The Ten Commandments of the Gym (if Thou Wishest Not to Piss Off Thy Neighbor)

Moses

I have been a gym-goer for over 20 years and worked in a Fitness Center for a year now. Here is my take on the 10 Things gym-goers should observe to avoid the most common pet peeves.

  1. Thou Shall Not Talk Loudly on Thy Phone. This is annoying anywhere, but particularly vexing at the gym. Whatever business you have, take care of it elsewhere; we don’t care about your carpool schedule, feud with the cable company, or your plans for later in the day. Do not initiate a phone call unless it is urgent; if it’s urgent, why are you on the stair-climber? If someone calls you and it’s urgent, get off the machine and deal with it. If it’s not urgent, recite the following: “I’m working out right now, can I call you later?”
  2. Thou Shall Clean Up after Thyself. If you have left bodily fluids on a machine, CLEAN IT UP! There is a reason why there are cleaning rags or wipes in the gym. Not only is this an issue of health (which is presumably why we came to the gym in the first place), it is just a matter of common decency. While we’re at it: RE-RACK YOUR WEIGHTS. We’re all impressed (not!) that you can pack a ton of 45s on the leg press…we’re more impressed when you put the plates back. Think about the next person who may not be able to lift those 45s…that was you once. Do not leave your towels on the ground in the gym or in the locker room; your mommy and daddy will not be coming by to clean it up and the hard-working staff shouldn’t have to clean up our towels when the bin is probably just a few steps away.
  3. Thou Shall Not Sojourn on the Same Piece of Equipment. Some gyms have multiples of many pieces of equipment (usually cardio), but that may not be the case on resistance/weight equipment. Be considerate; do not be a hog. If you see someone “hovering,” offer to let them work in a set. By all means, DO NOT read a book, take selfies, update social media status while on a piece of equipment; I have seen it all. Just rude.
  4. Thou Shall Not Grunt Overly Much. Ugh. This may be the number one reason why newbies get scared away from the gym. To you it may be a way to advertise just how hard you are working, to the rest of us you look like the posterior end of an equine beast and you sound the same too.
  5. Thou Shall Wear Proper Attire. It goes without saying that athletic footwear and workout gear should be worn in the gym, but one still sees jeans, sandals/flip-flops, street shoes and bathing suits on the fitness floor. Proper footwear is especially an issue for adequate support and protection. Here are some other no-nos: men’s t-shirts with the arms cut out almost to the waist (you have nipples, we get it), women wearing a sports bra as a top (is it ok if I just wear a jock strap and no shorts?), shorts or shirts that are too tight, shorts that are too short (the only balls we want to see at the gym are medicine balls), t-shirts or other clothing with foul language.
  6. Thou Shall Not “Hit On” the Other Gym Members. This is related to number 8 below. The gym is not a pickup bar. People come to work out and they need to do so in a safe and secure environment. No one wants to be harassed anywhere, but especially not in a gym where so many of us feel vulnerable.
  7. Thou Shall Not Take Pictures or Videos that Include Others. Unless you have their permission, this is just an invasion of privacy. If you are taking a selfie, make sure no one else is in the frame. Under no circumstances should you take videos or photos of others without their knowledge no matter how funny you think their form looks. I’ve seen adults almost come to blows over this. Again, gym-goers want to feel safe and secure. Use discretion please.
  8. Thou Shall Not Talk Incessantly. You know the type. Instead of a quick hello, they stand next to you and yak, yak, yak. It doesn’t matter how many times you say, “well, I really need to get back to my workout,” or walk to another piece of equipment, or put your headphones on, they do not get the clue. People are at the gym to work out; most of us do not have a lot of time and we want to make the most out of whatever time we do have. Keep it brief and watch for visual and auditory clues that you have overstayed your welcome. BTW, “go away,” is a good sign that you should move on. Just sayin’
  9. Thou Shall Not Change the TV Channel without Checking with Others. In some gyms this becomes a real issue. Many gyms have monitors on every piece of cardio, but others do not. A whole crowd could be tuned into just a handful of screens, so don’t just assume that you can switch off “Murder, She Wrote” and others won’t care. Some gyms are careful to have a variety of news stations on; DO NOT change them all to CNN, Fox or MSNBC. You only need one TV to get your news.
  10. Thou Shall Not Sing Out Loud to What is on Thy Earbuds. Um, we can hear you, and to paraphrase Simon Cowell, “that was absolutely horrible.” Unless it’s Earth, Wind and Fire…

There. I feel better now. Now go forth and observe, and verily thou shall be a righteous dude or dudette at the gym!

