Reflections on Reaching My Goals

The new field goal posts at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium

Sunday was a monumental day in terms of a fitness goal I had set for myself. Those who follow my blog know that 7 weeks ago I joined a weight-loss program (Noom) in order to take off the weight I had put on during the pandemic; I had tried unsuccessfully to do that on my own for about 2 months.

Sunday, I met my overall goal–losing 15 pounds in 7 weeks; not only did the pandemic weight come off, but it also brought me to the middle range of the ideal weight for an adult male 5’10” tall. I have wanted to get to this spot for several years and am finally there! I love the way I feel; I am way less exhausted after my workouts and I feel like I have more energy. I love the way I look; my clothes fit better, I can see my obliques and abs, and I had to get a new belt to hold up my pants! Two things I am thrilled about: eliminating the visceral fat around my waist (which is an indicator of better health) and reaching a goal that I worked hard to accomplish.

What was different this time? Two things.

  1. In the past I just tried to watch what I ate and monitor physical activity but not in a “casual” way. Several times, I used My Fitness Pal to track those, but I was never really consistent about it, nor did I have a sense of what my calorie intake should be in order to achieve success. Additionally, although I may have lowered my calorie count, I was not necessarily eating the right kinds of foods–too much processed stuff and not enough greens and whole grains. This time around I used Noom. It is not inexpensive, but I know that if I put my resources into something I am not going to let it go to waste; who wants to spend money on something and then simply let it go down the tubes? The fact that I was invested financially meant that I was invested emotionally and physically. Noom also has coaches, a kind of support group (that I only joined when I was almost at my goal), as well as regular educational tidbits on the app that are informative and motivating. Bottom line: to get results, get invested.
  2. I had a partner supporting me. My wife (who is close to her goal as well) is doing Noom as well. We both support each other and hold each other accountable. We know that one of us slips, the other one will slip as well…and when one shows discipline the other one will too! I honestly think this was a more important factor than the first point above. I do not know how folks lose weight on their own when others around them are eating a less healthy diet with larger portions. The beginning was hard as we both adjusted to a greatly reduced calorie counts, but then we put our heads together and found recipes and foods that would fill us up with as little a dent in the calorie budget as possible. It became like a kind of game and we were a team! This journey has even brought us closer together!

What is next? Obviously, I must now maintain the progress that I have made. Noom has adjusted already now that I am not in the “weight loss mode;” my calorie budget has increased a little. It is now up to me, though, to stick with the program–even with the upcoming Passover holiday–tracking the food I eat and physical activity. I suppose a time will come when I won’t need to do all the tracking, when I am so used to how and how much to eat that it will no longer be necessary. That is still in the future.

For now, I celebrate reaching a goal…and get ready to set my next one!

Making Sacrifices for Better Health

Chumash printed and commented by S.L. Gordon

This week in the Jewish lectionary cycle, synagogues around the world begin reading the Book of Leviticus. The very first Torah portion is called Vayikra after the first word in the first verse in Hebrew; the reading describes five of the sacrifices/offerings that Israelites were to make in the Tabernacle (and later in the Temple) on various occasions.

The Jewish view of sacrifices is different than what we often think about. In modern parlance, sacrifice is thought of as giving up something. Usually the sacrifice is made in order to accomplish something else–to appease a god, to give thanks, to request something from a god. The ultimate goal is to engage in the creation of holiness; this comes from the Latin root of the word sacrifice. In Judaism, the word used is Korban and, linguistically, it has nothing to do with holiness; rather it means to approach or come close. The goal of a sacrifice then is to come closer to God; this may better explain why Abraham was willing to offer up his son. The aim of a sacrifice is not transactional but rather to simply be in relationship with God.

In the world of fitness and health, we also talk about making sacrifices, but in a different way. Those who have ever tried to lose weight know that we have to “sacrifice” eating some of the foods we might like, or at least eat them in different quantities. Working out also requires setting aside time that might be spent watching TV, shopping, or doing other activities; belonging to a gym or hiring a personal trainer involves a financial commitment that may necessitate cutting something else out of the budget. There is only so much time in the day and only so many resources, and we have to make choices…or sacrifices.

