Wrestling with our Past and our Future

Delacroix, mural cycle, Saint-Sulpice, Paris

Some of you may be familiar with the humorous song from The Book of Mormon, “Turn It Off.” If not, here is a video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Of5cgecGIhg. The song takes a light approach to the idea of pushing down our feelings, not dealing with our past, and trying to escape where our future may lead us. While it has its laughs, the song speaks (or sings) to a universal truth of the human experience; when we do not proactively confront “our issues,” they have a way of coming to the fore in any case–and sometimes at the worst times and in the worst ways.

I was reminded of “Turn It Off,” because of the Torah portion that will be read in synagogues across the globe and on-line this Shabbat. The section, called Vayishlach, describes the reunion between the twins, Jacob and Esau, after a 20-year separation. The last time they had seen each other, Esau had vowed to kill his brother for having tricked their father, Isaac, into blessing Jacob rather than Esau. Much preparation went into the reunion, and the night before Jacob had an experience/dream of wrestling with an angel. Jewish commentators of the centuries have tried to explain exactly what this experience was. Was it an angel? Was it a person? Is it to be taken literally? Is it a metaphor?

To me, the story seems like a parallel to Jacob’s inner conflict. The dream plays out not so much as result of his anxiety about the reunion, but rather as a natural outcome of never having fully dealt with what he had done 20 years earlier. Readers of the Torah know that Jacob was not exactly the nicest kid; the intervening 20 years, however, involved their share of trials, tribulations, and personal growth. It appears that there was still some unfinished internal business that needed to be worked out; perhaps this dream reflects that. In the end, neither the angel nor Jacob prevailed over the other. Jacob was injured in the scuffle (a scar that would be with him forever). Ultimately, Jacob came out of the incident a changed man–reflected in his new name Yisrael–the one who struggles with God.

What does this have to do with fitness, health and well-being? Many of us have experiences when we are younger that turn us off the path of taking better care of ourselves. Some of us were not athletic in our youth and may have been chosen last for the team, teased for our awkwardness, or even bullied. Some of us were made to feel guilty by family members for wanting to take care of ourselves; we were told we were selfish and that our responsibility was towards others first. Some of us feel held back by childhood injuries or illnesses. In any case, fitness did not become a priority.

We can try to “Turn It Off,” when it comes to our feelings, but eventually they will catch up with us; the same is true with our health and well-being. I work with a number of clients who lament that they (for a variety of reasons) did not learn earlier to take better care of themselves. The decisions we made yesterday about our health affect us today. The decisions we make today affect our tomorrows. We cannot just push it down; in the end, we must confront it. Either we deal with our wellness now, or we will deal with our illness later.

As they say these days, “the struggle is real.” At some point the piper must be paid. Will we deal with it now, or will we put it off and end up having to pay later with penalties and interest?

Prayer and Stress Management

the prayer continued

Stress is a major factor in our health. If stress is not controlled it can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes. On a more emotional level, stress can contribute to anxiety, depression, anger issues, and relationship problems.

There are many resources for trying to alleviate stress. Of course, exercise is one way to reduce it. People often point to meditation as well. There is much research to support both of these approaches.

I used to have a pretty consistent meditative practice. I would listen to on-line guided meditations nearly every day–usually for just a few minutes. Weekly, I would tune into a Jewish meditation group. My schedule got somewhat complicated and with the move to Cleveland, a new home, 3 new jobs, etc., meditation almost completely fell off my list of priorities. I am not proud of this; stress is still a part of my life and I wish I had a better practice of meditation.

Back in 1986 when I was a volunteer on a kibbutz in Israel, and while I was in the process of applying to rabbinical school, I promised myself that I would pray (the formal prayers in the Siddur–or Jewish prayer book) at least one time every day. This was not a huge challenge since I knew many of the prayers and my day had few responsibilities except for picking pomelos during the day and relaxing in the afternoon and evening. Eventually, I made the commitment to pray the traditional services three times per day and since mid-1986 that has been my practice. I have only ever missed it when I have been too ill or immediately following the deaths of my parents–both times when our tradition exempts us from praying.

I got to wondering whether I could “count” my prayer as meditation. They are similar in many ways. I take time out of my day to center myself (sometimes I am more successful than others) and recite the traditional words–kind of like a mantra. Even though it is not always a spectacular spiritual experience (which is often the case with meditation), it does take me out of the mundane for a period of time thrice daily. I may not focus on my breathing, but I do try to quiet my mind and concentrate on the words and what they mean. When I pray with others–which is a story unto itself during a pandemic–I do feel like I am more successful at reaching some kind of spiritual goals.

