Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Doors

That is the big question now in the United States. At the Federal Government’s urging (and to the dismay of many health experts) states are beginning to “open up” again. The last couple of months have been difficult, and everyone has faced different challenges. So we have this question: should I stay or should I go?

I have only gone out when there was something that I needed to accomplish that couldn’t be done online. Most everything that my family needs is delivered to the house. I teach an online workout every morning. My clients train with me via Zoom. I avoid contact with others when I am out–including appropriate physical distancing and always wearing a mask. As things open up, we all have to figure out what is the right thing to do.

Earlier this week, the local JCC where I work as a personal trainer announced that we will begin to open the facility in phases. Starting in about 10 days, the Fitness Center will be open by appointment only for personal training and Pilates only. It is not totally clear what any of this will look like, but we may train one-on-one with our clients in a separate designated area, wearing masks, no locker rooms or shower, etc.; in other words, nothing will look as it did before. This will be a huge adjustment for me and my clients.

We have to remember that one of the goals of any Fitness Center is to foster the good health and fitness of its users. What good is it to build up muscles and endurance if you end up exposing yourself to a debilitating and sometimes deadly virus? In a way, we personal trainers are like doctors in that we have to ensure that “first, [we] do no harm.” We cannot work on all the areas of fitness that our clients come to us for unless we can guarantee to a reasonable degree that they will be safe doing so.

Should we go or should we stay? Everyone will answer this their own way. Certainly those who have more than two of the categories that put you at risk should consider staying. Otherwise, we may want to think about all the steps that we can take to get back into the swing of things while staying safe and healthy.

For me, I think it will be like getting into a pool. I usually don’t just dive in, but rather put one toe in at first to test out the waters. Once it looks safe I slowly guide myself in.

I’ll keep you posted on how things play out when I’m back at the gym.

Staying on Track

3,000+ Free Railroad Tracks & Train Images - Pixabay

It has been about a month since I wrote about how many of us are “growing” during this time of sheltering in place–and I meant it in terms of our waistlines. I shared how I was having my own struggles with a house full of food and not as much activity as my body is used to.

My first attempt at trying to get on track was to try intermittent fasting. This was, as you may recall, not a success; it just didn’t fit with my schedule. I am also not convinced it is a long-term solution or a pattern of behavior that is sustainable in the long run.

My second attempt was to count those calories. I have had the assistance of My Fitness Pal (I do not get a kickback for mentioning them), and it is making a difference. I have used this app in the past and found that it makes me more aware of the food I am eating and when I am eating it. This was a theme of my Torah commentary a couple of weeks ago as well. Following MFP has not been as difficult as I expected. It has helped me to plan better and kept me cognizant of how often I have the craving to snack. (I am of Hungarian Jewish descent and I cannot say “no” to pastry; I come by it honestly!) Another plus is that I feel like I could do this for a while; the cravings are dissipating and I am drinking less alcohol as well.

My real downfall has been Shabbat when according to Jewish tradition we are to eat three fine meals. In many Jewish homes, the typical Friday Night dinner does not look that different than a Thanksgiving Dinner. The past couple of weeks, I have approached Shabbat with the same kind of planning that goes into the holidays. I was careful about what I ate; portion-control, avoiding seconds, limiting myself to two small glasses of wine, and not going crazy at dessert actually paid off. I have watched the weight slowly come off. I am a still a way off from pre-quarantine levels, but I am pleased with my progress.

The JCC where I work just purchased an InBody Assessment tool; it tracks body composition and is way better than the old equipment we’ve been using. All of the personal trainers had to take a 2-hour online course and pass a test before we could administer an assessment…and wait for the gym to re-open. What the training reiterated was that weight is only one number and it is a complicated one. I know that I’ve been working out more since COVID-19 and it is likely that I am building muscle which is denser than fat. I look forward to checking the other factors like body fat percentage to get a truer picture of how well I am taking care of myself.

In the meantime, I am making progress and this encourages me to stay on track. I am taking control of my fitness…and it feels great!

What gets you on track…and what keeps you there?

