How Do I Know if I’m Working Out Hard Enough?

My last post tackled the question of how we know if we are making progress in our exercise program. That discussion took more of a long view of things, but how do we know if we are working hard enough in any given workout? This is a topic that I have blogged about in the past as well: once on 9/6/2020 and then a few days later on 9/10/2020.

To recap, when it comes to cardio exercise there is a formula that is often used to determine if the workout is effective. It is not exact, but the equation is 220 minus your age; that number gives you the maximum heart rate, but the goal is to be at 65-85% of that number. For instance, a person who is 70 should not exceed 150 beats/minute; the “sweet spot” is between 97 and 127. When it comes to resistance training (weights), it is a little more complicated as it will depend on what the goal is. Rather than going into detail here, consult your favorite fitness professional; recommendations will vary in relation to a number of factors such as age, current level of fitness, injuries, etc.

Still, in any given workout, is there an easy way to get a sense of things? For cardio, there is something called the “talk test.” If a person is able to talk while doing the exercise (running, biking, etc.) it would be considered moderate; if a person can talk with difficulty but not sing, that is a more vigorous level. If the person is unable to speak at all (like during a sprint), that is the highest level of exertion–one that can only be carried out for a limited amount of time. What level is appropriate? It will depend on a number of factors (are you just trying to stay fit, or are you training for a marathon?), but going back to the formula above will help.

For resistance training, I usually recommend a weight that allows the client to do 12 reps with the last few being difficult. If all 12 reps are easy, it is time to either add weight or reps, or in some other way increase the level of difficulty. Those looking to bulk up, will follow a different set of standards–generally, heavier weight with less reps. I also use the RPE or Rated Perceived Exertion; this is fairly subjective, but it asks the exerciser to rate how difficult an exercise is. I use a 1-10 scale with 10 being the most difficult; most clients are honest (although we all know the adage “never tell a personal trainer something is too easy!”) This is a relatively simple way to gauge the level of work for both resistance and cardio training.

The key is not to rest on one’s laurels. When an exercise becomes to easy, it will not help to accomplish the fitness goal. Progression to a more challenging level is what is called for.

Although it can seem confusing at times, we are usually our own best judges of how hard we are working. We need to be honest with ourselves, though, so as not to overwork or underwork. Being honest with ourselves is a good rule in every aspect of our lives.

How Do I Know If I’m Making Progress?

A client recently asked me how it is possible to know if progress is being made while engaged in an exercise program. There are a number of ways to answer this.

Progression (from the word progress) is an important concept in fitness. It refers to ways that exercises are made more challenging. For instance, the amount of weight being lifted can be increased. The number of reps can be increased. An element of difficulty can be introduced like doing an exercise on one foot. In general, an exercise program needs to take into account progression so that “progress” can be made. If the same exercises are done over and over with the same intensity, duration, and resistance, there is little reason to expect that there will be increased muscle mass or endurance…or whatever the particular goal might be.

How can it be tracked? There are apps on phones and devices like Fitbits that can monitor and record workouts. Even without such technology there are ways to follow this. For example, if it took 15 minutes to walk a mile at the beginning of April and at the beginning of May it took 12, that is progress. If a person is running and they are able to go further each time (by adding a block or lap), that is also progress. These kinds of progressions are most effective when they are recorded in some way–even if on a piece of note paper.

By the way,progress may not always appear in the mirror as bigger muscles or greater definition or a smaller waistline–although those can be signs of progress. Sometimes the best indicator is a sense of feeling healthier, more fit, or energetic.

Progress does not just happen. It needs to be figured into the equation. A fitness professional is trained how to introduce this into a workout in a safe, effective way. This is particularly important for older adults. On the one hand, older adults may be more prone to injury by overtraining or training the wrong way. On the other hand, older adults may go to easy on themselves and not really effect change. A trainer–especially one who has certification to work with older adults–will know how to strike that balance.

Most importantly, know what your goals are. Once those are established it is easier to set a course that includes progressions so that you do not go from 0-60 in 10 seconds…and then hit a brick wall. Put those progressions in place, monitor results, and re-evaluate as necessary. And always remember, if it does not challenge you, it will not change you!

Don’t Forget those Feet

About fifteen years ago, when I was working full-time as a congregational rabbi, I faced a dilemma that I needed to resolve. I was the associate rabbi but would in a few years become the senior rabbi; that is not the problem. The issue was that I knew that being “in charge” would require me to do a lot more standing–especially when conducting services, and even more so at the important high holidays. How would I be able to do it when after only an hour or so my feet would start aching? Some days, after work I would take off my shoes and my feet would be throbbing.