I ran across an interesting blog post by Marek Struszczyk, a co-manager of http://www.managerup.com. Although the blog is directed to executives, there is a great post about prayer and stress that has broader implications: https://www.managerup.com/prayer-for-stress/. Struszczyk cites a number of studies that show the positive effects of prayer in reducing stress. I did not take a deep dive into each of the articles cited, but the conclusions indicate that prayer can help us to center ourselves, focus on areas of stress and how to alleviate them, and bring better health outcomes.

In Judaism, the verb for “to pray” is actually reflexive. It kind of means to “pray one’s self.” Rabbis have noted that prayer does not just go out to a higher power, but it should also go inward. Prayer should not just move God (or whatever higher power you believe or do not believe in), but should move us to action as well. For instance, there is a prayer in the weekday Amida recited three times a day for justice; because our prayer is reflexive, we address God asking for judges and other authorities to administer laws fairly, and we also challenge ourselves to make justice a reality in our world. It’s not all up to God; we are partners in making prayers into reality.

This way of looking at prayer can reduce stress by helping us to recognize the stressors in our lives and pushing us to find ways to resolve them. It seems almost oxymoronic, but by naming the stress we make it real and can then confront it.

I am a personal trainer and a rabbi so, of course, I’m going to recommend prayer as part of a way to address one’s spiritual, emotional and physical health. At the same time, do not think that prayer alone will make a difference health-wise; it is reflexive and has to be done in tandem with a proper diet, exercise, and sufficient rest.

I will strive to add some meditation back into my schedule, in the meantime, it is encouraging to know that prayer serves a similar purpose and can provide many of the same benefits when it comes to stress. Just knowing that has already relieved my stress a little!

Gratitude and your Health

universal thank you note

Here we are on the eve of Thanksgiving and this promises to be different than any one in the long history of the holiday. The pandemic has changed almost everyone’s plans. For most people, the big feast will be curtailed–not only in the number of people attending, but also in the amount of food being served. It just doesn’t make sense to make a huge turkey, 5 side dishes and 8 desserts for 2 or 3 people.

Perhaps–as I blogged about in a post at the beginning of November–we can try to make this holiday a little healthier, rather than a total lost cause.

When we think about improving our health, Thanksgiving does actually provide us an opportunity to take steps in the right direction. The holiday is all about recognizing the many blessings we have and giving thanks for them–to whomever or whatever you believe/don’t believe made it possible. At the heart of this holiday is a reminder of the importance of gratitude.

We usually think of gratitude as being more of a manners thing or a religion thing. It is, for example, polite to send a thank you note for a gift or simply thank someone for opening a door, helping out with a project, etc. Many religions stress gratitude as a key component to achieving holiness. In Judaism, we traditionally recite blessings before and after eating in order to thank God for the food. Those who pray on a regular basis the Amida prayer also thank God for: health, wisdom, justice, redemption, hearing our prayers, and peace. Judaism even has a prayer to thank God after using the bathroom!

Did you know that developing an “attitude of gratitude” has physical health benefits as well? Do an internet search of “gratitude and health” and the articles and research confirming this come from such illustrious institutions as Harvard, UC-Berkeley and USC. Gratitude has been shown to have the following positive effects on our health:

–Improved quality of sleep;

–Lowering Blood Pressure in those with hypertension;

–Increased levels of energy;

–Reducing stress and symptoms of Depression;

–and actually raising our life expectancey.

Don’t take it from me! The research shows that living with a greater sense of appreciation can make you healthier! Thanksgiving is a reminder to us of our history, but it can also be a catalyst to better–more grateful–attitudes and behaviors in the future.

While being thankful can make us feel better in the long-term, I wish I could say the same about the stuffing, pumpkin pie, green bean casserole….

Wishing you all a happy and healthy Thanksgiving Holiday.

Even More on the Exercise/Brain Connection

Brain

I have written several posts about the role that exercise plays not only in our muscular and cardiovascular systems, but also on our brains.

A new article at http://www.inverse.com, and on-line journal, discusses some effects upon which I have not touched in the past. Here is the link: https://www.inverse.com/mind-body/exercise-the-brain-3-ways-physical-activity-changes-its-structure/amp.

