Personal Fitness is just that: Personal

Body Image. The subjective concept of one's physical appearance based on self-observation and the reactions of others.

A great article appeared last week on http://www.cnn.com on their health page. Written by Lisa Respers France, it explores our society’s obsession with the body image and fitness of celebrities–in particular, female celebrities. It is a short article worth the read.

As a Personal Trainer, I have long believed that the path to fitness is a personal one and that is why it needs to be personalized. We all have different bodies with unique abilities and disabilities. We have distinct hereditary traits that help or hinder us. Ultimately, the decisions we make about our bodies are personal and should remain that way.

Here is the article: https://www.cnn.com/2020/10/08/entertainment/celeb-weight-loss-plc/index.html

Looking Forward to Fitness

Looking forward...

The Jewish holidays ended Sunday at sunset. We spent the entire month of Elul (the Hebrew month leading up to Rosh Hashanah–the New Year) preparing for the spiritual work that takes place during the Ten Days of Repentance (from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur). Once the New Year begins, the intensity does not let up; just 5 days after Yom Kippur (the holiest day of the year) we begin Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles), which lasts for over a week.

During this period of heightened spirituality, we often say, “I’ll get to that after the holidays.” We are busy and things get pushed off. Well, here we are; all the hoopla has died down and it is time to commit to the promises we made to ourselves, each other, and God.

For me, in the midst of it all I was also recovering from biceps tendon surgery. What I have been waiting for until “after the holidays,” was getting back into my best shape/fitness/health possible. And boy do I need it. Yesterday morning I got on the scale and had found that my weight had crossed a red line that I have not crossed in several years. So yesterday, I buckled down and got back on the My Fitness Pal app on my phone. I am already making progress. I am also making an effort to plan for daily workouts and making them a priority.

One of the amazing things about the High Holiday season is that it comes around every year. There is a realization that we are works in progress and that the journey to becoming our best selves is a lengthy one. Judaism teaches us to review our past, learn from our mistakes…and then look forward. We do a lot of remembering in Judaism–not for the sake of wallowing in the difficulties of the past, but rather as a guidepost for where we need to head in the future.

Looking at the number on the scale, contemplating the loss of muscle mass due to my surgery, noting the diminished stamina that I have could all be reasons to be downhearted. Judaism teaches me that it is best to take the information I have and take the steps to go in the right direction. When we have a bad day (or week or month or year), we should realize that every day provides us with new opportunities. We should be informed by the past, and not imprisoned by it.

Today is a new day. So is tomorrow. I am looking forward to continuing to become the person I want to be–physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The holidays are over; let’s get to it!

The Upside of Instability

Rickety bridge - Alps High Route - Mt Blanc to Matterhorn

We are accustomed to thinking of instability as being a bad thing. I even wrote my senior thesis in college on the effect of economic, social and political stability on minority groups. As my research uncovered, stability is not always what it is cracked up to be.

This is especially true in the world of fitness and resistance training. It is even more so when we are dealing with older adults. A foundational principle in weight training is the idea of progression; adding more reps, sets, weight, incline or speed over time to increase or maintain muscle mass, or to enhance stamina.

We recognize this kind of principle in many areas of our lives; at our jobs, we rarely start out as CEO, but rather work out way up from the mailroom, etc. The more difficult the task, the greater our skills are developed.

Instability training is training that takes place on a surface that is not stable. Progression would typically advance from a stable surface to a less stable surface to an even less stable surface. For instance, at first a person might be instructed to do bicep curls on the floor–a stable surface. Next, the person might move to an instability pad (more solid than a pillow, but less stable than styrofoam); from there it might advance to a Bosu ball (ball up) and then to a Bosu ball (ball down). Each step involves less stability, forcing the legs and core to compensate in order to maintain proper balance and form.

A study published earlier in 2020 in Scientific Reports, shares interesting conclusions about instability training. Here is the link: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-59105-0.

We have known about the benefits for balance–especially important as we age–but it now appears that there are cognitive benefits as well. Research conducted at University of Kassel in Germany shows that “mental fitness” improved for older adults when instability/balance training was included along with regular resistance training. That mental fitness meant “improved working memory, processing speed, and response inhibition.” (Response inhibition is the ability to control a response in order to reach a goal).

More and more, we are discovering the connection between physical activity and cognition. Those of us working with older adults can now add another benefit to the work that we do by including instability training if we do not do so already. And for those who already do, here is another reason why.

Intermittent Fasting: the Research is In

An Empty Plate

I blogged back in March and August of this year about the diet trend called
Intermittent Fasting. This is was touted as an effective way to lose weight; it involves eating only during certain hours of the day–usually for 8 out of the 24. Early research seemed promising and there was anecdotal evidence as well.

The latest research, though, tells another story. An article on http://www.cnbc.com discusses the lastest findings: https://www.cnbc.com/2020/09/28/intermittent-fasting-doesnt-help-weight-loss-ucsf-study.html.