I decided to visit a podiatrist (a medical doctor that specializes in the feet and lower legs) to see if there was something wrong. It turns out that I was pronating when I walked or stood and this was causing the discomfort; the good news was that it could be corrected with custom orthotics. It took about a week or so to get used to them, but afterwards I could feel a huge difference. My feet did not ache and I could stand, walk, and even run much longer than before.

Over the years, I have had the orthotics adjusted and even gotten new ones. I have ones that I use in my “regular” shoes and others that I put in my athletic footwear. The results are remarkable.

Of course, not everyone needs orthotics or the special care that a podiatrist can provide. Even so, at any age it is important to have proper footwear, in particular when engaging in athletic activities. Some of you may recall a related blog from a few years ago. It is noteworthy as well that, like tires on a car, athletic shoes have will wear out and need to be replaced. Having the proper footwear will not only protect the feet (from falling dumbbells!) but also provide proper support and alignment for the rest of the body.

How do you know if you have the right shoes? I recommend to all my clients that they go to a store that specializes in athletic footwear and has staff that is well-trained. I love DSW, but that is not the place to get properly fitted. There are some chains, but most metro areas have a locally-owned store that can provide shoes especially for cross-training, tennis, running, etc. There are others as well that are geared toward older adults and their unique requirements. Local stores have a vested interested in treating you right to keep you as a customer and rely on your referrals.

Most of us do not really give a great deal of thought to our feet….that is, until there is a problem. When they are unable to do their job the impact is huge. Do not wait until there is an issue; have the proper shoes and see a medical professional when something is not right. God gave us two feet; “Oh, the places you will go” with them–but only if you care for them!

Dementia and Physical Fitness

I recently had a discussion with a loved one about doing personal training with individuals who have irreversible medical conditions and/or cognitive decline. The focus was on whether it is ethical to accept payment to work with someone when there is little chance that the work we are doing will improve the situation.

I wrote about this tangentially in a blog post a couple of years ago in which I talked about the statement “All Lives Matter,” concluding that many people who say that really do not act in way that truly reflects it. I shared a story about an incarcerated individual with whom I have corresponded and visited for over twenty years. He is currently serving a life sentence. In 2002, he was diagnosed with a terrible cancer and called on me to counsel him on what he should do. Ultimately, he decided to undergo treatment and beat the odds by becoming cancer-free (he did the same again with a later diagnosis). One might wonder what the point is of curing one’s cancer if when it is all over s/he will still be still be incarcerated for the rest of one’s life. Is the life of an incarcerated person somehow not worth living? I learned that it is, and I have seen it played out over and over again since 2002.

In a similar vein, one could ask whether there is any point to training someone with Alzheimer’s or another end-stage disease. I addressed this in a more recent post, remembering a client who was on hospice care when I began training him. He had been athletic his whole life and his family knew that he loved to work out; in the last several months of his life, that is what we did together. Did it hold off the disease? Did it cure him? No. Did it add quality to his life on the days we were together? I would like to think so.

I do work with clients who experience cognitive decline. There are all kinds of considerations that go into carrying out this kind of training and my certifying organiation, The American Council on Exercise, has even written about it. There is research that indicates that aerobic exercise can actually help maintain (and perhaps even improve) cognitive function, but even if there was not, the quality time spent together is worth it. As with all my clients, I meet them where they are–physically, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally. I consider it a special honor to work with older adults; I believe that I make a difference in the lives of these clients (and in their families), and I know it has made a difference in mine.

Redemption

This coming weekend is an important one for each of the three Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). Jews begin the celebration of the eight-day Festival of Passover on Friday at sundown; most Christians mark Easter on Sunday, April 17; Muslims are in the middle of the holy month of Ramadan.

Although each of these religious traditions is distinct and these holidays are unique, there is a common theme among them: redemption. Redemption is generally described as the action of saving from sin, error, evil, or danger. In Judaism, Passover is the case of redemption par excellence. The Hebrews were saved from slavery in Egypt and brought out into freedom; once they had escaped they received the Torah and were able to worship God properly. In Christianity, Easter celebrates Jesus’ resurrection three days after his death; this represents Jesus’ victory over death and hints at the possibility of eternal life through acceptance of him as Messiah. Jesus is seen as a redeemer oforthose who believe in him. Ramadan is a month of fasting that honors the month in which Islamic scripture, Quran, was first revealed to the prophet, Muhammed. This revelation serves as a proper guide for Muslims of how to live their lives and avoid sin and evil. Redemption is a central theme in each holiday–all being observed at the same time this year!

