Freedom From, Freedom To…

The Declaration of Independence

As we conclude our celebration of Independence Day, it is worth reflecting on the meaning of the day. So often we refer to Independence Day simply as “July 4th,” without really thinking about the history behind it. Independence Day is first and foremost about the United States of America’s (although it was not yet called that) separation from the sovereignty of Great Britain. The colonists organized a rebellion (or revolution) against the monarchy that had imposed onerous demands on the settlers. They sought to establish their independence in order to ensure “certain inalienable rights;” among these were life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We must, of course, recognize that not everyone was included in that statement; most notably those of African descent were not figured into the equation. In the eyes of the founders, independence from Great Britain was not just so that the colonists could do whatever they wanted. There was a bigger picture: a grand experiment in democracy and self-determination. Although the ideal is not fully achieved for everyone, the strides are worth celebrating.

Many of the founders of our nation were inspired by the biblical story of the Israelites’ liberation from Egyptian slavery (as were generations of enslaved Africans). In the Book of Exodus, the Children of Israel were not set free from Egypt so that they could do whatever they wanted. According to Jewish tradition, exactly seven weeks after leaving slavery the people stood at Mt. Sinai and received the Law from God. The Israelites were freed from the rule of Pharaoh in order to accept the rule of God and Divine Law. This parallels the founders of this country; they were freed from the rule of Great Britain in order to undertake the rule of law as established by a representative democracy and set down in the Constitution.

Freedom should not be just for the sake of doing whatever we want, but rather in order to serve a higher calling.

This idea has applications in the world of fitness and health as well. So many of us are enslaved to bad habits: unhealthy eating, sedentary lifestyles, poor work/life balance, and not getting enough quality rest. What is the purpose of breaking those behaviors? Of course, we all want to be healthier or look better, but perhaps there needs to be a deeper reason. In working with older adults, I have discovered that many clients seek freedom from bad habits in order to be able to enjoy their lives; for some that means travel, for others it is keeping up with grandkids, for others it is just being able to live as independently as possible for as long as possible.

Freedom from bad habits, gives us freedom to do so much more. At first, it may seem restricting to not just do whatever we want when it comes to diet and exercise; ultimately, however, a healthy lifestyle has the potential to give us the real freedom we seek.

Wishing everyone a great summer. May we remember our freedom “from” in order to achieve our freedom “to.”

No Need to Accept Defeat as We Age

Phil Mickelson 18th Fairway T-shoot TPC 07

Something pretty exciting happened in sports just a couple of weeks ago. Golfer Phil Mickelson, who will be 51 in less than 2 weeks, became the oldest player to win the PGA Championship. This goes against the conventional wisdom that as we age, we are less able to compete and win in sports. This is no fluke, though. In fact a recent article shows the strategy that Mickelson undertook to be successful.

The story is not anything earth-shattering, but rather just a confirmation of what fitness professionals–especially those of us who work with older adults–have been saying for a while. Our bodies undergo changes as we age, but that does not mean we are powerless to counteract them. The article points to three main areas that Mickelson addressed and they are instructive for all of us.

First, among the changes we experience is often a change in metabolism. Some of us when we were younger were able to eat whatever we wanted and not put on weight; as we age, however, we must be more conscious of our nutrition. Mickelson was aware of this and if you look at pictures of him, you will see how much more fit he looks these days.

Second, mobility and strength need to be maintained and even improved. This is a big part of what I do with my clients. It is not enough to simply be flexible; one must also have the muscle power to go behind the movements. For years, older adults were told that it was dangerous to work out with weights; research now shows that as long as it is done in a responsible way, it is key to maintaining independence. Additionally, studies indicates that power training (combining resistance and speed/repetitive motion) is an effective way to boost fitness and even life expectancy.

Third, be certain to assess and re-assess the plan so that workouts and diet are appropriate. Doing the same thing every single workout without progression rarely leads to progress. On the other hand, overtraining can do more harm than good. In this regard, it is good to have a professional like a certified personal trainer to shape a program that will be safe and effective.

Phil Mickelson should be an example to all of us of what we can accomplish if we follow these guidelines. He is just one example, though; we all know that there are many older athletes out there who are pushing the limit and showing us just what is possible. No need to accept defeat!

Adult Playground?

Playground Primary Colors

This is not as bad as it sounds. It is not a sleazy sex club, but rather the brainchild of a group called Friends in Action in Ellsworth, Maine (between Bangor and Bar Harbor).

We know that there are playgrounds in nearly every community for children so that they can get outside, exercise, use their muscles, meet friends, and have fun. Why not a playground for older adults who have the same needs? An article in The Ellsworth American describes the decade-long effort to make this a reality. The playground will have eight pieces of equipment, some of which will even be wheelchair accessible. The cost for the project is about $80,000; Friends in Action raised the funds from individual donations, a grant from AARP as well as a matching grant from the State of Maine.

I do not know if anything like this exists anywhere else, but it is a project worth emulating. Many communities have health trails or outdoor equipment such as chin-up bars, obstacles, etc., but these are usually designed for younger individuals and others who may not have mobility issues. Considering the aging population in the United States, it will be interesting to see if Senior Playgrounds become more popular.