Dr. Ethan Weiss conducted a study of 116 overweight individuals beginning in 2018; some were put on an intermittent fasting regimen, the others on a “placebo” diet. The fact that human subjects were used was a big deal since previous studies had been conducted with mice. The study found no statistical difference between the two groups. In other words, intermittent fasting is no more effective than other kinds of dieting.

So does that mean you have nothing to lose by giving it a try to see if it works for you? Not so fast, says Dr. Weiss. First, it is not clear that intermittent fasting is good for older adults. Second, and most importantly, subjects in the intermittent fasting group experienced loss of muscle mass. This means that the weight lost may not have been fat, but muscle!

These findings are important, and I’m sure there will be more studies. In the meantime, it seems that intermittent fasting probably isn’t your best approach to weight loss. It also bears repeating, as the article points out, that weight is not the only indicator of good health and fitness. Consult a medical professional and/or fitness specialist to find out how to be the most fit and healthy you!

Interestingly, the article was published on Yom Kippur–the holiest day on the Jewish calendar marked by a 25-hour fast. Coincidence? I think not….

The Healing Power of Forgiveness

Healing.

On the eve of the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur–the holiest day in the Jewish year–the theme of forgiveness is on my mind. The holiday is also known as the Day of Atonement; it is, according to tradition, the day in which our transgressions are forgiven by God.

It is actually a more complicated matter. Judaism teaches that the rituals of Yom Kippur are just the final step in the process of true repentance. If we have committed a sin against God (by not following the ritual laws in the Torah) we are hopefully forgiven on this day through fasting and prayer. If we have offended another person, forgiveness doesn’t happen until we have confessed the sin, tried to make it right with the other person, and vowed to not repeat the offense.

It feels great to be forgiven. It is a central part of many religions. Of course, forgiving others is a little more difficult. Over the years, there are people or even institutions who have hurt us (and continue to do so); how do we find a way to forgive them?

I blogged about this back in June. Here is the link: https://kosher-fitness.com/2020/06/15/will-i-be-forgiven-will-i-forgive-others-2/

I was inspired by the book Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand to seek ways to forgive others who have offended/hurt me. With the assistance of a professional who helped me sort through the issues and the process, I discovered that it was actually not as hard as I thought it would be to forgive. I accepted that those who had hurt me were doing what they thought best (even if the outcome for me was difficult) and that their actions gave me opportunities that would not have existed otherwise.

What was most difficult was learning to forgive myself. I have made mistakes and that is OK. I also know that I expect an awful lot from myself; my parents set very high standard for my siblings and me. I know that I don’t need to be perfect and I should accept that I was also doing what I thought best (even if the outcome was difficult for me and others close to me).

Learning to forgive has been a healing process. The churn in my brain of anger and resentment has quieted down; I do not replay scenarios over and over in my head. When the individuals involved come to mind, my response to myself is “oh well.” I have become a non-anxious observer of past events in my life.

I have not reached nirvana. I am not perfect. There are people out there who annoy me and even disrespect me (my perceptions, of course), but I am trying to practice compassion during this difficult time. Even so, I feel mentally healthier. I am not holding the grudges. I am letting things slide…or I just left off steam and then drop it. My overall attitude has improved and I feel like I am able to pivot more adeptly to constructive attitudes and actions.

Forgiveness should not be restricted to once a year. It should be an ongoing process. It is good for our health. Need help with this? There are professionals out there who can guide us.

Wishing everyone who observes Yom Kippur a meaningful fast, a HEALTHY year, and the gift of forgiving and being forgiven.

Two Months after Bicep Tendon Surgery

The Long Road Ahead

My surgery to repair tendonosis on my right bicep was just over two months ago. It’s been about a month since my last update.

The good news: mobility and strength are greatly improved, even from this time last month. Today at PT we measured it and there are definite advances. I was also cleared last week to start running again, and that has been great–especially with the wonderful weather we’ve been having.

The bad news: I am not nearly as strong or mobile (range of motion) as I would have hoped. I also am experiencing a good bit of discomfort/pain–especially at night and first thing in the morning. It is hard to say how much longer that will go on.

The question remains: was it worth it to have the surgery? And…the jury is still out. I am hoping that in the long run I will be pleased that I did it. For now, the pain is a little less than before surgery, but there are times when it really smarts. I definitely know when I have overdone it, but in my line of work it is difficult not to lift objects that way more than a few pounds. I have learned to compensate, but that is not the best strategy either. My doctors and physical therapist tell me that all this is normal. I haven’t had a lot of surgeries, but enough that I should have learned that recovery always takes longer than promised.

There is still a long road ahead, but hopefully the baby steps add up to a lot of progress over time. Every now and again, I will update you on my progress. Until then, stay safe and stay strong!

