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!

Is Weight Loss your New Year’s Resolution?

Day 2/365 - New Years Resolution

2021 is just over two weeks away. Have you considered your New Year’s Resolutions? Is weight loss on the list (again)?

As a regular gym-goer (pre-COVID-19), I used to find it annoying when all the “Resolutionaries” would show up after New Years. The gym would be packed for the first week or two of the new year; by the end of January it would be back to normal. Year after year it was the same thing. Humorous on one level, sad on another.

How is it that so many of us make these resolutions each year and yet we have so little success? Mostly, I think it is because we do not spend enough time considering how we will be successful. We set a goal but do not really strategize about how to get there. This is the key to reaching any objective.

I remember when I ran my first Half Marathon. I set the goal and signed up; having put that money up was part of my incentive. I then consulted with friends and did some research to find the best app to help me train. I settled on Hal Higden’s app and followed the plan. It was not easy, but the feeling of satisfaction of crossing the Finish Line after 13.1 miles was worth it. And it would not have been possible had I not put the planning time in–not to mention the hard work on my part.

There is no one-size-fits-all for New Year’s Resolutions, just like there is no one-size-fits-all way to lose weight. Several things to consider as you set your goals:

  1. What goals have you set in the past and found success? What contributed to reaching your objective? Can it be replicated?
  2. When you have failed in the past, what were the reasons? What are the obstacles you faced then and what obstacles do you face now? How will you overcome them this time?
  3. Who can help you to reach your goal? It is often more fun and effective to be on the journey with someone else. Often it is that companionship and added accountability that leads to success.
  4. Be realistic. Do not set a goal that is unattainable or unhealthy. For example, losing 25 pounds in a year; losing 25 pounds in a month would not be. On a related note, the more specific the goal is the easier it is to plan for it.
  5. Know thyself. Accomplishing what you want first depends on you understanding (or admitting) who you are and how you work best. Here is an interesting article published yesterday: https://www.cnn.com/2015/12/28/health/weight-loss-resolution-wisdom-project/index.html. The author touches on this topic and explains how he found success.
  6. When it comes to fitness, it is helpful (and healthier) to think in more general terms. A number on the scale is only one measure. What would it be like to have a resolution that says: “I will go to the gym three times each week for 30 minutes,” rather than focusing on a number? Building a healthier lifestyle will lead to the other good things.

This has been a rough year for all of us. COVID-19 has disrupted many of our health/fitness routines. Hopefully, 2021 will be a better year. Let’s do our part by doing the hard work and planning so that it is not just wishful thinking but a serious path to success.

Wrestling with our Past and our Future

Delacroix, mural cycle, Saint-Sulpice, Paris

Some of you may be familiar with the humorous song from The Book of Mormon, “Turn It Off.” If not, here is a video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Of5cgecGIhg. The song takes a light approach to the idea of pushing down our feelings, not dealing with our past, and trying to escape where our future may lead us. While it has its laughs, the song speaks (or sings) to a universal truth of the human experience; when we do not proactively confront “our issues,” they have a way of coming to the fore in any case–and sometimes at the worst times and in the worst ways.

I was reminded of “Turn It Off,” because of the Torah portion that will be read in synagogues across the globe and on-line this Shabbat. The section, called Vayishlach, describes the reunion between the twins, Jacob and Esau, after a 20-year separation. The last time they had seen each other, Esau had vowed to kill his brother for having tricked their father, Isaac, into blessing Jacob rather than Esau. Much preparation went into the reunion, and the night before Jacob had an experience/dream of wrestling with an angel. Jewish commentators of the centuries have tried to explain exactly what this experience was. Was it an angel? Was it a person? Is it to be taken literally? Is it a metaphor?

To me, the story seems like a parallel to Jacob’s inner conflict. The dream plays out not so much as result of his anxiety about the reunion, but rather as a natural outcome of never having fully dealt with what he had done 20 years earlier. Readers of the Torah know that Jacob was not exactly the nicest kid; the intervening 20 years, however, involved their share of trials, tribulations, and personal growth. It appears that there was still some unfinished internal business that needed to be worked out; perhaps this dream reflects that. In the end, neither the angel nor Jacob prevailed over the other. Jacob was injured in the scuffle (a scar that would be with him forever). Ultimately, Jacob came out of the incident a changed man–reflected in his new name Yisrael–the one who struggles with God.

What does this have to do with fitness, health and well-being? Many of us have experiences when we are younger that turn us off the path of taking better care of ourselves. Some of us were not athletic in our youth and may have been chosen last for the team, teased for our awkwardness, or even bullied. Some of us were made to feel guilty by family members for wanting to take care of ourselves; we were told we were selfish and that our responsibility was towards others first. Some of us feel held back by childhood injuries or illnesses. In any case, fitness did not become a priority.

