Is this Blog still Kosher?

Those familiar with the upcoming (in just a few hours) holiday of Rosh Hashanah know that the next 10 days (The Ten Days of Repentance) are a time for reflection. We consider our actions over the last year and plan how we can do better in the coming one. It is a process that we repeat every year and, as we do, hopefully we get closer to the best version of ourselves.

I think about this not only on a personal level, but also with regard to my life’s work as a personal trainer and a rabbi. I know that on both accounts I can always do better and I work hard to achieve that goal. The same is true with this blog. I am grateful to those who have offered me constructive advice (mostly my brother, Joel) as I hone by blogging craft.

When this blog started it was supposed to be about the intersection between Judaism and Fitness; I saw it as a way to integrate the two career paths that have occupied my adult life. Over time, the blog has come to focus much more on fitness–especially as it impacts older adults. I have wondered if (and how) I should change the name of the blog and its description. I often ask myself just how kosher this blog is.

For the time being, I do not plan to make any big changes. Most of the current content–90% of which does not involve anything explicitly Jewish–deals with issues of how we care for ourselves. I began this blog with the premise that caring for our bodies is indeed a Jewish value. Of course, this is not an idea I came up with on my own; the sages of our tradition understood that we could not fulfill our role (individually or as a part of a people) unless we had the strength and stamina to do it. This is borne out in Psalm 117 which states that the dead cannot praise the Lord. Unless we care for our bodies, we cannot serve God nor our fellow human beings. Ultimately, my blog continues to deal with the intersection of Judaism and Fitness–implicitly if not explicitly.

The next Ten Days will be a time of reflection and repentance for Jews around the world and for me. It is my hope that during this period–and beyond–I will be guided to do the most good possible through my work as a rabbi, personal trainer, and blogger.

Wishing all my readers who celebrate, a very happy 5783! May all humanity be blessed with good health, happiness, justice, peace, and fitness!

At Home Senior Fitness is Growing!

It is just over two years since I trained my first client at At Home Senior Fitness. At the time, I was still working as a Personal Trainer at a local gym, but had decided that I wanted to branch out on my own. I worked both jobs for two months before giving my 2-week’s notice at the gym; I knew that in order to make my business successful, I would have to jump in with both feet.

Although I have always been busy, in June I got to the point where I could not take on any new clients virtually or in-person. I had all but stopped advertising since word-of-mouth was my biggest source of referrals, and I did not want to take out ads and then be unable to offer a spot on my schedule to those who would make inquiries. I began to consider whether I should hire someone to work with me. I was working with my SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives) mentor to strategize and was about ready to make the move when “fate” intervened.

I mid-July I received an unsolicited inquiry from a certified group fitness instructor who was also studying for ACE certification as a Senior Fitness Specialist. After many years of working with older adults, she was interested in transitioning her career into fitness and wanted to talk to me about the work that I do. We set up a Zoom conversation and, after speaking, we both understood that working together could be a great fit (pun intended!). It was fortuitous for both of us.

I am very pleased to welcome Sam Kalamasz to the At Home Senior Fitness team! Sam will be training virtually as well as in-person in territory that I am unable to cover (Medina, Strongsville, and Brunswick, OH). Sam begins with her first client today! Over the coming weeks, we are looking to build her client base, so if you know people who might benefit from working with a kind, compassionate, and skilled personal trainer–either on-line or in her territory–please refer them to http://www.athomeseniorfitness.net.

I am so excited for this new stage for me and AHSF…and for Sam. We are honored to be able to help older adults live their best lives with improved strength, mobility, and independence!

Are You Your Beloved?

This evening at sunset begins Rosh Chodesh Elul, the observance of the new month of Elul on the Jewish calendar. It is the last month before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

There are many observances connected with Elul. In order to “wake us up” from our complacency, it is traditional to blow the shofar (ram’s horn) each morning during the month except on the Sabbath. We also recite Psalm 27 every evening and morning. These practices are aimed at preparing us for the difficult and sacred work of repentance that takes place during the first 10 days of the New Year.

The name of the month is also quite special. It is an acrostic in Hebrew for Ani L’Dodi v’Dodi Li, which is based on the verse from the Song of Songs and means “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” Traditionally, the Song of Songs is seen as an allegory for the love between God and the Children of Israel; the name of the Hebrew month reminds us of our relationship with God and that we should be especially cognizant of repairing and strengthening our connection with the Holy One.

Because this verse is often recited at a Jewish wedding, it also refers to relationships with our loved ones and partners. This is a month when we should work on repairing and strengthening our human connections too.

