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.

I Try Not to Get Political on this Blog, but…

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I am heartbroken by the events in our nation, but particularly by the never-ending stream of mass shootings. It is a nearly daily occurrence and there seems to be no end in sight. I got sick of thoughts and prayers a LONG time ago. When Congress did NOTHING after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, my understanding of what I thought this country stood for was destroyed.

In the Jewish community there has been a lot of talk about security–in general, but especially after the Pittsburgh massacre. Judaism teaches us that we have certain obligations: ritual and ethical (and that these often go hand in hand). Among our obligations are a number of commandments that instruct us to go out of our way to ensure that we prevent unnecessary injury or (God forbid) death. There is a law in the Torah that tells us that when we build a home, a parapet must be put on the roof lest someone on the roof accidentally fall off. Another law tells us that when we dig a pit, it must be marked off or cordoned off lest a person or an animal wander in and be injured. Jewish law over the centuries expanded on this idea, exhorting us to take all necessary steps to prevent bloodshed. We must ask ourselves whether we are taking the necessary precautions to prevent gun violence. (As if the daily news feed does not tell us already).

I know that a lot of folks place the blame for what is happening now on the person who occupies the Oval Office; he certainly has not helped (and many argue that he has made it worse). The truth is that mass shootings in this country predate the Trump Administration; his administration–along with those of previous presidents–bear responsibility for not doing more.

I have been involved in the gun control movement for over 20 years, having served on the board of the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence for much of that time. The executive branch is only part of the issue. Congress has it in its power to pass common-sense legislation that would carry out the spirit of Jewish law and the American ethos–namely to do whatever necessary to prevent bloodshed and violence. Congress has failed to do so–even when both houses were controlled by the same party. The NRA is a powerful force in ensuring that this remains the case. It is up to US, the voters, to let our elected officials know that we are a bigger threat than the NRA. The way we do that is by pushing this issue in town hall forums, debates, and in our communications. Facebook and Twitter are not enough. They do not vote NRA shills out of office–only WE can do that.

Of course, there is also an issue in our State Houses and Capitals. Gerrymandering has ensured that in many states there will also be no action on this issue. Ohio is a purple state. It is the swing state personified when it comes to national elections. On the state level, however, it is all red…year after year after year. Gerrymandering has made sure that the State House stays firmly in the control of one party even though the state is evenly split and the majorities should swing back and forth on a regular basis.

The ONLY way I see a change on a national level is by voting those who are in the pocket of the NRA out. On the state level, gerrymandering has to be dealt with. And if you don’t think that the US Supreme Court has contributed to the perpetuation of this problem, think again; there must be a serious examination of what responsibilities should accompany the Second Amendment.

Our work is cut out for us if we want to Make America Livable Again. IMHO, here is where to start:

–Get educated on the issue–especially in your state. What legislation is pending? Who is supporting it? Who is sponsoring? Who is blocking it?

–Support organizations that are helping to raise awareness and support political initiatives to end gun violence. There are dozens, and many websites can direct you to those that will use your donations wisely.

–Do more than send your thoughts and prayers: VOTE!!!

These are not Jewish imperatives, or even American imperatives…it is our human duty and it is literally a matter of life and death.