What Did I Come Into this Room for…and Other Things I Worry About

PET scan of an healthy brain compared to a brain at an early stage of Alzheimer's disease.

A short, but informative and helpful, article appeared on CNN.com’s health page today that sparked my interest. Entitled, “Is My Senior Moment the Start of Dementia?,” it explores the difference between milder forms of cognitive impairment such as forgetfulness and more serious forms such as Alzheimer’s Disease. The author, Laurie Archbald-Pannone, is an associate professor of geriatric medicine at the University of Virginia.

As I have grown older, I have accepted that my memory is not what it once was. I have noticed that it seems to be much worse when I am under a lot of stress. I will make what I consider to be stupid mistakes like going to the grocery store to buy one thing and leaving with five things–none of which was the original product I intended to buy. I sometimes cannot remember a name or find the right word to express myself. I got so worried at one point (soon after my move to Cleveland and starting three jobs), that I went to a doctor and asked for a test…man, woman, person, camera, TV…I passed too!

Archbald-Pannone’s salient point is that memory loss becomes a problem when it interferes with one’s ability to do everyday activities. For instance, not remembering the name of someone you know but haven’t seen in a few years is not a problem; forgetting the name of someone you see everyday might be. Not remembering how to get to a restaurant you went to one time is probably not a problem; getting lost on the way to the dry cleaner you’ve gone to for years probably is.

The author points out that mild cognitive impairment is a natural part of aging and is usually not cause for alarm. In any case, it is always a good idea to keep one’s primary care physician apprised of any changes or concerns. Sometimes these changes are, in fact, the beginnings of something more serious.

It bears repeating (at least on my blog) that according to the the Alzheimer’s Disease Foundation’s website there are things we can do to prevent the onset of dementia. Their website lists: proper nutrition, mental activities, certain dietary supplements, and physical activity. The last one, of course, is the one that is most compelling to me. We know that cardiovascular exercise helps the heart, but when the heart is strong it helps the rest of the body. A healthy heart and vascular system is better able to circulate nutrient-rich blood to the cells. The better fed the cells, the healthier they remain. This includes brain cells. It bears repeating: physical activity becomes all the more important as we age.

To read Archbald-Pannone’s article, click here: https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/21/health/what-are-early-signs-of-dementia-wellness-partner/index.html.

And now, I’m off to the store to get some buttermilk…right?

A Heartbreaking Side-Effect of COVID-19

Stress

By now, most of us are familiar with the symptoms, illness and too often death that result from COVID-19. It is has stressed nearly everyone…and that stress is having a negative effect as well.

The most recent issue of AARP Bulletin reported on a recent study published in JAMA Network Open (part of the Am erican Medical Association) noting increased cases of Stress Cardiomyopathy since the beginning of the pandemic. Stress Cardiomyopathy is often known as “broken heart syndrome;” great sadness or other major upset can actually cause heart muscles to weaken. This phenomenon was studied at the Cleveland Clinic and Cleveland Clinic-Akron General, where incidences of Stress Cardiomyopathy increased from 1.7% of patients before the pandemic to 7.8% between March 1 and April 30, 2020–when the full effects of COVID-19 were becoming known and affecting our lives.

Must we just sit back and take it? Must we allow our hearts to take a beating? Grant Reed, a cardiologist cited in the article, suggests that those feeling overwhelmed by the stress of the situation should share that information with their medical provider. In other words, this is not just an emotional issue, but a physiological one as well. The article noted that the symptoms of Stress Cardiomyopathy look a lot like the warning signs of a heart attack: chest pain and shortness of breath among them.

One line of defense is to work on reducing stress. We all have our own ways of dealing with it (I listen to Earth, Wind and Fire), but we may want to think about meditating (or prayer if that is a part of your tradition) and connecting with family and friends–even if that means over the phone or virtually, and only those family members who won’t stress you out even more!

Finally, exercise is also a great way to reduce stress. Physical activity can release hormones that make us happier called endorphins. Even if you cannot get to the gym, there are other ways to keep active like going for a brisk walk, riding a bike, on-line workouts, etc.

Many of us are indeed broken-hearted about the loss of life and suffering caused by COVID-19. Let’s do what we can to reduce our stress and build our immunity through exercise, proper rest, good nutrition and connections with others. Nobody wants to test negative to COVID-19 only to fall ill to the stress associated with it. Let’s take care of ourselves.

Am I Working Too Hard or Not Hard Enough – Part II

Harvest of barbells - Valinhos, SP

In my last post, I tackled the question of cardio exercise and how to know if we are overdoing it or underdoing it.

Now, we turn to resistance or weight training.

The truth is that this is really a trick question…or at least a really complicated one with not nearly as simple a formula as in the case of cardio.

