All The Promises We Have Made

Promise?

This evening as the sun sets, Jewish people around the world will gather in synagogues (and around laptops/tablets/cellphones) to begin the holiest day on the Hebrew calendar, Yom Kippur.

The day begins with a rather unusual ritual–but one that is filled with great power and emotion. The Kol Nidre prayer is recited as the sun sets and is actually not a prayer at all. It is a legal proceeding requiring three witness; usually each of them will hold a Torah Scroll taken from the Holy Ark to symbolize the importance of the goings on. Kol Nidre literally translates as “All Vows,” but can also mean “All Oaths,” or “All Promises.” The proceedings take just a few minutes (the legal formula is recited aloud from the prayer book three times in a row), but they have great impact. The aim of Kol Nidre is to pre-emptively nullify any promises we might make during the coming year that we are not able to keep; in some communities, the formula in Hebrew is slightly different and it asks for forgiveness and nullification after the fact for last year’s vows.

What a strange way to begin the holiest night of the year! It does, however, make sense upon deeper reflection. The 24 hours of Yom Kippur will be spent in prayer and reflection; it is a full day to consider our actions in the past and what we hope to accomplish going forward. It is like making New Year’s Resolutions but with more serious implications. We pre-emptively ask God to forgive us for making promises (to ourselves and to God) on this occasion that we may not be able to fulfill; promises to others do not get a free pass–we must make good on them.

What is the point of making such vows in the first place if we can just have them annulled? It is like making a promise with your fingers crossed behind your back! The Rabbis who put this service together stressed that we should really avoid making vows altogether; there is a whole section of the Talmud on this topic. Kol Nidre reminds us that if we are going to do it, we better be serious about it; better not to promise at all and over-deliver than to promise and not deliver.

This, of course, has implications not only for our spiritual life but for our physical well-being too. We often promise ourselves to go to the gym, or eat more healthy foods, or drink less alcohol, etc., but make little progress. Kol Nidre teaches us to be more realistic. If we are going to make a promise, we should be serious about it; this involves not just deciding on it at the spur of the moment. It means knowing ourselves and what makes us tick. It also means having a plan to accomplish our goals, including opportunities for little victories that will further motivate us.

I find this approach comforting. Kol Nidre recognizes human nature. We often make the same mistakes over and over again; this service urges us to be kind to ourselves and be realistic about what we can and cannot accomplish–spiritually and otherwise. We do not have to be perfect. When it comes to our fitness, in particular, it is better to start small rather than make huge commitments only to burn out soon afterwards. It is also important to find ways to be accountable for our actions. What roadblocks have we met in the past and how can we overcome them this time? What can we do to set ourselves up for success? Who can help us reach our goals? What will success look like?

As we begin Yom Kippur, I wish all those who observe a meaningful fast. May the promise of the coming year include promises kept for our spiritual and our physical well-being.

An Accounting of our Health

Shofar and Candlesticks

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins this coming Monday evening at sunset. It ushers in a period known as the Ten Days of Repentance that ends with Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year.

Unlike the frivolity and celebration of the secular New Year, this ten-day period is more serious. It is ideally spent in prayer and reflection. Traditionally, Jews review the last year in what is called in Hebrew, Cheshbon HaNefesh, literally an “Accounting of the Soul.” We look at the “asset column” of the positive things we did in the last 12 months; and then we look at the “debit column” of things that did not quite work out well, where we could have done better. Hopefully the good outweighs the bad, but no matter how the ledger sheet balances out, our attention turns to how we can do better in the coming year.

As a rabbi and personal trainer, I see an intersection between the “Accounting of the Soul” and an “Accounting of our Health.” Of course, there is spiritual health, but none of that is possible unless we take care of the body in which our spirit resides. Additionally, Judaism teaches that in the final analysis we are judged not by our thoughts/beliefs, but rather by what we do. “Doing” requires a body that is well enough to act. We can have all the best intentions to make our lives and the world around us a better place, but ultimately we have to find a way to move past intentions into action. This requires our body to be healthy.

