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.

More News on Dementia and Lifestyle

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Well, it’s not really “news” since it is simply reconfirming what we already have seen in recent research.

There are studies recently shared at Alzheimer’s Association International Conference last week that show that there are five factors that have been shown to significantly reduce the risk of developing dementia later in life.

Both studies pointed to:

  1. A healthy diet
  2. At least 150 minutes a week of moderate to vigorous physical activity
  3. Light to moderate drinking (alcohol)
  4. No smoking
  5. Engaging in mentally stimulating activity

Engaging in all five decreased risk of Alzheimer’s by 60% compared to those who only had one healthy behavior. Those who added only one of the habits above saw their risk lowered by 22%!

It is becoming more and more clear every day that the decisions we make about our lifestyles at every point in our lives have implications downstream. There is no point at which we are “too late” to add healthy behaviors, and when we do add them the impact is noticeable.

For the full article in http://www.cnn.com, click here: https://www.cnn.com/2019/07/14/health/dementia-risk-lifestyle-study/index.html

Judaism teaches us that we are to pursue life. This means we cannot simply wait around and see what is in store for us health-wise. We must at every moment, make healthy decisions; not only will we sense the difference now, but in the years ahead as well.

New Study out from NIH and AARP: Over 50? Start Exercising now…

Waiting For Their Turn
Is this what our senior years should look like?

A article in the most recent AARP Bulletin (May 2019, Vol. 60, No. 4, pg. 4) highlights something that those in the Fitness Industry have been saying for years…and now there is even more research behind it.

The study began in 1995 as a joint venture between AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) and the NIH (National Institutes of Health), and tracked the exercise habits of more than 315,000 people ages 50-71. It showed that even if a person has been inactive most of their lives, getting into regular exercise can add years to our lives and quality to those years as well.

The research shows that: “those ages 40-61 who begin exercising after years of physical inactivity can still extend their longevity. They had a 32 to 35 percent lower risk of mortality. The odds of death from cancer and heart disease also decreased. Compared with those who never exercised during the multiyear study, those who exercised their entire lives had a 29 to 36 percent lower risk of death.”

This is good news indeed–especially for fitness professionals who face the skepticism of those who have never been physically active during most of their lives. Of course, the real challenge is changing that behavior in the first place. Those who have felt that exercise or taking proper care of themselves was not a priority earlier in their lives are not necessarily going to “see the light.” Usually it takes a “wake-up call” or “Aha moment” to change the way they act. It should be comforting for them to know that not all is lost; even in their later years, they can have a significant impact on the quantity and quality of years in their lives.

As for change, Judaism has always taught that we are capable of change. Most religious traditions have a similar viewpoint. This is why there is a strong emphasis in the faith community on redemption in its many forms; there is a sense that we can always improve ourselves, and as a result, the world around us. We are not stuck with “it is what it is.” We have the potential to make “it what it ought to be.”

Good news indeed!

A Registered Dietitian Weighs in on your Metabolism

This article, by Samantha Cassety, was featured on http://www.NBCNews.com. It is a pretty thorough explanation of how we can and cannot affect our metabolisms…and just what metabolism is in the first place.

The conclusion is something that those in the Fitness industry have been saying for years: regular exercise is good for us but may not necessarily help us lose weight; our diet is most important to dropping those pounds. On our journeys to weight loss and fitness, we need to assess our approach: we have little control over how many calories our bodies will burn, but we have total control over how many we will put in our bodies!


https://www.nbcnews.com/better/lifestyle/everything-you-need-know-about-your-metabolism-according-dietitian-ncna1000301

A long-ish read but worth it!

Simple Rules for Fitness

Several years ago an associate recommended to me the book, Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World by Donald N. Sull and Kathleen M. Eisenhardt. Although the book is really directed at the business world, it has applications far beyond that field.

The argument made by Sull and Eisenhardt is that often we seek complex solutions to problems (or we don’t seek them, but they end up being the solution we go with) when simple rules can serve just as well. The process involves getting down to the roots of the problem–understanding what is truly at work–and then applying a consistent set of rules that correspond to the values/qualities/outcomes we seek.

For example, if someone is looking for a person to fill a position at a company, s/he may receive hundreds of applications. That person may put together a team to go through the applications to find candidates who might fit. Those applicants can then be re-reviewed, etc. The Simple Rules philosophy would have him/her set very limited criteria (just a handful or less) and eliminate all those who do not fit from the get go. This cuts down on the amount of work and speeds up the process, while leaving little room for subjectivity. This is, of course, not a perfect approach…but we do not live in a perfect world. We live in a complex world, and sometimes the best approach is to simplify.

What does this have to do with fitness? Often when individuals seek to improve their fitness they come up with plans that are too complicated; they become more trouble than they are worth. Take a diet plan, for instance; counting calories, weighing portions, keeping track of calories burned in exercise might be too much for some people–especially those starting out. It is intimidating and overwhelming. The Simple Rules approach would say “come up with a few behaviors to change that are simple;” base them on an honest assessment of where you think your weaknesses are. Examples could be: it’s ok to fill my plate, but no seconds; eat out only once per week; no “grazing” after dinner; or no calories from drinks. These are not complicated and don’t require overthinking. Choose a few and change the behavior.

When I started to get more serious about my own fitness, the Simple Rules philosophy was central to my initiative. I started by committing to seeing a personal trainer for an hour each week, doing cardio at least 4 times a week for 30 minutes, and not eating after dinner (except for very special occasions). The results were easy to see and I could sense the progress. Over time, I have changed the rules, but always kept them to a few, and simple enough that I don’t need a paragraph to express it.

What do you think? Simple Rules…too simple or simply a wonderful idea? At the very least, I think it’s worth a try for those who find diet and exercise to be too overwhelming/complicated/intimidating.

My Fitness Philosophy

Anyone who has ever flown on an airplane knows the schtick: “In the unlikely event of a sudden cabin depressurization, masks will fall from the compartments above your head. Place the mask over your nose and mouth and breathe normally; although the bag may not inflate, the oxygen is flowing. If you are seated with someone who needs assistance, place your mask on first, then assist others around you.”

Of course, the reason we are told to do this is that if we are so busy helping others we may actually deprive ourselves of the oxygen we need and not only be unable to help others, but harm ourselves as well.

In Judaism, we are accustomed to helping others. Acts of Gemilut Chesed (lovingkindness) are one of the pillars on which the world stands. The most often repeated mitzvah (commandment) in the Torah is to be kind to the stranger since we were once strangers in the Land of Egypt. We are used to giving ourselves. The problem arises when we are so focused on the other that we are unable to help ourselves; we get into a spiral in which we can run ourselves down so much that we cannot help others.

Some people feel that going to the gym or buying exercise equipment is a luxury. It is not. It is an investment. It is an investment in our own future and our ability to be of help to others. We do no one any good if we are sick, or weak, or immobilized.

Those of us who own cars know that we must maintain them. We must change the oil and filters. Check the fluids. Fill up the tank or plug in the battery. We must wash it. We cannot simply drive and drive and drive the car into the ground and expect to get where we want to be. The same is true with our bodies.

Taking care of yourself, working out, eating healthy or getting a massage are not selfish acts. These are acts of self-care that ultimately allow us to care for others. Believe that you deserve to be healthy and fit. Believe that you deserve to care for yourself just as you care for others. Believe that the stronger you are the more likely you are to do what it is that God has planned for you in this world.

Help others put on their masks for sure…but make sure yours is on first!