An Ancient Text is Still Compelling

The holy scripture

One of the beauties of the Torah is its enduring wisdom. Although the document has remained unchanged for millennia, it continues to teach us and guide us in 2020. One could make the argument that there is so much in the world today that the Torah could not have anticipated, and therefore it is of little value in our contemporary world. The authors(s) of the Torah could not have conceived of cellphones, air travel, organ transplantation or perhaps even loving, committed, intimate same-gender relationships. In a way, this is really a side issue. The Torah still has overarching themes that apply in a world that looks so different than the biblical period: building a relationship with God, looking out for others, pursuing justice, seeking peace, and bringing holiness into our lives are just a few of these themes.

There are some parts of the Torah that are clearly antiquated and we may wonder what use they have: the ownership of slaves, animal sacrifices, putting to death a child who will not listen to his parents, etc. When we dig a little deeper, we can try to identify the values that underlie these laws, and many times we find guidance and inspiration. Other times, we remain mystified…and that is okay.

The Torah portion for this week is a double-parasha; Tazria and Metzora are read together. These two portions have been viewed as being in the “antiquated” category. The understanding of medical and scientific phenomena were very limited and the laws regarding what today we might think of as mold, mildew, and a number of skin conditions seem out of date. The laws in the Torah portion represent the ancients’ best understanding of how to deal with conditions that they could not comprehend; they legislated as best they could in the face of mystery.

As antiquated as these laws seem, this year they take on a greater significance. We find ourselves close to the situation in which our ancestors found themselves. We are confronted with a disease that we do not fully understand. We do no know how to prevent it; there is no vaccine. We have no 100% effective way to treat it. We are not fully certain how it spreads. So–like the Priests in ancient times–we are doing the best we can to stop the spread and to care for those who are stricken. The similarities between Tzara’at (the skin condition often translated as leprosy) and COVID-19 are striking.

Can we gain any inspiration or guidance from the text of the Torah? The laws tell us that we are not to abandon those who are ill. The Priests had to check on them regularly to see their progress and determine when it was safe for them to return to the community. It was a process that could be quite lengthy. Sound familiar? The Torah tells us that in the face of that which we do not understand we must be cautious. We must always seek to preserve life. Through it all, we must also preserve the dignity of those who are ill. And let’s not overlook that those who were “caregivers” were given a place of esteem in society.

The most repeated commandment in the Torah is to be kind to the stranger because we know what it is like to be strangers ourselves. A text that is thousands of years old speaks to us in modern times–and especially in the age of COVID-19. Its message of love and concern for others is enduring; let the Torah inspire to be better than our fear and selfishness. Let us work to bring holiness and wholeness into God’s Creation.

Re-Opening the Gyms

Sometimes Open Needs a Push

A couple of days ago the Personal Fitness staff had its regular weekly meeting via Zoom. It is really great to see my colleagues–especially since they are a great crew–even if it is via Zoom.

Not surprisingly, part of the agenda was about the “push to open” gyms. In Ohio, it appears that there will be a gradual re-opening of certain businesses starting in May including gyms. This, of course, does not mean that the state will force them to re-open (as they were forced to close), but it does mean that there is an effort afoot to try to get life to the new normal.

We are pretty excited about the prospect of being able to go back to work and train our clients. There are, however, a lot of details that need to be worked out first. I, for one, am very worried about the risks of face-to-face (in the flesh) training. In all honesty, I am worried about the COVID-19 virus simply because there is no vaccine and the treatments are limited. I am not a spring chicken and although I am in good (great?) shape for my age, many people younger than me have succumbed to the virus.

It does appear that when gyms get back to business (at least the responsible ones), the doors won’t just be thrown wide open with anyone coming in whenever, wherever and however they wish. My guess–and this is not based on anything told to me by the higher-ups–is that our facility and others will open up gradually. Perhaps at first it will just be available for those working with personal trainers. Maybe last names A-L will come on even numbered days and M-Z on odd numbered days. Will locker rooms be available for use? Showers? Steam rooms, saunas and whirlpools? Probably not at first. What about cardio equipment that is usually packed pretty closely together? How will equipment be cleaned–especially dumbbells and mats? Gyms are among the touchiest places out there…not to mention that people are sweating, breathing hard and otherwise sharing bodily fluids all the time.