Mental Health and Exercise

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A lot has been discussed in the past several days since the mass shootings in Gilroy, El Paso and Dayton regarding mental health.

I am always bothered when mental health gets dragged gratuitously into discussions about gun violence. Mental illness occurs all over the world, and yet we still have a terrible record in the United States when it comes to gun violence and mass shootings. Additionally, the same elected officials who focus on the role of mental illness in our violent culture are often the same ones who have worked to provided greater access to mental health services. (End of that sermon).

As a personal trainer and a rabbi, I am by no means an expert in mental health. I do have some background in pastoral counseling, but I also know when the issue at hand is beyond my training and capabilities; then I refer to a professional. I have also dealt with mental health issues in my family–who hasn’t? A lifetime of living tells me that there are no easy answers, that you cannot just “get over it.” Depression, anxiety, panic disorders, etc., are real and they can be debilitating. The good news is that most mental illnesses are treatable, and success rates are highest with early intervention–which is why it is so important for all of us to work toward de-stigmatizing mental illness.

My own fitness journey really intensified about 11 years ago after my mother passed away. It was not that long after my divorce and after the end of an engagement that did not lead to marriage. I was not at my best. For several years, I had periods when I would go to the gym more regularly and others when I would not. After my mom passed away, a fellow mourner at synagogue services gave me some advice (I have mentioned this in a previous post): “take good care of yourself, this will be harder than you think.” I resolved from that moment to take good care of myself; I made visits to the gym a regular thing and was more careful with my diet. Those decisions–along with the support of family and friends–made a difference. Mourning for a parent was harder than I thought it would be, and taking care of myself was an important part of getting through it. I have stuck with it ever since and it has helped me through emotionally trying times.

Anecdotal evidence aside, there is a firm basis in science for the effect that exercise can have on our mental health. We know about the benefits to our cardio-vascular system, brain health, and musculo-skeletal system, but we do not often talk about what it does for our mental well-being. There are several good articles out there on this topic, and google will be your friend if you want more info.

A few points worth mentioning. Exercising releases chemicals in our bodies that create a greater sense of well-being–in particular, endorphins. The latest research also indicates that increased blood flow, nutrients, and oxygen to the brain as a result of exercise can aid in neurogenesis (the creation of new neurons) in the hippocampus–the part of the brain that helps regulate memory and emotions. For more on this topic, go to: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/what-works-and-why/201803/how-your-mental-health-reaps-the-benefits-exercise.

Additionally, depending on the exercise we are doing, we can develop greater capacity for mind calming (running, swimming, yoga). Small group classes can help build a supportive community. A personal trainer can create a plan to help us reach our physical fitness goals; many of my clients talk about the emotional well-being they feel as a result of the experience as well.

Exercise will not solve the mental health care crisis in our nation. Exercise will also not put an end to violence and mass murder in our society. Exercise is, however, one piece of the puzzle–not just to improving physical health, but mental health as well.

The world we live in is difficult–harder than we think. The advice I pass along: take good care of yourself. Exercise is one way to do that.

The Cycles in our World and in our Lives

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Today, not only are we about to begin Shabbat, but it is also Rosh Chodesh Av–the first day of the Hebrew month of Av. On the Hebrew calendar, every month begins when there is a new moon in the sky (even if it isn’t visible); it is a lunar calendar (as opposed to the Gregorian calendar which is solar). Even so, the Jewish calendar has a solar correction because the sun and the moon aren’t always lined up; there is a leap month every few years so that Passover always ends up in the spring, Rosh Hashanah in the fall, etc.

Judaism is especially attuned to the cycles of nature. We not only mark the cycles of the moon, but also the various seasons and harvests that accompany them. Prayer times are set by the pattern of sunrises and sunsets.

There is only one major observance that does not line up with any astronomical or natural cycles: Shabbat, the day of rest. It does not reflect anything going on in the cosmos; rather it is based on the biblical story of Creation. Even so, it is an important part (the most important!) of the cycles that make up Jewish life. The mega-cycle of the year on the Jewish calendar causes us to appreciate the world around us, to confront our responsibilities, and find our place in the world. Each holiday asks us to focus on what we need to do in the world. Passover focuses on freedom, Shavuot on responsibility, etc. All the cycles give us context for our lives so that we are not simply running on a treadmill from cradle to grave. The calendar encourages us to live in and appreciate the moment.