The author, Aine Kelly, discusses three ways that regular exercise can impact our brains.

  1. It can help our memory. Exercise prevents loss of brain volume which leads to lower cognitive function; even better news is that exercise can actually increase brain volume. Especially affected is the Hippocampus which is necessary for learning and memory.
  2. Regular exercise improves blood vessel health. Healthier blood vessels means that more blood makes it to the brain. Not only can exercise maintain blood vessels, but it has also been shown to help grow new ones. On a related note, exercise helps control blood pressure which is a risk factor for dementia.
  3. Here is the really new stuff! We all have immune cells in the brain whose main function is to scan the brain for potential threats from microbes, or dying or damaged cells; these cells–called microglia–also clear away any damage they encounter. As we get older, microglia do not do their jobs quite as well, which can lead to inflammation in the brain, which in turn can impair our cognitive abilities. The latest research shows that exercise boosts the efficiency of microglia and prevents inflammation.

More research is needed to determine exactly what exercises will help the most, but it seems that the current recommendations of 150 minutes of moderate exercise (as a base-line) each week is still the ideal.

Kelly’s article adds to the growing body that should encourage us as we grow older. We are living longer and longer. If we exercise regularly, we can help to ensure that not only our bodies remain in good shape, but our minds as well!

Even I’m Not Going to the Gym

Refund Key

As my readers know, last Friday was my last day working as a Personal Trainer at the local JCC. Not only was this the end of my employment at that institution, it was also the end of my membership. For the first time in over 20 years, I found myself in the position of not being a member of a JCC and having to look for a fitness facility where I could work out.

I had two weeks to do some research, looking at factors such as location, hours, cost, and (most importantly) approach toward health and safety in the midst of a pandemic. I chose to join the local LA Fitness. The price was right. The location and hours were convenient. And their hygiene practices seem to be in good order–or, at least, no worse than anywhere else. Of course, before I signed on the dotted line I asked what would happen if the governor were to shut down gym facilities. There was a policy in place, but they also told me that I had five days to call the whole thing off and not pay a dime. So it was that last Sunday I did in fact join LA Fitness.

Today, it seems that things have gotten way more serious in NE Ohio. Local schools are closing. The governor has put a curfew in place. The local supermarket is nearly out of toilet paper (perhaps the greatest indicator of where things are).

This evening, I sent an email requesting to cancel my membership. I had only worked out there three times: once during my free trial (the cardio equipment did not work properly), a second time (when all six pieces of cardio equipment I tried did not work properly), and a third time when I used the track. I ran 5k and did so without my mask on. I felt uneasy about it, but the others on the track (all walking) were wearing masks. It bothered me so much that I left the gym committed to wearing a mask no matter what exercise I did at the gym…and if it was heavy cardio where a mask would be an impediment, I would either have to do it at home or outside. Given the trajectory of the pandemic, I just don’t feel comfortable in a place where others may not be as stringent as I am.

Does this mean that I won’t be working out? By all means, no! I am in the business of training older adults on-line and I will continue to do that. Gyms are great if they can be accessed safely; that is all up to personal interpretation, but there is no way to make them risk-free. My decision is to keep fit at home and outside; it is the same decision that my clients have made.

I am not happy about having to cancel my membership. I hope that I can rejoin a gym when (if?) things ever get under control. In the meantime, I am not willing to risk my health to improve my health. That is the sad choice that we must all make today.

Last Day at the JCC

Art Deco(ish) Exit Sign

I remember having just graduated from the Seminary and heading off to my first pulpit in St. Louis. I had been through six years of Rabbinical School, served as a student rabbi, and completed an internship, but I was still totally anxious about making the transition.

Once I arrived, I jumped right into the work, but I did not really feel like a rabbi. It was similar to the feeling that many parents have after their first child is born; I felt like I was playing at being a parent, but it did not seem real. The same was true in the rabbinic realm; others saw me as a rabbi, but in my mind I was still the college kid drinking beer on the weekends or the seminary student making the most out of my time in New York or Jerusalem. I may have been playing the part with a new title before my name, but I felt like an imposter.

It was not until a couple of years into it when I was called upon to perform a funeral for a young medical student whose death was accidental and unexpected, that my view of myself shifted. The senior rabbi was out of the country; the family and congregation looked to me for guidance and support. They did not know about my own insecurities; they saw me as the stable presence, helping them through a terrible tragedy. It was that experience and others that convinced me that I was, in fact, a rabbi…and a good one at that.