Here are some factors to take into account:

  1. What are your goals in lifting weights?
  2. Are you looking to merely “tone up” or “bulk up?”
  3. Have you had injuries/illnesses that may affect your ability to do heavy lifting?
  4. Are you using the proper form (at any weight)?
  5. Related to the previous, are you in a safe environment where someone is able to spot you when necessary (i.e., be there in case you can’t get the weight back on the rack, or if you stumble, etc.)?
  6. How much time do you have, or how efficient do you need to be with your time? Can you get to the gym or your weight set only 1-2 times per week or 4-6?

This will sound self-serving, but except for those with extensive athletic/weight training experience, it makes sense to be in touch with a fitness professional. There are, of course, ways of determining the proper weight given the goals that are sought. Once a proper weight has been found, though, most programs integrate progression; progression basically means making the workout more challenging either by increasing weight, the number of reps, the number of sets, or adjusting the degree of difficulty in another way. No matter what one’s goals, progression is a core principle, so knowing where to start is simply that: a start.

From a personal standpoint, you may remember that I had bicep tendon surgery 6 weeks ago. The amount of weight that I am able to lift with my right arm is way below what one would typically expect; in PT, I am up to 2 pound dumbbells for certain exercises. If all I cared about was huge muscles, this would make me crazy; it is a little frustrating, but I know that eventually I will be able to get to higher weights that will allow me to reach my own personal fitness goals.

In the end, whether you are working too hard or not hard enough is a very personal question. It is not one-size-fits-all. For best results, consult a fitness professional. Personal trainers are a great bet. Don’t be afraid to reach out; you’ll be pleased that you did.

Am I Working Out Too Hard or Not Hard Enough

Resting Heart Rate

It can be confusing knowing just how much to work out and how hard to work out. Fitness professionals toss in words like cardio and resistance and acronyms like BMI and BPM and it’s enough to scare newcomers away from any kind of physical activity at all. How do we begin to think about this?

Workouts are roughly divided into two kinds of activity. Cardio (short for Cardiovascular) means exercises that are designed to get the heart pumping and the blood circulating. Cardio exercises include running, elliptical, cycling (stationary or real!), swimming, and brisk walking. It is true that each of these will also work your muscles, but their primary effect is to circulate rich oxygenated blood to the rest of the body while exercising the heart muscle. Resistance (or weight) exercises are primarily designed to maintain or build muscles. Examples are most activities that are done on weight machines or with barbells/dumbbells, etc. These include bicep curls, lat pulldowns, and leg presses. Again, there is often a cardio component to these exercises but that is not their primary purpose.

Ideally, any exercise program should include a mix of cardio and resistance. Overall, we should aim for a combined total of 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise each week. Additionally, those who have never really been active and are considering upping their game should check with their physician to discuss possible limitations based on medical history.

Assuming all that checks out, how can we tell if our cardio exercise is really doing its job? A lot of folks tell me that they walk (the dog, on the treadmill, around the block); this is a good thing, but is it really cardio? Is it raising the heart rate and exercising the heart?

There is a simple formula to determine this. It is not exact but gives a good estimate. Take your age and subtract it from 220. That number is your maximum heart rate. For example if you are 60 years old, your maximum heart rate during exercise should be 160 BPM (beats per minute). This can be calculated by taking one’s pulse or by any number of devices worn on the arm that can track this. Of course, training at the max is great if you are an elite athlete, but what about the rest of us? Ideally, we should aim for a heart rate (BPM or beats/minute) of 65-85% of our maximum. For a 60-year-old person this would be 65-85% of 160–or 104 to 136 BPM.

Don’t be shocked if you measure your heart rate during what you consider to be cardio and find it to be well below the number for the ideal range. First, if you are on a blood pressure medication, your numbers will be “artificially” kept low. Second, this is an indicator that you may not be working hard enough. If you are on a piece of gym equipment, it is easy to check miles/hour, strokes/minute, etc., and then work to increase that. Many machines also allow you to adjust incline or resistance; this is another surefire way to increase the heart rate. If you are walking the dog and your dog enjoys a sustained vigorous pace, you may find you hit the range; if, however, your dog (like mine) likes to stop and sniff every few yards, it is unlikely you will get into the cardio zone. Another activity on top of the dog walk may be necessary to hit that 150 minutes per week

The advantages of paying attention to heart rate are many. It prevents us from working too hard and causing harm through overtraining, and also prevents us from not working hard enough and not getting the full benefit. When we do cardio on a regular basis, we help to strengthen our hearts (the most important muscle in the body), increase blood flow to the cells, and to the brain. Cardio exercise is the only clinically proven way to prevent or delay the onset of dementia since it assists in the proper “feeding” of the brain with oxygenated blood.

As for resistance training, how do we know if we are working too hard or too little? Watch for an upcoming blog post on that topic.

In the meantime, check your numbers. You may be pleasantly surprised…or find that the hard work is still ahead.