it becomes automatic–the putt can be done without thinking. Once overthinking begins is when problems start. (Of course, I am oversimplifying the interview, but you get the point).

With older adults and those who have experienced stroke, physical changes may result in having to relearn walking or learn to walk in a different way. What was once automatic now requires thought, which can lead to a choke–in this case, a fall. The research out of England makes perfect sense; teaching stroke survivors to walk quickly and automatically will lead to safer walking in the long run.

As a personal trainer working with older adults, this study has important ramifications. I do work with clients who have a history of stroke. The more they are trained to do tasks automatically, the more likely they will be to successfully multi-task and return to greater independence.

what? What?! WHAT?!?!

Diagrammatic View of the Ear

As we age, it is important to be aware of our health and fitness in general. Included in this is ensuring that we have adequate hearing ability. Not hearing well can have many implications; impaired ability to understand what is being communicated can cause individuals with hearing loss to simply withdraw from conversations. Social isolation may ensue, which is harmful to our overall health.

A recent article in AARP Bulletin discusses one of the contributing factors to hearing loss: noise. The article notes that exposure to loud noise on a regular basis has negative health effects–and these go beyond hearing impairment; the effect lessened during the pandemic as air and road traffic was reduced, but there is now a rebound.

How can noise affect our health? Noise triggers a part of our brains called the amygdala; this is the area that is responsible for analyzing threats. Loud noises are in that category. The amygdala puts the body on “high alert,” (think fight or flight) causing stress. The more stressed we are and the more often it happens the greater the negative health impact. Chronic stress is related to immune system depression, diabetes, arterial plaque build-up, psychological illness, and possibly cancer. Prolonged exposure to loud noise (by those who live near highways or airports) has been shown increase the chance of stroke; on the flipside, people who live in quieter areas have a decreased chance of stroke.

We do not always have the luxury of being able to avoid noise. Those who live in urban and suburban areas are most likely to be exposed, and it is a price to be paid to be close to work, school, community, etc. What can we do to alleviate these issues? A few solutions suggested are driving with car windows closed to cut out ambient noise, using noise-cancelling headphones when possible, making sure that hearing aids are fine-tuned, and choosing places to dine that are quieter.

As the pandemic hopefully comes under greater control, air and road traffice will return to previous levels and higher. Now is a good time to evaluate our exposure and plan for how to minimize the negative health effects. It is more than just an issue of hearing; the repercussions can touch nearly every aspect of our physical and mental health.

This $h!t Really Works!

Waimaku Falls

This is the view that greeted us last week after a one-hour uphill hike at the Haleakela National Park on Maui in Hawaii: the Waimaku Falls. Of course, this picture does not do it justice; there are actually three separate falls cascading 400 feet into a clear cool pool that empties (eventually) into the Pacific Ocean. This was not an easy hike; there were lots of steps, stones to climb up, and a few slippery spots. The views were magnificent and part of the hike passes under a giant banyan tree, while another section traverses a bamboo forest. Simply breathtaking and unforgettable!

As a personal trainer working with older adults, I have noted that my clients have different motivations for why they choose to exercise, and why with a personal trainer. One of the key reasons is that they want to be able to remain active and do the things they enjoy for as long as they can. A significant number enjoy traveling (whether on vacation or to see family), and they want to be able to get up and go…instead of just sitting on a couch. Not all of my clients would be able to climb up to Waimaku Falls, but a good many would. Earlier in the week we saw a fair number of older adults climbing to the top of Diamond Head in Honolulu. It was impressive. A regular (and supervised) exercise routine can help make this a possibility.

This past May, I had a pretty major operation. The trip to Hawaii was planned before I knew this surgery would take place. My regular fitness routine helped with my recovery and made it possible for me to do these two hikes without really thinking too much about it–aside from sunscreen and water. Additionally, I was able to snorkel, walk long distances, and even take surfing lessons! I hope that I never take for granted that the work I put into keeping myself fit makes all of these adventures possible. I do appreciate that it allows me to be able to keep up with my pre-K and elementary-aged nieces and nephew. I am proud that I rarely have to ask: am I up to it at age 58?