Additionally, we should be concerned about our relationship with ourselves. Do we make an effort to treat others right but not afford the same to ourselves? We all know the famous verse, V’Ahavta l’Reacha Kamocha, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” What if you really do not love yourself? What if you pay lip service to self-care (in all its many forms) but do not take action when it comes to being the best version of yourself you can be? How can we love others if we do not learn to love ourselves first?

This applies to fitness, but many other areas as well. The High Holidays are all about forgiveness, but sometimes the person with whom we are the least forgiving is ourselves. We beat ourselves up for making missteps. We compare ourselves unfavorably to others. We always put the needs of others ahead of our own to our detriment. It is not a luxury or conceit to care for one’s self. We are supposed to love our neighbors as ourselves, but to do that we must first love ourselves. This requires concrete action. During the month of Elul, this is our focus. Not only should we concentrate on how we interact with others and God, but also with how we treat our own souls. Beyond contemplation, we plan for how to change in concrete ways in the coming year.

Wishing everyone a great month ahead. Whether you are Jewish or not, observant or not, this is as good a time as any to refocus and remember to be beloved to ourselves too!

The Core of the Matter

If you were to ask anyone who participates in my group fitness classes or does personal training with me what are the top 3 phrases I use, one them would certainly be “engage your core!”

We hear a lot of talk about the core, but what exactly is it and why is it so important? The coreĀ is made up of the muscles surrounding your mid-section (sometimes called trunk); it includes the abdominals, obliques, diaphragm, pelvic floor, trunk extensors, and hip flexors. Some people define it as the area between the mid-thigh to just below the pectoral muscles.

The core important because it provides stability for doing many of the tasks of daily living, and supports everything above it. A weak core can lead to overloading other muscles, which often leads to back pain. Most of the activities in which we engage–both in the gym and out–depend on us having a core that is strong enough to support the movements required.

When I say, “engage your core,” what does that mean? I usually follow this term with the instruction to keep shoulders back, chest up, and belly button pulled back to the spine. This is an oversimplification, but it is a signal to my clients that they need to be aware of their posture. I often tell them to imagine the drill sargeant is about to come by and they need to stand at attention.

There are a number of exercises that help to strengthen the core. A popular one is doing abdominal braces. Basically, this involves tightening the muscles of the mid-section all at once. Imagine that someone is about to punch you in the gut; what muscles would you tighten to lessen the impact of the punch? This is what you do in a bracing exercise. There are all kinds of bracing exercises, many of which you can find with explanatory videos by using a simple internet search. Doing these exercises will give you a good idea of just how strong your core is (or isn’t!).

Other exercises to help strengthen the core include: Ab crunches, glute bridges, bird dogs, planks, side planks, and superheroes (formerly known as supermans). None of these exercise requires any kind of equipment; they can be done at home on a mat or other soft, but sturdy surface. If you want to make use of dumbbells you can add in: deadlifts, russian twists, wood chops (that also work the arms and shoulders), and over/unders. At the gym, there are machines that will also work the core and allow for varying the amount of resistance being used; ask a trainer or other employee to show you which machines they are and how to use them.

Getting to the core of the matter is an essential part of any exercise regimen. Lots of people like to focus on upper body and arms, as well as legs, but often leave out core. This is like building a home but leaving out the foundation. You cannot build a strong body without a strong core to support it all. Next time you are exercising, I hope you imagine me reminding you to “engage your core!”

400 Followers!

It has been 3.5 years since I began this blog, and now I have reached the milestone of 400 followers. To mark the occasion, I reread the blog that I posted when I hit 200 followers.

I noted back then, that I had little idea how the whole blogging thing worked. Originally, the blog was supposed to deal with the intersection of Judaism and physical fitness, but it veered more into fitness for older adults a couple of years ago, reflecting my personal training business At Home Senior Fitness.

What is new since I hit 200? My business was still in its early stages and I was struggling to get new clients; now I have a waiting list! I am now a regular contributor to Northeast Ohio Boomer where my column on fitness for seniors appears in each issue. I have taught classes for local organizations including a synagogue, Village in the Heights, and a group supporting individuals and families with Parkinson’s Disease. I have been interviewed for print media, radio, and a podcast!

It will be interesting to see where I am when I get to 600 followers. Currently in development is digital content from my brand, and the strong possibility that I will expand my business to keep up with growing demand.

In the meantime, I will keep bringing you the lastest news, tips, and advice for how to stay healthier and more fit as we age!

Thanks for reading, and feel free to offer feedback and spread the word!

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!