Over and over again, research shows that the more active adults remain, the better their long-term health outcomes. Many older adults “settle” for walking (which is great!), but could benefit from equipment that works to maintain and strengthen muscles. Senior Playgrounds help to meet this need; they also send the message that older adults are just as valued as children in the community. How often do we hear that?

Let me know if you hear of other communities with Senior Playgrounds.

Ageism is Everywhere

Rocking Chairs at Historic Poole Forge

I recently took a continuing education course through the Functional Aging Institute (through which I have a Functional Aging Specialization) about Ageism. What was most compelling about the presentation was the ways in which it showed ageism at work in subtle and not so subtle ways in our society and in the fitness industry. I have chosen a career as a Personal Trainer working specifically with older adults; my business is called At Home Senior Fitness. Even so, I learned a lot about the topic and am more aware now of the language I use, the way that I communicate non-verbally, and even some of my own attitudes toward older adults.

Several years ago, I read the book Growing Bolder by Marc Middleton; it was suggested to me by an instructor from FAI and it has really shaped the way that I view aging in general–and my own aging process in particular. Middleton argues that our culture glorifies youth (not a surprise) and that media, the arts, and business promote an image of the elderly as frail, unsophisticated, confused, and with little to offer. Older adults in our society are damaged goods. This is not true in other parts of the world where older adults are venerated. I do not know if I expect veneration, but it is better than what we offer seniors currently.

Middleton asks us to rethink the structures that promote this reality. He challenges us to consider our own aging process in a more positive and creative way. I will admit that I do fight the aging process every day: working out, under eye cream, etc., but I think much more optimistically about the process now. I find jokes about older adults being forgetful or falling apart to be less funny. Instead I think about all the possibilities ahead and the ways I can use the wisdom gained over the last 50+ years. I also think about the amazing older adults who showed the world just how valuable they could be: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Keith Richards!!!

Imagine my dismay when I opened a magazine recently (a freebie that gets delivered to my home every other month) and saw what I believe to be a very ageist approach in an article about Older Americans Month. Here is the quote:

“This year’s theme is Communities of Strength, recognizing the important role older adults play in fostering the connection and engagement that build strong, resilient communities. Strength is built and shown not only by bold acts, but also small ones of day-to-day life — a conversation shared with a friend, working in the garden, trying a new recipe, or taking time for a cup of tea on a busy day.  And when we share these activities with others, even virtually or by telling about the experience later, we help them build resilience too.”

While this is all true, it presents an image of older adults as incapable of building strong and resilient communities through activism, volunteering, holding public office, participating in (or leading) a fitness class, etc. None of the “bold” acts are enumerated–only the “day-to-day” ones. Why is the emphasis on trying a new recipe or tending the garden? Methinks ageism is at work here. If this kind of content appears in a magazine article aimed at older adults, discussing a special project promoted by an organization that serves older adults, something is seriously wrong.

Maybe next year, I will put myself out there and demonstrate some of those “bold acts” that we older adults are engaged in. In the meantime, today alone I have two fitness classes to teach, clients to train, and a graduating college senior to counsel on a possible career choice. I may just miss that cup of tea….

If Not Now, When?

Hourglass

Rabbi Hillel, one of the greatest teachers in Jewish tradition (110 BCE-10 CE), is the author of the well-known saying: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”

This pithy expression asks us to examine our role in the world, where we fit in. Although these words are over 2000 years old, they are compelling today as well. We must be willing to put in the effort to advance ourselves; we should not rely on others to look out for us. At the same time, we should not be so self-centered that we forget our obligations to those around us. Finally, there is a time to philosophize over these matters, and a time to act.

It occurs to me that Hillel’s words do not just address our spiritual or emotional status, but our physical well-being as well. As readers of this blog know, the interplay between body and soul in Judaism is a fascinating one. Our tradition recognizes that body and soul need each other; our souls require a body to “house” them during our sojourn on earth, and our bodies would only be dust (according to Genesis 1) were it not for the soul.

When it comes to our health and fitness, it is up to each of us to make sure that we care for the body given to us by God. We must make sure that we eat properly, exercise, and get appropriate rest; we cannot abuse our bodies and expect someone else (a medical professional, a personal trainer, a magician?) to make it all better. We also run the risk of being so concerned with our own physical wellness that we forget about the needs of others. This is a natural human instinct; we are afraid to give up something of our own lest we need it later. It is not a zero sum game, though; for one person to be healthy does not mean that someone else has to be denied access to healthcare, good food, vaccines, etc. There is enough to go around (at least in the United States) if we have the will to make it so. Finally, we should not put off taking better care of ourselves for later when we think we will have more time, or more energy, or feel more motivated.

This last point is perhaps the most important. A journey of a thousand miles begins with just one step. That step may be joining a gym, downloading an app to eat more healthfully, simply going on a walk, or scheduling a mammogram or colon cancer screening. We can come up with hundreds of reasons for why we cannot do this or that when it comes to fitness and health; sadly, we often come to know the danger of putting things off only when it is too late.

If not now, when? Whether I am only for myself or only for others is a moot point if I never act. Hillel asks us to think about ourselves and about others; even more importantly, that thought must move to action. Our health and welfare should always be a priority. Let us treat them as such by not waiting any longer to be the best version of ourselves–emotionally, spiritually, relationally, and physically. If not now, when?

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?