More adventures are planned for the future (God-willing). There are more reefs to snorkel, More mountains to climb. More journeys to begin. I sometimes have wondered whether the exercise and proper nutrition are worth the trouble, but after these last couple of weeks in Hawaii, I have concluded: this $h!t really works!

Everyone Needs a Break Now and Then

Summer vacation 2015

The subject of “self-care” is not a new one on this blog. From the beginning, I have stated that in order for us to be there for others, we must first take care of ourselves.

Some of us are better than others at doing this. Americans in general–at least by one standard–are not faring well. In general, we leave a lot of vacation days on the table; in other words, our employers give us a certain number of vacation days and most of us do not make use of all of them. In 2018 (pre-pandemic), according to www.ustravel.org, Americans left a record 768 million days unused, up 17% from the previous year; of those, 236 million were completely forfeited amounting to $65.5 billion in lost benefits!

The figures look even worse when we consider how many vacation days American workers get on compared with other countries. The US on average has 16 paid leave days and 10 public holidays totalling 26 days per year; paid leave days are not necessarily vacation days–that could be used for sick leave, bereavement, etc. Countries such as Great Britain, France, and Brazil are much more generous. Japan and Thailand are at about the same level as the USA.

You can imagine why folks do not use all these days. During the pandemic, a lot of people were working from home and felt that it just was not right to take “more time off,” as if the work being done at home was some kind of vacation; for many people, it was way more stressful than being at the office or other place of work. Others do not take those days off because they fear what will be waiting when they return–either piles of work or missed opportunities. Others still are afraid that if they take the time off, the job will no longer be there when they get back.

The reality is that our society places a premium on production. We cannot “produce” while we are on vacation…or so the logic goes. On the contrary, taking proper time off and engaging self-care will make us more productive in the end. How many of us are feeling completely burned out? How many of us are ready to “take this job and shove it?” How many of us feel caught in a rut. My guess is too many.

Perhaps we as a society need to re-examine our view of vacation and time-off. What price does society pay for a workforce that is tired, “stuck,” and lacking exposure to the world that is out there?

I will set the example. No blogs for the next couple of weeks while I engage in some R&R. See you on the other end–hopefully refreshed, inspired, and full of energy!

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth (and Your Values) Are

Money Roll - $100 Dollar Bills

Just a couple of weeks ago, I gave a “sermon” on the evening of Yom Kippur about aligning our actions with our words and values.

I focused on a time-management tool with which many of us are familiar; take a piece of paper and divide it into 2 rows and 2 columns. At the top of one column put “Important” and at the top of the other put “Not Important.” In front of one row put “Urgent” and in front of the other put “Not Urgent.” The exercise is to review an entire week and categorize each activity on the grid: laundry, grocery shopping, watching Netflix, exercising, working, studying, etc., and attach a time component to it, ie., how many hours were spent doing each activity. Finally, do the math. How much time was spent on activities that are not important? How much on stuff that is not urgent? Ideally, anything that is not urgent and not important should grab the least amount of our attention, time, and energy; conversely, we should focus on those things which are important and urgent. How well does this line up in reality?

This is not just a question of time. It is also a question of our finances. How much money do we spend on things that are not important or do not line up with our values? A recent FaceBook post by Amanda Malcolm-Brown addressed this very issue. She relates it to our health and fitness. How many of us complain about the high cost of gym membership or personal training, but are willing to drop a lot of money to go to a pro football game? Why will we spend a fortune at a fancy restaurant, but balk at spending a little extra at the supermarket for foods that are healthier for us? Malcolm-Brown notes that what really counts are our actions–not our thoughts or intentions. This is, of course, a statement that aligns with Jewish values and is at the core of the High Holidays and the Kol Nidre (Yom Kippur eve) service.

Here we are in the last quarter of 2021 (or the beginning of the Hebrew year 5782); what can we do now to ensure that our actions (and money) help us to reach our goals? Perhaps a good start is to take a piece of paper, divide it into four quadrants….

Weights? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Weights!

Pushups

As the pandemic wears on, more and more people who used to be regular gym-goers are realizing that it has been 18 months since they have stepped foot in a fitness center. Some have found other ways to keep fit, but many have simply stopped working out altogether. It is a sad reality, and one whose end is not necessarily in sight.