The connection between body and spirit is well established in Judaism. At this time of the year, we would be wise to not only consider spiritual matters; we should also commit to living in a way that allows our bodies to bring blessing and holiness to others. An “Accounting of our Health” should be part and parcel of this holy season.

Best wishes to all those who celebrate Rosh Hashanah for a happy, healthy, and fit 5782!

Not Going Back to the Gym?

Chicago-approved exit sign

The New York Times ran an article at the beginning of the year that addressed the changes that had occurred in the fitness industry–in particular with fitness facilities–since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. It focused on individuals who decided to forego the gym and were willing to pay thousands of dollars for personalized workouts. The examples in the article were somewhat extreme, but they point to a significant trend that has been addressed in later publications as well.

Gyms are having a tough go of it. During the time when gyms were shut down, people invested in equipment to use at home; some spent heavily on products like Mirror, Peloton, weights, mats, etc. I have an elliptical in my home now too! The spending spree continued when gyms re-opened but much of the public was reticent to re-enter them. I work with some clients who have nothing more than a pair of 2-pound dumbbells, but I also have clients with an array of weights, exercise balls, resistance tubes, and cardio equipment such as recumbent bikes and treadmills. With so much invested at home, why return to the gym…and start paying those monthly fees?

Still, there was something that was missing. For many people, it is hard to stay motivated at home. There are those that worry that they may not be using the right equipment or using it correctly. Enter people like me, entrepreneurs who have stepped into the personalized virtual and in-person training domain. I started my business just under a year ago and left the gym where I worked a few months later; my schedule is almost completely full and the inquiries continue on a regular basis.

What I offer is more convenient, less costly, and no less effective. There is no monthly gym membership to pay in addition to my personal training fee; I have much lower overhead and can pass those savings along to my clients. There is no commute–either I come to the client’s home or we Zoom–which is an extra bonus for older adults. There is also no worry about whether the guy coughing on the next treadmill over has been vaccinated or not.

This business model is one that I imagined before the pandemic arrived; the events of the last 18 months only accelerated the demand for it. Offering a niche service–training only older adults–has put me in even higher demand. The next step is finding ever more innovative ways to meet seniors in the virtual and “real” world to help bring fitness to an often-overlooked demographic knowing that many senior adults will never go back to the gym. I am proud of the work that I am doing–and, more importantly, of the results my clients are seeing.

Not going back to the gym? You are part of a growing trend. The next question is: what are you doing to keep yourself fit and healthy as the pandemic drags on…and in the years beyond it?

Decrepit No More

Decrepit in the Rain

It was late 2020 when I got a call from a woman responding to an advertisement I had placed in the Cleveland Jewish News for my personal training business. She told me that primarily she was calling about her husband; he was in his mid-70s and in her words “decrepit.” Could I help?

I met with them, and after making all the proper arrangements began training with him 3 times per week for 30 minutes at their home. This was before vaccinations were happening so we were all masked up and training outside on the back deck when possible. I do not know if I would have used the word “decrepit,” but there were a lot of issues: balance, stamina, strength, and flexibility. I created a program specific to his needs and abilities and stuck with the plan.

It was tough going at first, but it was clear that progress was being made. It was proof to him and his wife–and to me–that we are capable of making positive changes in our levels of fitness at any age. It also demonstrated that the definition of “too far gone” needs to be rethought. Things for my client were looking great!

Unfortunately, he had a serious stroke a few months ago. I was worried that all of the progress would go down the tubes. On the contrary, the work we had been doing together helped prepare him to be successful at the inpatient rehab facility where he was for several weeks. He was their star student! Imagine my surprise when I started working with him again and he looked even better than before the stroke; of course, there was (and still is) a lot of work to be done to maintain and increase strength and mobility, but without a doubt between rehab and our workouts he was making a comeback.

Yesterday at his first workout of the week we commented on how he no longer looks or feels decrepit. It took about 8 months–and a stroke intervened–but this guy is proof that a supervised fitness program for older adults can be the difference between independence and decrepitude.

I know this is only one example, but I see progress with all of my clients. Word needs to get out so that older adults can begin to think differently about themselves and their fitness. As we age, we need be decrepit no more.

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.