I cannot help but see a parallel to the world of physical fitness. Many of us have our regular cycle of upper body days, lower body days, group classes. We may even have a rotation of cardio equipment we use. For those who take this seriously, the cycles and patterns provide a sense of orderliness; they present a plan where it is possible to see progress–to look back on where we have been, where we are, and where we hope to go. These cycles can be quite effective.

In our society we often hear that we should not get “stuck in a rut.” We need to “break the cycle.” There is, however, a flip-side. We can use these patterns to help us organize our lives, set goals and even give our lives a sense of meaning.

On this new moon, I am reflecting on the bad things that happen in our world (that is a theme of the month of Av), and what I can do to prevent them. On this Shabbat (on which we conclude the Book of Numbers), I am thinking about closing one chapter and beginning another. I look to these cycles to help me find my place in the world and what I can do to reflect God’s presence in it.

The High Priest’s Grandson and Your Workout

Jewish-calendar-plate

Thought for Shabbat

The end of this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, outlines the offerings to brought to the Tabernacle and later to the Temple.  It begins with the daily offerings, the weekly Shabbat offerings, and is then followed by the various festivals.

It is noteworthy that there was an offering presented by the priests every morning and every afternoon.  Sacrifices were seen by the ancients as a way to connect with God; during a sacrifice, the boundary between life and death was crossed and that mysterious and powerful act was thought to bring God’s presence nearer.  The Torah legislates that this does not happen only at special occasions or even just weekly, but rather every single day.

As a personal trainer, I can relate to this.  In ancient times, the goal of sacrifice was to draw near to God.  This could not be done in a haphazard way; it had to be done on a regular basis if there was any hope of achieving this aim.  The same is true for almost any goal we set for ourselves.  Whether in business, education or physical fitness, we need a regular program to help us get where we want to be.

I tell my clients that it is good that they see me on a (mostly) regular basis, but once or twice weekly may not be enough to lose the weight, tone up, build strength and endurance, etc.  The effort needs to be daily, lest we miss a day…and another…and another.  

Parashat Pinchas reminds us that this approach is valid not just in our earthly pursuits, but in our quest for the Divine as well.

Shabbat Shalom!

HIIT for Seniors?

A little reminder

What it is HIIT? It stands for High Intensity Interval Training, which means working out at a lower intensity for a given amount of time, followed by working out at a higher intensity for a given amount of time, in a cycle. For example, a person could walk for two minutes, run for 30 seconds, walk for two, run for 30, etc. HIIT has gotten a lot of hype because the research shows that it is an efficient way to work out.

HIIT now encompasses many modes of exercise. There are HIIT aquatics classes, weight training, and cardio applications. The results are that one can get the same benefit as a regular workout, but in a compacted amount of time…and the benefits can continue for a while after the workout ends. Research shows that when we raise our heart rate significantly, we can continue to burn calories at the higher rate for several hours. That is efficient! And that explains the popularity.

But is it OK for seniors? AARP ran an article on this topic last year: https://www.aarp.org/health/healthy-living/info-2018/high-intensity-interval-training-workout.html. Being a trainer “of a certain age,” I clipped out of the bulletin and took it into the gym, figuring I’d give it a shot.

For many of my hour-long sessions I start out with the beginner’s HIIT suggested in the article: 3 minutes low intensity, 20 seconds high intensity, 2 minutes low, 20 seconds high, 2 minutes low, 20 seconds high, and then 2 minutes of low–for a total of 10 minutes. Of course, how to do HIIT with seniors will differ with each person. A couple of my clients have advanced to the point that we now do 30 seconds high intensity at each interval. Depending on their ability, balance and agility, I use walking on the track, elliptical, NuStep, or a stationary bike. It is sometimes scary at the beginning since many seniors are not used to “pushing it,” for fear of a heart attack, or because they’ve been told that they are too old for that intensity of exercise.

Trainers and seniors alike should be cautious, but from my experience, HIIT can increase cardio capacity, affecting both endurance and power. As my clients progress, I will continue to tweak the formula. Although skeptical at first, I am a believer in HIIT for older adults when done appropriately. I have seen the results myself!

On the way to a funeral for a 25-year-old

Yesterday I performed the Mitzvah of Nichum Avelim–Hebrew for the commandment to comfort the bereaved. A family that played a significant role in one of my previous congregations lost a son and grandson who was active duty in the military. Although I only barely remember the young man (I left that community 17 years ago), I felt I needed to be there for the family; Jewish tradition says that we do not really have a choice but are commanded to be there for others.

On the way to the funeral I was listening to NPR and there was an hour-long discussion about suicide. (This was not the cause of death.) As a member of the clergy, there was not a whole lot that I had not heard before, but still it was a great segment and a good reminder.