A more positive way to look at these sacrifices is not as having to “give something up.” Rather, the Jewish view of sacrifice asks us to think about what our choices can do in order to “bring us closer.” Closer to what? Closer to our health and fitness goals. Closer to living the kind of life that we want. Closer to actions that reflect our values.

Over the last 6 weeks on my weight loss journey I have had to sacrifice a lot–mostly my beloved pastry! In the process, however, I have found that I am closer to who I want to be. I feel the way I want to feel. I look more like how I want to look. I find I have more energy and stamina. I am indeed “closer” to where I want to be…and I did it by making “sacrifices.”

As we reflect on the beginning of the Book of Leviticus, let us consider the sacrifices we are willing to make (and are not willing to make) in order to bring us closer to who we really should be.

Wishing all a great weekend and Shabbat Shalom!

Let My Diet Go? Planning for Passover

Olives, Matzoh, Radishes, Liver Pate, and Sweet Pickled Peppers

The holiday of Passover is about 10 days away and for most Jewish people across the globe, preparation is in full swing. Why is this Passover different than all other Passovers?

You might think the reason is because of the pandemic, but by Passover last year we were already in “lockdown” mode and most Seder meals were done with only a few people and/or virtually with family and friends. The real difference this year has to do with the changes that I have made in my diet over the last five weeks or so. As I have noted in previous posts, I have been tracking all my exercise and all my calorie consumption; as of this morning, not only have I taken off all my COVID weight, but I am also 2 pounds away from my goal weight. It is an amazing feeling; I like the way I feel and the way I look!

This year, my wife and I are approaching Passover in a different way when it comes to food. For those not familiar, during the 8 days (7 in Israel), we eat no leavened foods: no bread, no pasta, no cake, etc. Over the years, however, many substitutes have been produced so that now it is possible to make Passover “bagels,” brownies, noodles, etc. They use ingredients that are permitted on Passover, but from the standpoint of being healthy…well, let us just say, that maybe they should not be permitted. It is still a carb nightmare. We are planning ahead so as not to lose all the progress we have made since we began this journey.

Typically, we make lots of recipes that use Matzoh (unleavened bread); recipes call for using it in “lasagna,” desserts, and even (the ever-popular) Fried Matzoh. This year we mapped out EVERY. SINGLE. MEAL. You read correctly. For the entire 8 days, we have charted out what we will eat, and it involve as little Matzoh as possible (which clocks in at 140 calories/piece). We are going heavy on vegetables and lean proteins (lots of fish since we do not eat meat or poultry). During the Seders, we are supposed to drink 4 cups of wine; we will not use such big cups this time around. Most years, Passover seems like a lost cause when it comes to eating healthy…and when it comes to the Passover Seders, think Thanksgiving-sized feasts two nights is a row. This year will be different from all other years. We have planned for it to be different.

Of course, it will not be easy. We are only shopping, though, for what we will eat (as listed on our menu) so that we do not have the temptation of lots of junk food to snack on. We are also going to drink LOTS of water to combat the famously constipating effects of many foods served on the holiday.

I will keep you posted on how it goes during the holiday, but I am actually looking forward to not feeling bloated and stuffed for much of the week. It will be worth the effort for that reason alone. Continuing to make progress toward my health goals will be icing on the (Kosher-for-Passover) cake!

Fitness After the Pandemic

Revolving door - Public Library

There is a light at the end of the tunnel and it is not attached to an oncoming freight train. Vaccinations for COVID-19 are proceeding apace, hospitalizations are down, and folks are beginning to sense a return to some kind of normality.

Many months ago when gyms re-opened after the initial shutdowns, I asked in this blog whether folks would really return to gyms. The numbers who came back in the late spring and summer were quite small; as a personal trainer, I was operating at about 40% of where I had been pre-pandemic. Trainers at other facilities with whom I spoke reported similar downturns in gym attendance. But now that there are vaccines and hopefully something approaching herd immunity, what will the future hold for gyms? An article published on http://www.cnbc.com back in July, 2020 shared the results of survey; the findings were that 59% of Americans were not planning to renew their gym memberships after the pandemic. I am sure there is more recent research, but I have not seen it. Anecdotally, most of my clients have stated that it is more convenient, cost-effective, and (perceived to be) safer to pivot to on-line training; they simply do not plan to go back to a gym at all.