How is this related to fitness? Many people despair of being able to stay or become physically fit–at any age, but more keenly as we grow older. This is where redemption comes in. The concept means that where we are today (physically, emotionally, spiritually) is not where we need to be forever; we are capable of overcoming obstacles and hardship and rising to a higher level. This is true in fitness at any age. For example, just because a person has problem with balance or walking does not mean that it will always be like that; of course, if no changes are made in behavior the problem will persist, but exercise, proper diet, and sufficient rest can make a huge impact. Focusing on our physical fitness can affect other areas as well. Working out releases hormones that elevate our mood. Additionally, if we are working out with a trainer or in a group setting, we are building relationship. The benefits of keeping physically active are numerous and have been mentioned throughout my blog. Exercise can truly grant us a kind of redemption. Not only that, keeping ourselves fit and healthy better allows us to do what it is that we were put on earth to do. We cannot serve God and humanity if we are too weak, frail, or sick to do so.

Best wishes to everyone for a redemptive season of the year. Chag Peseach Sameach! Happy Easter! Ramadan Kareem!

Protecting those Knees

As we age, we hear more and more about people requiring knee surgery or even knee replacement. While the knee is not the most complicated joint, it is one that gets a lot of use and bears a lot of weight. It is important to be cognizant of the proper form while exercising to avoid injury; in particular, doing lunges or squats the wrong way can put a great deal of pressure and stress on the knee.

When we talk about the knee, we cannot just talk about the bones (the femur, tibia, patella, etc.) but also about the tendons, ligaments, and cartilage. All of these are susceptible to strain and injury. Working with a fitness professional is one way to help ensure that knees stay healthier–or at least avoid serious damage.

A new study referenced in the most recent issue of IDEA Fitness Journal reaches some enlightening conclusions about the connection between exercise and the risk of physical harm to the knees. As a runner (although I run less now than I used to), I always worried about the risk to this all-important joint; I assumed that our knees were like tires: they last for certain amount of miles and then they need to be replaced! Researchers at the University of Southampton and University of Oxford (both in England) found that the benefits of exercise–even for the frail and elderly–outweights the risks with regard to our knees. The study focused on the likelihood of developing knee osteoarthritis from physical activity. 5000 participants were followed for 5-12 years and the data suggests that neither the amount of energy spent in physical activity or the length of time were associated with a risk of developing arthritis.

This is good news; my last blog post focused on a related idea. Many people are afraid to work out for a variety of reasons–including injury. Studies show that the more information that can be shared with those beginning an exercise regimen, the greater the chances of success; that information should include debunking myths and stressing the benefits of exercise (versus the risk of not) as well as setting proper expectations of what the process will be like.

My knees have not worn out (yet), but it is good to know that it does not appear that years of running and physical activity might lead to knee arthritis in the future. One more reason to go boldly ahead keeping myself fit for whatever the future brings.

Well, That’s a Stretch…

Those involved in fitness as professional and as consumers know that an important–but often overlooked–part of exercising is stretching. Everybody agrees that it is a good thing but, unfortunately, many of us are inconsistent in our stretching; even worse, some people do it improperly causing more harm than good.

A recent trend in a field allied to fitness is Assisted Stretching. Assisted stretching usually involves a practitioner and is done in-person. It can, however, also be done remotely or as part of a group setting. The “stretcher” helps the “stretchee” (is that a word?) release tension from muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints. A recent article on CNN.com highlights the ways in which assisted stretching is being used to relieve chronic aches and pains. This technique is being used in people of all ages, and it is not just for athletes. In fact, many people who spend a great deal of time sitting or otherwise inactive can develop tightness that can cause discomfort.

Recent studies are not exactly conclusive about how effective assisted stretching is. Can it be better than stretching on one’s own? We can look at this the same way that we look at personal training. Yes, a person can perform the same exercises suggested by a personal trainer on their own, but will they? A personal trainer helps to keep clients accountable, progresses them at an appropriate pace, and helps to prevent injuries. That is why trainers are popular and effective. Likewise, a person can stretch on their own, but will they do it correctly and consistently?

This trend, according to the article is growing rapidly. While more research is likely needed to ascertain the true effectiveness and possible drawbacks, assisted stretching looks like it can help keep our muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints in better shape. That can only be a good thing.

In the meantime, remember to stretch before and after your workout. Questions about how to best do that? Ask a fitness professional who will be happy to help you develop a routine.

