Exercise: Ugh or Yay!?

Liverpool Discovers - The Runner

A few blog posts back I wrote about how weight loss is not “one size fits all.” The same is true for exercise as well. I know folks who love to run but cannot stand swimming, and those who love bike riding but hate running. It is very highly individualistic. That is not to say that an “ugh” cannot turn into a “yay.”

At the Mandel JCC where I work, we offer Jump Start Orientations for all our new members. Each new member is entitled to two complimentary sessions with a trainer; one is an orientation to the cardio equipment and stretching equipment while the other focuses on the strength equipment. It is, of course, a clever way to try to get folks to sign up for personal training, but it has a more important role to play. Many people walk into a fitness center and are simply overwhelmed. There is a lot of equipment. There are people who look like they know what they are doing. There is music playing but people have on earphones. Some individuals are sweaty and grunting. It is a lot to take in unless you are used to going to a gym. The JSO helps the new member feel more like an insider; they now know one of the trainers who knows him/her back, and they can walk into the gym and have a mastery of at least some of the equipment.

In the JSOs, I often encounter new members who think they won’t like the elliptical or the stationary bike but once they try it out they decide they really enjoy it. There are also many people (like I used to be) who don’t see themselves as gym-goers or athletes or runners…but, in time, they find they have become “that person;” you know, the one who has to check an extra bag at the airport just for all their athletic gear even when they go on vacation.

A recent article on http://www.nbcnews.com talks to this very point, focusing on running. Running is one of the most difficult individual sports in which to engage; it requires perseverance, special athletic footwear, and endurance. I am not sure how or when I became a runner, but at one point I realized I was. I enjoy biking and swimming (although less so), but running is my thing and I am glad to finally be getting back into it after my foot surgery in April.

The article talks about how there is no one way to approach running. Some people like to run with others, while some like to do it alone. Some prefer a treadmill while others want a track or a trail. Some run the whole time while others walk part of it. The author, Amanda Loudin, notes that it is important to know yourself and what works for you so that you can find a way to run that is feasible and enjoyable.

This, of course, could be said of any sport. Some people like to swim competitively, while others do it for fun. There are those who enjoy a leisurely bike ride to the coffee shop, while others ride 300 miles over three days for charity. There is no “one size fits all,” there is only what fits you.

Don’t give up. Don’t be like the new members at the JCC who at first are intimidated by what they see when they walk into a huge fitness center. Rather, keep an open mind. Know yourself. Don’t try once and declare it a failure. Realize that getting into a sport and a regular routine takes time and commitment. Of course, the rewards–both physically and emotionally/spiritually–are well worth it.

Read the article at: https://www.nbcnews.com/better/lifestyle/how-run-guide-people-who-think-they-can-t-ncna1064311

Power to the (Older) People

Power to the people

In the world of fitness–as in the world of physics–there is a difference between strength and power.

Muscle strength is the maximum amount of force a muscle can exert against resistance in a single effort. For instance if a person is able to press 135 lbs in a single rep of a bench press, that would be their muscle strength.

Muscle power, on the other hand, is the ability to exert maximal force in as short a time as possible; this could mean accelerating (as in a run), jumping or throwing an object (a ball, a discus, a javelin). Muscle power takes into account speed.

The way a person trains their muscles depends on the outcome they are looking for. Those seeking sports performance often focus on power training since speed is usually a factor in competitive sports. Many others who look to improve muscle tone or who want to be able to carry out activities of daily living may focus on strength training.

The most recent issue of ACE Fitness Journal (Sept. 2019) had a brief article on power training vs strength training for older adults by Shirley Archer, JD, MA. She reports on a study out in Brazil reporting on the benefits of power training in an older population. It showed that subjects in the study who were above the median in maximal power had better survival rates than those below the median; in other words, if you have more muscle power there is a tendency to live longer.

This is exciting news to those of us who work with many older clients. The study can be found in https://journals.lww.com/nsca-scj/pages/default.aspx, vol. 41, issue 1.

The article by Archer notes that there is need for more study and caution. Power training requires more balance and coordination; some seniors may not have the necessary skills to perform power training. Even so, it is interesting to note that this is a promising direction for trainers and clients as we age.

I look forward to more research as I continue to help my older clients live longer, healthier and more independent lives.

Reasons to be Thankful…Really

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As the Jewish year draws to a close, many of us are thinking about our successes and failures, triumphs and tragedies over the last 13 months (it was a leap year). We also begin to think about the changes we want to make in the coming year.