We can try to “Turn It Off,” when it comes to our feelings, but eventually they will catch up with us; the same is true with our health and well-being. I work with a number of clients who lament that they (for a variety of reasons) did not learn earlier to take better care of themselves. The decisions we made yesterday about our health affect us today. The decisions we make today affect our tomorrows. We cannot just push it down; in the end, we must confront it. Either we deal with our wellness now, or we will deal with our illness later.

As they say these days, “the struggle is real.” At some point the piper must be paid. Will we deal with it now, or will we put it off and end up having to pay later with penalties and interest?

Personal Fitness is just that: Personal

Body Image. The subjective concept of one's physical appearance based on self-observation and the reactions of others.

A great article appeared last week on http://www.cnn.com on their health page. Written by Lisa Respers France, it explores our society’s obsession with the body image and fitness of celebrities–in particular, female celebrities. It is a short article worth the read.

As a Personal Trainer, I have long believed that the path to fitness is a personal one and that is why it needs to be personalized. We all have different bodies with unique abilities and disabilities. We have distinct hereditary traits that help or hinder us. Ultimately, the decisions we make about our bodies are personal and should remain that way.

Here is the article: https://www.cnn.com/2020/10/08/entertainment/celeb-weight-loss-plc/index.html

Looking Forward to Fitness

Looking forward...

The Jewish holidays ended Sunday at sunset. We spent the entire month of Elul (the Hebrew month leading up to Rosh Hashanah–the New Year) preparing for the spiritual work that takes place during the Ten Days of Repentance (from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur). Once the New Year begins, the intensity does not let up; just 5 days after Yom Kippur (the holiest day of the year) we begin Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles), which lasts for over a week.

During this period of heightened spirituality, we often say, “I’ll get to that after the holidays.” We are busy and things get pushed off. Well, here we are; all the hoopla has died down and it is time to commit to the promises we made to ourselves, each other, and God.

For me, in the midst of it all I was also recovering from biceps tendon surgery. What I have been waiting for until “after the holidays,” was getting back into my best shape/fitness/health possible. And boy do I need it. Yesterday morning I got on the scale and had found that my weight had crossed a red line that I have not crossed in several years. So yesterday, I buckled down and got back on the My Fitness Pal app on my phone. I am already making progress. I am also making an effort to plan for daily workouts and making them a priority.

One of the amazing things about the High Holiday season is that it comes around every year. There is a realization that we are works in progress and that the journey to becoming our best selves is a lengthy one. Judaism teaches us to review our past, learn from our mistakes…and then look forward. We do a lot of remembering in Judaism–not for the sake of wallowing in the difficulties of the past, but rather as a guidepost for where we need to head in the future.

Looking at the number on the scale, contemplating the loss of muscle mass due to my surgery, noting the diminished stamina that I have could all be reasons to be downhearted. Judaism teaches me that it is best to take the information I have and take the steps to go in the right direction. When we have a bad day (or week or month or year), we should realize that every day provides us with new opportunities. We should be informed by the past, and not imprisoned by it.

Today is a new day. So is tomorrow. I am looking forward to continuing to become the person I want to be–physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The holidays are over; let’s get to it!

Body Image…According to Genesis

The creation of Adam

Society places a great deal of emphasis on body image. Advertising tells us that we must look a certain way. If we want to be appealing to a partner/spouse/lover, we have to be in great shape, have a perfect smile, beautiful hair, no wrinkles….

From the very beginning of the Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), the idea of body image is quite different. The first chapter of the Book of Genesis gives the biblical account of the creation of the world over the course of six days, including the creation of human beings on that final day.

The text is quite difficult in the original Hebrew…and it’s not much better in the English. Here are the verses from Genesis 1.

26 And God said: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.’ 
27 And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them. 

First off, to whom is God speaking? What is the difference between image and likeness? In verse 26, it seems as if only one being is created but in 27 it is not so clear; the object goes from singular to plural. The classical commentators wrote many good interpretations to try to explain it all, but it still remains enigmatic that the very verses that describe our creation are so muddled.

One thing that is notable is that nowhere do the verses specify that this body was a physical specimen that had to look a certain way. All we know is that human beings were created in the Divine Image (whatever that means). What we can interpret from this is that our bodies (whatever shape they are in) are holy vessels given/created by God. As such, we can imply a responsibility to care for that gift; it is, according to many religious traditions, the container in which our souls are kept.

What does this have to do with fitness? Certainly, if we receive a valuable and unique gift from a beloved “friend,” it would behoove us to care for it. This gift–our bodies–is not just a trinket to put on a shelf either. Our bodies have a purpose; they allow us to do what it is that we are supposed to do in this world. Jewish mysticism–in particular, Kabbalah–tells us that the soul can only be perfected when it is inside a body. Our experiences in this world have an influence on the nature of our souls and we can use those experiences to rise to higher levels of holiness (kindness, understanding, love, too). Caring for our bodies is essential, for if it is broken or broken down, we cannot accomplish what it is that God has put us here to do.