How will this all work? I don’t have the answers, but many gyms are looking to the East…the Far East. There are places in Asia where gyms have re-opened and here in the US we are watching closely to see how they do it and whether it is safe. Until we do have answers to the questions above and many others, it is my hope that the doors aren’t just flung open for business.

My gym has been super-responsible and super-responsive during this whole crisis. Let’s hope that ethos continues and that other gyms follow suit.

I cannot wait to get back to the gym…but until these issues are sorted out, that’s just what we’ll have to do. After all, it’s all about being healthy!

Fat Memes during COVID-19

Weight Gurus black bathroom scale on wood floor

I have noticed a lot of postings on Social Media joking about how overweight we will all be once we are through with our self-isolation/quarantining. To put it bluntly: not funny.

First, there are many people who struggle with their weight and their overall fitness all the time–not just during this unique period. My guess is that these are NOT the people posting these jokes and pictures; are they posted by “skinny” folks who feel safe because they know they are not really talking about themselves?

Second, how is it that in polite company and in social media it is not okay to joke about someone’s ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious beliefs (or lack thereof), and yet fat-shaming is still acceptable? As a personal trainer, I know that many people at the gym are keenly aware of this inconsistency. It is part of the reason why many with weight issues avoid the gym: fear of being judged or, even worse, ridiculed.

Third, there also folks out there who have genuine eating disorders. Eating properly and healthy are a daily battle for them. Can we even imagine what being stuck in a house full of food is like? It is a matter of mental and physical health…but, hey, if it gets a chuckle let’s post it on Facebook or Twitter!

Joking about someone’s physical condition should never be acceptable. During this difficult COVID-19 period, we should be especially sensitive to those who struggle with their health and their weight. It is hard enough for the rest of us to try to maintain proper diets while we are stuck at home or having to order take-out…let’s not make light of what for many is a very serious issue.

There is plenty of other funny stuff out there to joke about. I hear that cats are funny…

Use It or Lose It

Sunday, lazy Sunday

This past week I have begun to do a lot more personal training via Zoom. In addition to my daily 10 am class on Facebook, I have book quite a few of my clients for 30 minute sessions.

A few of them have managed to keep their workout schedules, albeit somewhat modified for the situation. Most of the others, however, have allowed themselves to become sedentary. It is true that they are cleaning around the house, etc., but not a lot of activity that challenges the muscles and raises the heart rate.

A lot of research has been conducted about “backsliding.” Most of it shows that within 30 days one can already begin to see the effects of not working out: loss of muscle tone, decreased stamina, loss of mobility and flexibility. I always thought that number was a bit of an exaggeration. One month! Really? That’s all it takes?

Well, guess what? Some of my clients are really struggling as we get back into a healthy routine. I feel like I’ve had to step back quite a bit from where we were before the quarantine. I am grateful that I am able to help, and this is a warning to all of us.

The situation is difficult. This is all the more reason to take care of ourselves. The inclination is to sit on the couch and snack but that is dangerous. When this is all over (soon I hope), what shape will we be in physically? Let’s also not forget that getting plenty of sleep, exercising and eating right boosts our immune system. By “letting ourselves go,” we put ourselves at greater risk of contracting viruses, etc.

It’s not too late. This could go on for a while. Get up, get online. Google a workout. Find equipment at home that you can use–canned goods make good hand weights, and you can also make use of towels, pillows, etc. Get moving! You’ll be glad you did.

Hate Won’t Social Distance or Take a Holiday

My second-to-last year in Rabbinical School at JTS I was afforded the opportunity to serve as a student rabbi at a small congregation in Huntsville, Alabama. I think there were about 30-40 families at the time (1990-1991), most of whom had come from other places but had settled in Huntsville for work at NASA, Redstone Arsenal or other military-related employers. I would visit once/month and really enjoyed the experience with a super-friendly and welcoming group.

The synagogue came into existence when one of the families’ sons was approaching his Bar Mitzvah and the family wanted him to wear a tallit (prayer shawl). The old, traditional Reform Congregation did not allow this back then and so they broke off and formed the Conservative (this is the name of the denomination and has nothing to do with politics) Etz Chayim. They bought an old church building on a main road in southeastern Huntsville and on their own the members pitched in and made it work.