Clients at At Home Senior Fitness have begun to ask what my plans will be when things open up more. My business model–which I began to develop when COVID-19 was unknown outside of the scientific community–was always to train folks in their own homes; I would bring the equipment, the expertise, and the fitness plan. The pandemic pushed me toward virtual training and that now accounts for about 95% of my business–both in one-on-one training and in remote group fitness classes. I certainly have no plans to train in a gym any longer; the overhead is so high that I would make a fraction of what I do as a self-employed personal trainer…and I am still able to remain competitive price-wise.

I do think that gyms will come back, but perhaps not to the same levels as before. Those facilities that succeed will be the ones that offer the cleanest, safest environment; even before the pandemic, we know that some gyms, their equipment, and locker rooms were not clean enough. They will also be the ones that are able to respond to what customers are looking for rather than adhering to outdated “take it or leave it” policies.

As for my business, I only see growth ahead. Pandemic or not, many older adults prefer the ease of staying at home. They do not have to worry about driving. Those that have mobility issues do not have to fret about the walk from the parking lot to the fitness center. At-home training means they will not be intimidated by the machinery (we keep it to dumbbells, resistance bands, and body weight exercises) or others in the gym prancing around showing off their physiques. It is the most comfortable setting to be in.

There is a place for gyms. For those who like the social experience and want access to lots of different equipment, there is no substitute. Still, the pandemic has shown many that there are alternatives to the typical gym that have their advantages too.

The main thing is that once the danger of COVID-19 has passed, people need to recommit to their health and fitness. Just because the pandemic ends does not mean that all of the sudden we are healthy. It just means that we have one less obstacle in our way and more choices for how to reach our goals.

Be Kind, for Everyone You Meet is Fighting a Hard Battle

A little kindness goes a long way

Although often attributed in memes to Plato, the source of this line is actually believed to be a minister of the Free Church of Scotland, Ian McClaren.

In any case, the sentiment rings true–especially during these pandemic times. It is easy to be judgmental, to make snap decisions about people’s behavior, to come to conclusions based on what is apparent rather than what is on the inside. This is human nature.

I know myself well enough to know that I am not the most patient person. I am pretty sure I inherited this from my parents–but especially my mom–who did not suffer fools lightly. I have made a concerted effort over the last few years to be a more patient, understanding, and less judgmental person. Interestingly, the pandemic has actually helped in this regard. Things that used to drive me crazy, now just elicit a *sigh* and a thought in my head: “oh well, things are tough; there’s a pandemic going on.” I am by no means perfect at this, but I am moving in the right direction.

McClaren’s words speak to this struggle. We never really know what struggles another person faces. I would like to think that most people are good and reasonable, and if they are acting otherwise it must be because something difficult is going on beneath the surface. I try to have compassion rather than anger, understanding rather than spite. To quote David Bowie, “It ain’t easy.”

What helps to keep me motivated is knowing that there are times when I am not at my best. I have had my struggles over the years, and yet as a rabbi, I had to put on my “game face” and be there for others. I knew that I was not running on all cylinders–and maybe others saw that too–but the kindness and patience of others (rather than criticism) got me through it. Just as othes were kind to me, I want to extend that kindness as well.

We all have our hard battles. No one is immune–especially during these difficult days. Let’s work to be kind. Not only is it good for others, ultimately it makes us healthier individuals as well.

How Logging My Meals is Working Out

Keat takes notes

Earlier in February, I blogged about the impact of logging meals and exercise on the success of weight loss efforts. At the time, I noted that this is an effective tool for many. Especially if you are using an app designed for this, it can help more accurately determine calories in food being consumed, how many calories are burned during exercise, and bring discipline (think avoid snacking because it is too much trouble to log a Hershey Kiss–26 calories!). Knowledge is power, and that power can lead to greater success in keeping healthier and fit.