Tomorrow will be my last day working at the Mandel JCC in Cleveland. I was hired as a Personal Trainer in August of 2018 having gotten my certification just a few months earlier. It was all very exciting and scary as well. It took a little while for me to acquire my first few clients and build my confidence. Bit by bit, I got more clients and members even began to ask for me. It is funny that no matter how insecure I might have felt about my role, others seemed not have picked up on it at all. It some point, I reached the point where I realized that I was a Personal Trainer…and a good one at that.

Leaving the JCC is a bittersweet occasion. It is time for me to move on and focus on my own business, At Home Senior Fitness, LLC. I am excited about the future (and a little nervous too!). I will miss my clients, some of whom I have been training for the majority of my tenure at Mandel JCC. I will miss my fellow trainers as well; they were so helpful as I was making my way into a new industry.

I know that I have a lot to learn as a trainer. I am slowly working on my next certification: Post-Rehab Specialist. I can always hone my techniques with exercises. I have to get up to speed on running my own business (so far, so good!), and make decisions about marketing, technology, and investing in the right ways. Starting this new phase in my career is not without its apprehension, but I go into it knowing that I can do this. I got this.

To paraphrase Stuart Smalley, “I’m good enough, and I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!” Here’s to stepping into the future! And here’s to all of us who have ever taken a risk, felt like an imposter, and found our authentic selves somewhere along the way!

More on Power Training for Older Adults

power

When some people think about older adults working out at the gym and/or with a trainer, they often think of exercises done at a slower pace with lighter weights. While it is true that the needs of older adults are different when it comes to fitness, this does not mean that we must train as if we are all fragile.

The November/December 2020 issue of Idea Fitness features an article on power training for older adults: “Power Up Your Aging Clients,” by Gilles Beaudin. When we talk about power, it means adding an element of speed to the workout. Power is force times velocity. We can employ force when doing an exercise; adding velocity increases the power.

During most of our lives, we employ power to get jobs done: pound in a nail, ride a bicycle, etc. Beaudin’s article references research showing that this does not necessarily need to decrease (or cease) as we age. The final words of the article sum it up: “What gets challenged gets trained. What gets used regularly is maintained.” This is an extension of the SAID principle–Specific Adaptation to an Imposed Demand. In other words, when we demand that our body does something, our body will adapt in order to do the job; it is specific because, for example, putting demand on our quads while bicycling may increase leg strength but it will not affect our rhomboids. The SAID principle applies throughout our lives; as long as we regularly make demands on our bodies they will respond and maintain (or build) our strength.

What does Power Training look like? Exercises may include box jumps, jump squats, push-presses, kettlebell swings, or battle ropes. Of course, it is always a good idea to consult a fitness professional to ensure that form is correct, load is appropriate, and that proper progression takes place.

Power to the people means power to the people, no matter the age.

Thinking Ahead to Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Turkey [327/366]

Last year I wrote a post before the holiday with tips for how to get through Thanksgiving without hating yourself afterwards for overeating. Here is the link: https://kosher-fitness.com/2019/11/27/how-to-eat-healthy-at-thanksgiving-dinner/.

The advice still holds, but this year there is an added wrinkle to take into account. Most years we are accustomed to having a large crowd, which calls for a large turkey, large casseroles, large stuffing, large, large, large…. In the pandemic, most of us are finding ourselves dining within our “COVID-19 Bubbles.” Generally, this will mean much smaller crowds. What to do?

I learned the lesson the hard way at Rosh Hashanah when we prepared large meals for just the two of us. It was not a pretty picture (although a delicious one)! We ate more than we should have–not a good idea during a time in the Jewish Year when we are aware of our transgressions!

As always, the key is to plan ahead. We’ve got several weeks to plan to downsize the festivities or commit to a plan with what to do with the leftovers.

Here are some suggestions:

–Do not purchase an entire turkey, but rather a turkey breast instead.

–Take out the family recipes now and start halving or quartering the amounts to fit the number of diners at your meal.

–Investigate now places to donate meals for Thanksgiving. There is a good chance that a neighbor or relative or friend may be eating alone this year; how about giving a small part of your meal to them (put together a few plates). Remember to be especially cautious about following hygiene standards.