Etz Chayim was known at the Seminary for its “internship” where rabbinical students would serve as rabbis. It was a great chance to see what it would be like to be a pulpit rabbi in a caring and nurturing environment. I learned a lot during my year there, as did many of my friends who served 1-3 years in Huntsville.

It was with absolute sadness that I read of the vandalism that took place there on the first night of Passover (last Wednesday night, April 8). At a time when so many of us are thinking about the ways that we can help each other int his COVID-19 pandemic, there are still folks who have the time, energy, and supplies to vandalize a synagogue. The damage and the messages were painful enough but to have this occur on one of the most joyous and special days on the Jewish calendar is devastating. Of course, there is a long time tradition of attacking Jewish institutions and Jews themselves around Easter. What a great way to honor Jesus–persecute the community from which he came!

We are all distracted–and rightly so–by COVID-19, but let’s not forget that hatred doesn’t social distance and it doesn’t take a holiday. Here’s to hoping that the Huntsville community will come to the aid of Etz Chayim. That would be the true spirit of the ideals embodied in Christianity and Judaism.

Here is more info on what happened: https://www.jta.org/quick-reads/synagogue-in-huntsville-alabama-vandalized-on-first-night-of-passover-with-neo-nazi-graffiti

How is Quarantining Helping You Grow?

Weight Gurus black bathroom scale on wood floor

OK. So this was not really the kind of growth I was looking forward to. I will admit that I have learned a lot about myself and those around me during the current COVID-19 unpleasantness. It has come at some cost to my fitness for sure as my waistline is growing too.

A few posts back I mentioned that I was going to give Intermittent Fasting a shot…and I did. I tried it for one week, but found it untenable. Most folks doing this choose to eat only from 11 am – 7 pm, while the rest of the time they only drink liquids. I teach a daily workout online (search Facebook for Kosher-Fitness) at 10 am and I’ve got to fuel up before that. We also usually sit down to dinner between 6:30 and 7:00 pm which doesn’t fit the schedule either. The real proof was (you should pardon the expression) in the pudding; I was continuing to put on weight.

This is totally to be expected since most of us are way less active now than we usually are. Typically at work as a personal trainer I am doing a lot of walking around with clients, demonstrating exercises, and sometimes even doing certain things right along with the person. Ironically, the workouts that I teach online are more strenuous than my typical exercise regimen. Even so, I’m still at a deficit when it comes to burning calories.

I’ve decided to follow the advice I give to my own clients. I am counting calories now. It’s not as bad as it seems; I’m using the My Fitness Pal app–which I have used on and off over the last year. I find that it benefits me in two ways at least. First, it makes me aware of just how many calories I am consuming–which is usually more than my ballpark guesstimates. Second, I’m too lazy to keep going to the app, so I simply decide not to have that little snack so that I don’t have to go through the trouble. It’s like keeping kosher–observing the Jewish dietary laws; I make myself much more aware of what I am consuming.

I will keep you posted on my progress. How are you all doing? Are you finding that you are growing in unexpected ways too? No one knows how long this will go on, but if we put on a pound a week for a couple of months, it will be a challenge to get back to where we were.

Finally, remember that weight is only one aspect of health and fitness. Don’t forget about maintaining strength and cardio-vascular health. Remember to be kind to yourself and care for your emotional self too. Staying healthy is a multi-level endeavor; don’t ignore any of those parts and pieces.

The Arrogant are Brought Low

aLOnE

During this time of isolation and quarantining, we are all learning a lot about ourselves and those with whom we share living space. This experience is not as harrowing as what others have faced in the past, but it is traumatic nonetheless.

There is a kind of leveling experience about the whole thing. The COVID-19 virus has struck the powerful and the weak, the wealthy and the poor, the famous and the obscure. Suddenly, whatever sense of security we might think we have has been challenged. It is a humbling experience for sure.

Jewish Mussar teaching tells us that humility is not about “bashing one’s self;” it is not making one’s self a doormat for others to walk all over. Rather, it is about filling one’s proper place and space in God’s creation. There are times when we must promote ourselves and speak up; there are other times when we must take a step back and keep silent. Being humble means knowing which is which and then acting (or not acting) accordingly.