One of the issue stopping people from working out at home is that they lack the equipment found in gyms. I have been working virtually with clients (first for a local gym, and then in my own business “At Home Senior Fitness”) since the earliest days of the shutdowns in 2020. By now, many of my clients have at least a couple of dumbbells or perhaps some resistance tubes. Even so, I am able to put together workouts for clients that use body weight alone. This is especially helpful when clients are traveling and cannot bring equipment with them.

Is a body weight workout effective? The answer is a definitive yes. To paraphrase the classic film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, “Weights? We don’t need no stinkin’ weights!”

Of course, there are certain principles that should be followed. As in workouts using weights/resistance, the best results occur when there is a pattern of progression. In other words, either increase the weight being used, decrease the rest period between sets, increase the number of reps and sets, etc. In a body weight fitness regime increasing the weight does not figure in, so it involves getting more creative. There are many ways to make the workout more challenging: single limb exercises, changing the angle, increasing tempo, introducing hybrid exercises, etc.

It should go without saying that this applies to resistance training, but it is also the case in cardio workouts. Treadmill, ellipticals, and stair climbers were created to replicate already existing body movements. Instead of a treadmill, one can walk or run on a street or trail; speed can be varied and (depending on where you live) so can incline. Running or jogging can replace ellipticals, although the impact on joints is much greater. Bicycle riding can replace a stationary bike, and one can simply climb stairs! We have become so accustomed to thinking that we have to go to the gym, but it is possible to be fit–and even “ripped”–without using equipment.

Finally, a body weight workout regime requires a lot of creativity. Every piece of equipment in a gym is designed to work a certain muscle or muscle group; these muscles can be exercised without that equipment as well, but it may take a fitness professional to help adapt them. Finally, a personal trainer can help to ensure that a body weight workout is not only effective and safe, but also fun!

Weights are great, but their absence should not be a reason for avoiding a workout. The good Lord gave us all bodies, and we can use them creatively to keep ourselves fit and healthy.

The Jewish Thanksgiving…Healthy for You?

sukkot-9

This evening we begin the Jewish holiday of Sukkot; in English it is known as the Feast of Tabernacles.

The holiday has agricultural roots; it is the time of the fall harvest and the beginning of the rainy season in the Land of Israel. It is a joyous holiday; in the liturgy, it is referred to as Z’man Simchatenu, “the time of our rejoicing.” It also has an historical connection; it recalls the forty years of wandering in the wilderness between the Exodus from Egypt and the entrance of the Israelites into the Promised Land.

The agricultural aspect of the holiday is commemorated with the Lulav and Etrog–a palm branch decorated with myrtle and willow twigs, and a citron (a relative of the lemon)–that is held during certain prayers. The historical side is commemorated with the construction of temporary shelters called Sukkot (the singular is Sukkah); many people build these “booths” or “tabernacles” at their homes and eat their meals there for the week of the holiday–some even sleep inside them!

You may be wondering why this is such a joyous holiday if the 40 years of wandering was a punishment. According to the Torah, the people panicked after the report of the 12 spies and lost faith in Moses and God. The Lord wanted to destroy the Israelites right then and there but Moses interceded. Instead of wiping out the Children of Israel, they would wander for four decades as the old generation died out and and a new one arose. Jewish tradition teaches that the reason why we are joyous is two-fold. 1. It is the time of the harvest and everyone is happy to have food (hopefully) for the coming year. 2. During those 40 years, God did not forget the Children of Israel; on the contrary, God recalled this as a beatiful time in the relationship between the Hebrews and their Lord. God made sure that the people were protected from enemies, always had water to drink, manna to eat, and were eventually led into the Promised Land. There is indeed much for which to be grateful, which is why Sukkot is often thought of as the “Jewish Thanksgiving.”

Is Sukkot healthy for you? That depends. Like all other Jewish holidays, there is an emphasis on food–and lots of it. It is easy to overdo it, but that is our own decisions and not any fault of the holiday. The focus on gratitude, however, is good for our health. Refer to a blog post from 2019 and another from this past Thanksgiving for more information on the positive benefits of practicing gratitude. It does not just make you feel good in an emotional sense; being thankful can help improve your health.

Wishing all who celebrate Sukkot a happy and healthy holiday!