–Get some freezer-friendly storage containers. If you can only prepare large, right after making everything, divvy it up and put it in the freezer, leaving only enough for the Thanksgiving meal. The leftovers can be used for future meals.

Hopefully this gets the wheels turning and gives you some ideas for how to stay on track. An early Happy Thanksgiving!

At the Gym: To Mask or Not to Mask…

Face masks, Japan

Ohio has had in place masking orders for those in public for quite a while now. These orders are based on the solid science showing that wearing a face mask is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and the more people masking the more effective it is.

There are, of course, exceptions to the governor’s order, including gyms and fitness facilities. Where I work, the policy is that a mask must be worn in the building except while you are working out–which, if you asked me (and you didn’t), is the same as having no policy at all.

I have seen the following scenarios where I work. Adults and especially teens will wear the mask into the building but take it off the minute they walk into the fitness center; some even place it in their mini-locker. I have seen unmasked members with earbuds singing out loud to their music–annoying during normal times, but especially germ-spreading during a pandemic. I have seen members sitting on different pieces of equipment or benches talking to each other across the gym without masks. I have seen members use equipment and not wipe it off afterwards.

To be fair, there are those who are very cautious. I have seen members wearing a mask at all times–even while doing cardio (as I do). I have also seen members being conscientious about wiping down equipment. In the final analysis, I don’t know how much good this does when there are so many others who seem to throw caution to the (literal) wind.

We have had one employee of the Fitness Center and one member in recent weeks diagnosed with COVID-19; neither was asymptomatic. I think we are lucky it hasn’t been worse. What solutions are out there? Some establishments (in the fitness industry and elsewhere) make a point of enforcing hygienic standards. Employees and supervisors make sure that folks are compliant, and if they are not they are made to leave the facility. They believe (and rightly so) that the “honor system” doesn’t work with this pandemic. I spoke with a family member a couple of days ago who teaches yoga at a fitness facility; the facility is “open” for 90 minutes then “closed” for 30 minutes during which time the entire building is fogged with disinfectant. This seems extreme, but I’m willing to bet that this place has a lot more people coming through their doors as opposed to the masses who are staying away out of concern for disease transmission. It seems to me that fitness facilities should be going above and beyond rather than aiming for the bare minimum; it would seem to fit into our mission of promoting health and wellness.

The fitness world has a long way to go in this pandemic to make facilities safer. In the meantime, my recommendation is to PUT ON THE DAMN MASK! If you are strong enough to bench press (insert your max.) pounds, you can do it with a mask on as well; remember, weight lifting is an anaerobic activity. As for cardio, unless it is really intense (like running), a mask should only impede airflow slightly; the Nu-Step or a stationary bicycle can probably be used with a mask.

As for my own practice, I keep the mask on always. I will find the days when it is warm enough outside to run outside. If I am doing a cardio workout, I will do it at home. If we all are a little more conscientious about safety/health precautions we can help bring an end to this pandemic. Start by wearing your mask.

Three Months after Bicep Tendon Surgery

Dumbbells

Ah…. Time flies when you’re doing physical therapy! It’s been just over three months since my surgery and I’m happy to report that progress is happening.

Last week, I met with my surgeon virtually who was pleased with my progress and re-assured me that the pain and discomfort I sometimes get are nothing to be worried about. It will continue to improve. In terms of beginning to add weight to my therapy and my own workouts, he told me to follow the instruction of my physical therapist since she is on the front lines and knows how I am doing. He reminded me that the recovery from this surgery is a long one and that I’ll need to be patient (which is why I am his patient!).

At PT, we have noted that my mobility and flexibility have increased. I am feeling less discomfort (although the day after PT I can usually count on some aches). My therapist told me that we can begin to start adding heavier weights to my workouts/PT exercises; I’ll be going from 3 lbs. to 5 lbs., and eventually even more. The main thing for me to watch for is the form; if I start to do the exercise in a sloppy manner or see that I am compensating by using another muscle it is a sign to back down or stop. As a Personal Trainer, this will not be too difficult as these are the same things I check for with my clients regularly.

Was the surgery worth it? Jury is still out, but it certainly seems that if I continue on the current trajectory it will have been a good idea. Once I am able to strengthen the shoulder/arm muscles and carry out the kinds of activities that I have in the past without pain, we’ll have the answer for sure. In the meantime, I will continue with my exercises.

More news in a few months.