Much of the program dealt with what to do when we hear/see/sense something wrong with a friend. What are we supposed to do? What should we say? In a number of different ways, they spoke about how one of the most important things we can do is let the other person know they are not alone, that there are others going through the same thing as well, and that there are places to get help. They all emphasized how significant it is for those who are having suicidal thoughts to feel connected to others.

They also talked about a kind of systemic change that needs to occur. We still place too much of a stigma on mental health. Our healthcare system does not always provide health insurance or treatment parity with physical illnesses. This means that open discussions about how friends, family, co-workers, etc., are doing do not take place often enough. We can begin to create change in our own families, places of work, school, by encouraging those conversations–checking in on others even when they don’t seem to be distressed. Sometimes those with mental illness are very good at disguising their distress, and all it takes is making the effort to connect.

I know that I will try this myself. The more we make conversations about mental health no different than those about physical health, the more likely we are to create situations in which those needed help will comfortable to seek it.

The funeral I attended was not a suicide, but was tragic nonetheless. I cannot imagine what the family is going through. I hope my presence made some difference. As we rethink mental illness, we can all make a difference.

This was not the segment, but still very helpful: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/04/20/707686101/reach-out-ways-to-help-a-loved-one-at-risk-of-suicide

Meditation and Trying to Calm my Mind

Vizsla Meditation

For about 18 months now I have tried to build a meditation practice. I was first introduced to meditation at the Rabbinic Training Institute, a yearly program for rabbis sponsored by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

For a long time, I thought that meditation was a bunch of yoga/granola/tree-hugging hooey…until I tried it and learned a little more.

Meditation is not the only way that I try to calm my mind. I have been a regular davener (Yiddish for pray-er, ie, a praying person) for over 30 years, every day, three times a day. I will admit that not every prayer experience is what I hope it to be. Sometimes it seems like a chore, or I just rush through it, or I am anything but mindful–letting my mind wander in a thousand directions. Other times–especially when I am with a minyan (a group of 10 Jews)–I do feel spiritually connected, and allow myself to calm and simply be. Whether it is successful or not, it is significant that I take time out of every day to stop and try to connect with something outside of myself.

My favorite way to calm my mind is Shabbat–the seventh day, the day of rest. I feel like practically my whole week is aimed at Shabbat, preparing for it, waiting for it, missing it…. As an observant Jew, I try to have all the preparations ready before sunset so that I do not have to worry about cooking, cleaning, shopping, etc. It is a gift that God gave to us, and a gift that I give to myself each week. It is the one time during the week when I feel most present for myself and those around me.

And then there is meditation. Why is this so difficult? Why during the week is it nearly impossible for me to get my mind to settle? I find that many times I cannot seem to turn off the thoughts that rush into my mind, and then my thoughts run down the rabbit hole wherever it leads. Other times, I simply fall asleep.

I join a weekly Jewish meditation group on-line for 15 minutes of Torah teaching followed by 30 minutes of meditation; we sit in silence all of us, with our screens in front of us. Like my davening, there are times when it is great, and others where I feel like I “accomplished” nothing. I guess that is why it is called a “practice:” it is never perfect just a continual rehearsal to try to get there.

Speaking of practice, that is the same word used for Yoga. In the past, I have done a lot more yoga than I have since I moved; I hope to remedy this. Almost every time I practice yoga I do feel like my mind is calmed and I am totally present. Perhaps it is because it is so tactile, rather than simply a mind practice. It could also be the group setting (see my minyan comment above). Maybe the influence of others around me doing the same thing helps me to flow in the right direction. Maybe that is why the on-line meditation is so challenging.

Of course, the big question is: why is it important to calm one’s mind? We live in a world that now more than ever bombards us with information, distractions and demands. We often end up on that hamster treadmill, running and running, and getting nowhere and tired real fast.

not a metaphor for your life

None of us wants to live our lives this way, on a treadmill, never examining who we are, what we do, what interests us, what makes us passionate. On a regular basis, we need to calm ourselves and reconnect with the Source of All and with ourselves.

Not everyone will do this in the same way. Doing so, however, has great benefit. Not only does it helps us to ground ourselves in this big world, but it also has many health benefits.

Am I perfect at this? Is my prayer, my yoga, my meditation, my Shabbat everything I want it to be every time? Not by a long-shot; sometimes I am just that metaphorical dog asleep on the couch. In the meantime, I will continue to practice calming my mind, calming myself, and reconnecting with what is truly important in my life.