By the way, there are those who are born with disabilities–mild to severe. Even so, those individuals have an obligation to keep their bodies in the best condition possible–or if they are unable to do so themselves, it is up to us to assist. Everyone has a role to play in God’s creation…and only by being healthy and strong (in its many forms and to the best of our abilities) can we do that well.

It’s not the body image we are told to project on TV, in magazines and in movies that is ultimately our concern. Our focus should be on maintaining and strengthening our bodies so that we act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God [Micah].

Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

These words are a paraphrase of remarks made by Franklin Delano Roosevelt at his first presidential inauguration. Those were difficult times, recovering from the Great Depression and with a World War looming on the horizon. One could argue that back then there was a lot to actually fear.

Aside from how our anxieties affect us at work, school and in relationships, I regularly see how fear plays an outsized role in the realm of physical fitness.

I have worked with many clients with a variety of fears: fear of doing a certain exercise, fear of entering in a 5K, fear of looking foolish in the gym, fear of disappointing their trainer, etc. This can often be paralyzing. It can prevent us from engaging in the fitness activities that can help us to avoid the kinds of injuries and illnesses that we should legitimately fear.

I know that every time I have competed in a race (obstacle course, 1/2 marathon or triathlon), my overwhelming emotion beforehand is fear. I am afraid that I won’t finish the race, or that I might hurt myself, or that I will do so poorly that I will be a disappointment to myself or others. It is irrational since none of these have ever happened, but still it occurs.

As someone who has dealt with anxiety and even panic attacks, I know that this fear can prevent us from living a life of adventure, fulfillment and even love. There comes a time, though, when we have to take an informed and prepared leap of faith. I wouldn’t say that a person should conquer their fear of running a 5K by waking up one morning to do one; it requires preparation and training. The process of getting ready can help give us the confidence to overcome our anxieties.

We should be aware of the crippling role that fear can play in our lives. We must remind ourselves of how strong and courageous and deserving of good things we are. We must also work hard to reach our goals. Accept the fear. Stare it down…and then set it aside. The only thing we have to fear…is truly fear itself.

The Holocaust, Pushing Myself, and an Admission of how Weird I Am

Image result for columbus jcc obstacle course

Warning: this will be a strange post, but one that will give you some insight into what makes me tick…and how Judaism and Fitness intersect in my life.

When I was younger, I was not athletic at all. This was not helped by the fact that when I was 12 years old I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease (and my weight had dropped to 69 pounds). I was not a healthy kid and athletics were not really a thing in my family to begin with.

There were members of my family who were survivors of the Holocaust, and even more who did not survive. I remember learning about the Holocaust when I was in elementary school (too early to see the kind of documentary footage that was shown to me). I remember thinking as a teenager that had I been alive then, I never would have survived. I could not have made it without my medicine. I was weak. I was pale. It sounds morbid, but in the minds of some Jewish people I think we ask ourselves what our fates would have been had we not had the fortune to be on this side of the Atlantic or in the Land of Israel back then

As I grew older, I spoke with cousins who were survivors and heard their stories. Some of them were sent on “death marches” as the war was coming to a close. Concentration and death camps were being dismantled and evacuated, and inmates were forced to walk (or run) westward away from the advancing Red Army. Those who could not keep up were shot or died along the way; some made it until the liberation. I am in awe of my relatives who made the walk despite terrible conditions, inappropriate clothing to protect them from the elements, and a starvation diet. How did they find the strength to go on? What choice did they have?

Over the years in my fitness journey, part of my motivation was to be “ready” physically if things should ever get bad, if history (God forbid) were to repeat itself. When I run and I get tired, I remember those on the forced marches and I push myself to go the distance. This was especially true when I used to train and compete on the Black Diamond Obstacle Course the JCC of Greater Columbus. If you are unfamiliar with the course, it is outstanding and the result of a great deal of effort by committed employees at the JCC there. For a couple of years, the obstacle course was my playground. Often during my training I would think about those living in the forests or on the run in the woods during that dark period; the obstacle course runs through a wooded area by the JCC and near Alum Creek so the setting seems reminiscent. Again, whenever I felt I couldn’t do an obstacle I thought about my relatives, and pushed myself a little further.

I don’t know if this is normal. I used to think I was maybe a little paranoid, but perhaps I am more of a realist. I pray that things will never get back to the terrible horrors of WWII, but now when I think about it, I am convinced that I would have a much better chance of surviving than I did as a teenager. I am fitter, have greater endurance, and have tested my mettle on a few occasions. But who knows?

This is not my total motivation for fitness. In actuality, I want to stay healthy for my wife and kids…and someday grand-kids (?). I want to get the most out of life for as long as I can. I want to be fit–not because of fears from the past, but because of my hope for the future.