One area upon which we should be reflecting is “what are we grateful for?” For sure, we have no problem coming up with what didn’t work right, what is annoying, and what is just a hot mess. Most of us probably spend a lot less time thinking about what is going right: the people in our lives, the many blessings we enjoy, the love that surrounds us. It reminds me of people who complain when a flight is delayed (which is an annoyance for sure), with little thought for the wonder of flight and little regard for the fact that just 100 years ago the same trip might have taken days or weeks.

A study reveals that developing a greater sense of gratitude is good for our health–mental and physical. It is described in this article: https://dailyhealthpost.com/gratitude-rewires-brain-happier/?utm_source=link&utm_medium=fb&utm_campaign=sq&utm_content=dhp&fbclid=IwAR1Jaqb8PoCWfKtVmcG8YprLSbpisoYATjfM1mR1byrtV8lVtg5C-lPcXvU.

People who developed a practice of recognizing and expressing gratitude had a more positive outlook and had less health problems according to the study. The more optimistic you are the less likely you are to have sleep disorders, inflammatory diseases and heart failure.

The neuroscience also shows that it is possible to nurture our sense of gratitude and actually rewire our brain (through new neural pathways) so that we can strengthen these healthy tendencies. Of course, this means we will emit more positive “vibes” which will rub off on others. This can create what the article calls a “virtuous cycle.”

This will not happen automatically. We need to create patterns of thankfulness. In the study, participants were asked to keep a log of positive things that happened, or things for which they were thankful each day. This along heightened the sense of gratitude. It went beyond just the rote recitation of the words “thank you,” often stated quite thoughtlessly.

Psalm 92 says “It is good to give thanks to the Lord.” This is true, but now there is scientific truth that backs it up…and we can achieve that “good” by thanking those around us too.

Thanks for reading this!

What Are We So Afraid Of?

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I was working with a client earlier today who qualifies as an older adult; she is one of those folks who comes to the gym but says that “it is not really her thing.” She cannot really understand why people do it…and if it weren’t for her husband, I don’t know if she would be there at all. As we were discussing this topic (not for the first time), her husband chimed in, stating that the reason why he works out is to avoid “the walker.”

Older adults who do work out are motivated by a number of factors. For some, they really enjoy it–especially the social aspect of being at the gym. For others, it is just a habit that was picked up earlier in life. And for others, it is motivated by fear. And this is not necessarily a bad thing.

A recent study commissioned by the home healthcare company, Home Instead Senior Care Network, surveyed older adults about their biggest fears. The top 3:

  1. Losing Independence.
  2. Declining Health.
  3. Running Out of Money.

Losing independence is complicated, because it can actually be a result of #2 and #3. Other research I have seen shows that the biggest fear is loss of cognitive function; they dread a body that still works and mind that is no longer there. This would certainly result in loss of independence. In any case–especially in the USA–independence is a core value and it is not surprising that we fear losing it as we get older; we do not want to have to rely on others.

Declining health is also complicated. It’s not just about dementia, but about being incapacitated, in pain or greatly impaired. Older adults envision a retirement or later life filled with activity and enjoying the well-earned fruits of one’s labors. It is understandable that we fear that our health may rob us of these things.

Finally, running out of money–also complicated. Many adults have not provided adequately for retirement, even though they think they have. With seniors living longer and longer, what might have been enough money even ten years ago may be underestimated today. No one knows what the status of Social Security will be, but the system is being stressed with more seniors and a declining birthrate. Never mind leaving an inheritance, we worry that we won’t have enough for medicine, food and housing.

So, should we live in fear? The good news is that it is almost never too late to begin addressing these fears. This leads us back to my client; the choices we make today will affect what our later years will look like. An hour or two at the gym can be the difference between independence and having to rely on family, friends or “the system” later in life. While it is true that there are certain medical conditions that we cannot anticipate, many of the health issues in our society are the result of poor lifestyle choices. We can always improve our diet, our exercise, not too mention quitting smoking and limiting our alcoholic consumption. Running out of money? If we take care of ourselves now, we decrease the likelihood that chronic and devastating illnesses will hit us later on; this not only has health implications, but monetary ones as well.

FDR said that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Each of these fears can be addressed. We do not need to let them scare us into inaction; on the contrary, they should spur us to the kinds of activities that will help us avoid the things we fear the most.

We are living longer. Let’s not approach older adulthood with fear. Let’s face it with a sense of bold optimism!

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

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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.