I discovered another benefit. Now that I am more aware of how many calories are in certain foods, my grocery shopping and meal planning have changed. I am spending more time in the produce section and less time picking up processed foods. Fish is a great choice as it is low in calories (unless it is slathered in sauce) and has many health benefits. Vegetables are low in calories and can be filling and add color to the plate. Some foods (Thomas’ Whole Grain English Muffins and Dave’s Killer Breads) are not the evil carb monsters we believe them to be. This is not to say that I do not enjoy the occasional cookie or ice cream, but it is more in the context of an overall plan of eating healthier.

Usually when I am trying to lose weight, I find myself hungry quite a bit of the time. Logging has now given me the tools to plan meals that will be filling and still lower in calories. It is working. I am fueling my body in a more appropriate way rather than giving in to cravings (which seem less frequent now). Most importantly, I have lost 10 pounds in 4 weeks. I have been really disciplined and have managed to take off my COVID weight. Just a few more pounds to go and I will be at the ideal weight for my height. I feel great, my clothes are no longer tight, and I like what I see when I look in the mirror. Logging is a bit of a pain but it has paid off.

You know what they say: no pain, no gain. In this case: no logging, no losing. It does not work for everyone, but it sure seems to be giving me success.

Fitness and Fighting Disease

Cancer-fighting Strategy

I recently had a conversation with a surgeon about the role that fitness plays in fighting disease. He answered (rather tongue in cheek) that in his experience it seems that those folks who seem to take the poorest care of themselves are often the ones who simply will not die.

This was not what I was expecting to hear, but it is based on anecdotal evidence rather than research.

Research, on the other hand, shows that those who are physically fit–who exercise on a regular basis, maintain a proper diet, and get enough sleep–are less likely to be afflicted by disease. In particular, exercise is known to reducte the risk of diabetes (type 2), heart disease, many types of cancer, anxiety and depression, and dementia. Even so, we do hear about people who seem to be in tip-top condition who receive terrible diagnoses as well as those who treat their bodies poorly and live to a ripe-old age. The reality is that there are many factors (genetics, environment, luck) that shape our overall health and longevity.

What happens, though, to those who are fit and become ill? Often–though not always–those who are in better shape at the time of their diagnosis have a better chance of beating the disease. Those who exercise regularly, eat right, and get plenty of sleep can have stronger immune systems; this is key in fighting off disease. When treatment involves surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy, their bodies are often better able to tolerate the stress being placed on them. People who are accustomed to setting health and fitness goals may also have a better outlook about their ability to achieve good health again.

Bet there are no guarantees. So why even bother? If I work out regularly and have other good health habits and I may still get cancer, or Parkinson’s Disease, or Alzheimers, etc., why go to all the trouble? Because maintaining a healthy lifestyle should not be primarily about preventing disease; it should be about being able to enjoy life to the fullest for however long we are given on this planet. There are folks–like the ones the surgeon mentioned–who may life longer, but they may be very limited in their ability to carry out activities of daily living, let alone take advantage of the many opportunities that are out there.

There are no guarantees. All we can do is take the best care of the bodies entrusted to us so that we can enjoy the blessings and love all around us.

Over 200 Followers

Number 200

When I began this blog just under two years ago (in fact, 2/24/21 will be the 2 Year Anniversary of my first post), I had very little idea how this whole thing worked. Luckily, my son Rami Ungar the Writer (you can read his blog too) gave me some tips and helped me along the way.

My goal with this blog originally had been to synthesize Judaism and Fitness; this grew out of my shared experiences of being a rabbi for nearly 29 years and being a personal trainer for the last 3 years. Over time, the emphasis of my posts has shifted some. A year after being certified as a personal trainer, I got a specialization in Functional Aging; this certification transformed my fitness career as I focus more on training older adults. In August of 2020, I officially started At Home Senior Fitness, LLC–my own personal training business for older adults in the Cleveland area–and globally on the web. As a result of this professional move, my blog posts have begun to address more frequently the concerns of older adults. I also have brought posts that discuss nutrition, COVID-19, and the many factors that influence our health and fitness.

While I do every now and then reference Jewish ideas, Jewish texts, and Jewish values, is is not quite as prevalent as it was in the early days. Does that mean that I need to rename my blog? Not so fast…. The Hebrew word for “exercise” is kosher pronounced as we would in English; the word used to describe the Jewish dietary laws is pronounced kasher (with the “a” sounding like “ah”). In Hebrew the words are spelled identically–mostly because written Hebrew uses only consonants; the vowels for each word, however, are different. Even so, kosher and kasher come from the same root. A food which is kosher is one that has been determined to be “fit” for consumption–as in, it is appropriate or OK. And, of course, exercise makes us “fit” as well.