Moses was considered to be the most humble servant of God. There were times when he had to speak up, chastise the people, and even challenge the Lord. Other times, he had to take direction from God without question or let others assume leadership in given situations. He knew his place; Moses was humble before God and his fellow human beings.

Our weekly Torah portion, Vayikra, hints at this trait in Moses. The very first word in Hebrew, Vayikra, concludes with the letter Alef. In Torah scrolls there is a longstanding tradition to write the Alef smaller than the other letters; it is quite striking. The word means “And [God] called out….” God was calling out to Moses but was able to do so in a diminished way–represented by the small Alef. God didn’t need to scream to get Moses’ attention. Moses could be reached in a soft way due to his humility.

I don’t know what we are supposed to learn from this whole COVID-19 crisis. Perhaps one of the lessons is about our absolute vulnerability as human beings. Look how our lives have been turned upside-down in just a matter of a few weeks. That vulnerability should lead us all to be a bit more humble. We should recognize that we are not all-powerful and cannot control everything. At the same time, as Mussar teaches, we should understand that we are made for great things; we have the power to make the world better and to overcome adversity.

Wishing us all a little more humility in these COVID-19 days…and after as well.

As If We Ourselves Were in Egypt

Alive

This evening at sunset begins the Hebrew month of Nisan; if it is clear tonight, you can see (or not see) the new moon.

Nisan is a very special month in Jewish tradition. It is the month that contains the holiday of Passover, the celebration of the Hebrew’s liberation from Egyptian slavery millennia ago. The entire month takes on certain observances–most of which eliminate mournful practices.

There is a lot of getting ready for Passover: cleaning, purchasing special foods that can only be eaten at Passover, getting rid of the food that cannot be eaten (because it contains leavening), and preparing for the festive Seder meal. It is a lot of work, complicated further by the current COVID-19 situation. It is difficult to go out and purchase the special foods. Many of us are used to hosting a lot of people for Seders; that won’t be happening. The whole thing is rather disconnecting.

There is also spiritual preparation for the holiday. For weeks leading up to Passover, there are liturgical additions on Shabbat that get us thinking about the meaning of the holiday. It is, of course, about freedom and redemption–and not just from Egyptian slavery, but every day in our lives and in history. We live our lives trying to make the world a better place–redeeming a broken creation and trying to restore the correct balance. In essence, this is what God was modeling to us when were brought out of Egypt.

It is difficult for many to relate to the story of Passover. It took place so long ago and so far away. Most people sitting at the Seder (unless they are Holocaust survivors, former Soviet Refuseniks, or former inmates), have never experienced slavery. We don’t really know what it was like for our ancestors. The Haggadah (the book we use to guide us through the Seder) tells us that each participant must see him/herself as if s/he personally went out of Egypt. How do we do that?!?

This year is the first time that many are getting a tiny taste of what it might have been like (with obvious big differences). We now know what it means to be cooped up in a small place unable to leave. We know what it feels like to not have a sense of what tomorrow may bring. In short, we realize that our destiny is not totally in our hands; this is always the case, but now we sense it more strongly.

This is not Egypt. There are parallels, though, and perhaps we can draw on them to make the festival more meaningful. We may not be able to control events around us right now (can we ever?), but as Victor Frankl pointed out, we always have a choice about how we want to face what is going on. Can we find purpose in this moment? Can we draw meaning from the inconveniences and suffering of COVID-19? The choice is ours.

We can sit and sulk. We can grieve. It is appropriate to do so. For a while. Then we must accept what is going on around us; we must adjust to whatever the new normal will be. We must rise above it. We must find ways to connect with others through new media. We must continue to take care of ourselves and the vulnerable in our midst. We must find ways to enrich ourselves. We must become more sensitive to the suffering of those around us.

None of us was in Egypt, yet every year we focus on the story to draw inspiration, courage and wisdom. Right now, we are not in Egypt, but that shouldn’t stop us from learning and deriving meaning from our experience today.

Happy Nisan! And stay healthy!