The Keys to Happiness as We Age

A recent article in The Atlantic by Arthur C. Brooks highlights ways that we can help to ensure happiness as we get older. Brooks is an American musician, social scientist, and professor at Harvard University. He has written many articles and a book on this topic.

In the article, he cites an ongoing study (over 80 years) that traces the attitudes, conditions, and well-being of the subjects over the course of their lives. Here are some fascinating conclusions: 1) Happiness declines through young adulthood into middle-age and bottoms out at about age 50. 2) After that it starts to go up again until about the mid-60s. 3) After that, it can go one of two ways; there are those who get much happier and those who get much more unhappy.

The study makes clear something that should be clear to begin with. The decisions that we make earlier in our lives have an impact on how we will feel later in life. The investments (not just financial) of our earlier years pay dividends–or if we have not invested wisely, we suffer. This is a pretty stark reality, but it is also not 100% accurate. There are those who are born into wealth, who inherit good genes, have tragic accidents, etc., whose lot is determined in large portion by events beyond their control.

There are, however, factors that we can control according to Brooks. All things being equal (which they are not), making the right choices in these realms will yield better results (happiness) in later years. In short, here is the list.

  1. Don’t smoke, and if you do, quit.
  2. Drink in moderation.
  3. Maintain a healthy body weight.
  4. Keep active every day.
  5. Develop coping skills for when life gets challenging.
  6. Never stop learning.
  7. Invest in interpersonal relationships.

Nothing earth-shattering, right? How many of these 7 are we doing right now? Is there time to make a change? Of course! All the research on fitness, shows that it is never too late to make a change, and it will have positive outcomes.

I am the happiest I have ever been. I do what I love with people I love. I put effort into all 7 categories above. I have a few years until I hit my mid-60s, but I am hopeful that I will fall into the “getting much happier” category. I hope you will join me there!

I’m a Contributor

It’s official! The latest issue of Northeast Ohio Boomer & Beyond is out and I am proud to be an official “contributor” to this publication on matters of Fitness for Older Adults.

In speaking with the editors several months ago, they told me that they had felt that this topic was one that had been missing from the magazine. Luckily, someone in the advertising department was a client of mine at a gym where I worked previously and recommended me. I have been interviewed for radio programs and articles in the Cleveland Jewish News on older adults and fitness, but this is my first regular gig. Now I will appear in every forthcoming issue; the magazine is published six times per year. Additionally, some of my blog posts will be featured on their website.

I am honored to have been chosen to be a regular contributor. It is always satisfying to be recognized for one’s hard work and expertise.

If you are in NE Ohio, check it out or hit the link above to see the article.

Losing a Client

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Most personal trainers worry at some point about losing clients. If they leave for another gym, another trainer, move out of town, or just decide to stop training it can be a hit–not only to our wallets but also to our egos. There are other circumstances, however, when none of that really matters.

Just a couple of weeks ago, one of my clients passed away. When I began specializing my personal training career to only working with older adults, I knew that the day would come when this would happen. This client had a number of health issues; in his younger years, though, he enjoyed athletic activity and overcame some serious injuries. His long-term outlook was not good. In the short-term, however, his family felt he would enjoy working with a trainer at the fitness center where he lived.

Each client comes with his/her own capabalities and limitations, and he was no different. I enjoyed the challenge of putting together different workouts each week for him. I understood that there might not be room for great improvement in his mobility; at the very least, we would be working to maintain the levels where he was. I was impressed by the effort he put in; I know the workouts were not easy, but athletes almost always love and are up for the challenge.

About a month ago, he called me and told me that he had tested positive for COVID-19 so we would have to skip the session that week. I checked back a week later and his wife said that things look bad. A few days later he was gone. I received a text from a family member with the news, and a thank you for having made a difference in the short time we worked together.

In the fitness world (as in most industries), we talk about the importance of results. With regard to our own health and fitness, we know that there is much we can do to influence our own personal situations. In the end, however, we all succumb to the impermanence of our physical state. Does that mean that the work I do with older adults is in vain…or worse a scam? On the contrary, if I can add independence, value, and fun to someone’s life, this means something. We all know what our end will be; what we do not know is what will happen between now and then. I am proud that I am able to help my clients remain more vibrant, capable, and independent so that they can get the most out of that “between now and then.”

The loss of this client was a humbling experience for me. It makes me realize how crucial it is for me to do my work well. It also taught me that the working with clients is about more than just results or the “business;” it is also about the relationships that can be built and the difference that can be made.

Rest in peace, friend. I imagine you are up there somewhere tossing a football around with friends, no longer limited by the toll that time has taken on your body. Thanks for the time and effort you put into our time together. May your memory be a blessing.