I have taught several classes, given lectures, and been interviewed on the Jewish/Fitness connection. While it is not a major concept in Judaism, there is much in Jewish literature and thought that emphasizes the importance of maintaining healthy bodies; the reason being that we cannot serve God and others if we are too sick, frail, or weak. So it is that the connection between Judaism and Fitness is always there–even if not explicitly.

It will be interesting to see what the next year of my blog–and my business–brings. In the meantime, I am thrilled to have over 200 followers. It means a lot that people from all over the world find meaning, information, and maybe even inspiration in my words. Here’s to the next 200 and beyond!

Thanks for reading.

Two Are Better Than One

Valentine cookies

Valentine’s Day is not a holiday celebrated by many Jewish people simply because its origins are in the Catholic tradition. My wife and I jokingly call February 14 “The Day We Don’t Celebrate,” but we still go out of our way to express our love through little gifts and a nice meal. Today was no exception. The message (at least as it has evolved over time) is universal; love is a powerful force for good in our lives and in our world. It does not matter what your background, this is a message that resonates.

Love has many health benefits as well. I will not get medical here, but rather point to the fact that when two people come together (romantically or otherwise), something special often happens. What do I mean by “otherwise?” We all know friends or co-workers whose presence in our lives makes a difference; they are a comfort to us when we are down, cheerleaders when we are discouraged, celebrators when things are going well. There are many ways to commit to others in a loving way that does not involved physical intimacy.

This is a blog about fitness, so I do want to mention that teamwork can make a tremendous difference in reaching one’s health goals. I know of many people who regularly go to the gym with a partner so that they keep each other motivated and on track. I have a friend I have known since my freshman year of high school; even though we do not live in the same city, we work out on Zoom three times a week. He keeps me motivated and I do the same for him; we rarely cancel a workout because we do not want to let the other person down. I am also fortunate that my wife shares many of the goals that I have around caring for ourselves; recently we made a promise to each other to be more mindful about what we eat (and how much!). It is so much easier to do this when we are both in it together.

If we are having a hard time reaching our goals–fitness or otherwise–it is a good idea to ask: “who can help me to achieve this?” Reaching out usually helps us, but also helps the other person as well. It is more fun to have a partner in the endeavor and the chances of success are greater.

On this Valentine’s Day (The Day We Don’t Celebrate), I encourage you to think not only of a romantic love partner, but also the people near and far who have shared their love with you. Do more than just think about it, though; act in ways that demonstrate how much they mean to you. It can be flowers, candies, or a gift, but it can also be a commitment to working as one to achieve a healthier lifestyle.

Wishing you all the best in health, fitness, and love!

New Study: Overweight and Active Is Still a Problem

Bathroom scales

A new study from the European Society of Cardiology bursts the bubble that you can be overweight and still healthy–what some refer to as “fat but fit.” [For the record, I find this language offensive, but it is the wording used in the report].

The report says that even if one is physically active, the risks from being overweight are not greatly diminished. Over a half-million people participated in the study; they were classified by BMI into three categories: normal weight, overweight, and obese. They were additionally classified as either active, insufficiently active, and inactive.

Perhaps the most significant finding was that irrespective of activity level, higher BMIs were associated with higher levels of disease. Overweight and obese participants were at greater cardiovascular risk no matter their level of activity. In particular, obese people (compared to those at normal weight) are still twice as likely to have high cholesterol, four times as likely to have diabetes, and five times as likely to have high blood pressure.

All that being said, there is also such a thing as being thin and unfit. Obviously, this is not a good thing either; however, the extra weight carries risks independent of physical activity. This does not negate the fact that the more activity the better. Controlling one’s weight and being physically active go hand-in-hand to achieve better health outcomes.

Here is an abstract of the report: https://www.escardio.org/The-ESC/Press-Office/Press-releases/Being-fat-linked-with-worse-heart-health-even-in-people-who-exercise.