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.
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!
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].
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.
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.
This article, by Samantha Cassety, was featured on http://www.NBCNews.com. It is a pretty thorough explanation of how we can and cannot affect our metabolisms…and just what metabolism is in the first place.
The conclusion is something that those in the Fitness industry have been saying for years: regular exercise is good for us but may not necessarily help us lose weight; our diet is most important to dropping those pounds. On our journeys to weight loss and fitness, we need to assess our approach: we have little control over how many calories our bodies will burn, but we have total control over how many we will put in our bodies!
Passover and fitness in the same sentence! Is that even possible? Most of us who observe the Passover holiday think of it as two nights of Thanksgiving Dinner-sized meals followed by carbs, carbs and more carbs. It is possible to eat healthy during Passover, but that’s not my focus here.
The Passover holiday commemorates the departure of the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery as told in the Book of Exodus. The events described would have taken place thousands of years ago. The Haggadah–the book that contains the service for the Passover Feast (called a Seder) held on the first two nights–tells us that each of us should see ourselves as if we personally went out from Egypt. This is a tall order; many, if not most, of us have never experienced discrimination or oppression–let alone slavery. It is a challenge to try to put ourselves in the story.
The holiday is not just about the historical exodus from Egypt, though; the underlying theme is about redemption–the idea that where we are now is not where we need to be forever. The Hebrews’ situation seemed hopeless and yet, with God’s power, they were able to make their way to freedom; not only that, Egypt–the most powerful empire on the planet–was brought to its knees in the process. This sets a paradigm for us in the world and in our personal lives. The world we live in, with all of its problems, need not remain as it is; we can make it better–redeem it as it were. On a personal level, who we are today does not define who we will be tomorrow; we are always capable of becoming more and better than we are now.
Which brings me to Fitness and Passover…
Many folks look at their own personal fitness and say, “well, this is how I am.” “I’ll always be fat.” “I can never get in shape.” This outlook becomes even more rigid as we age. All the research on fitness, however, points in the opposite direction. Embarking on an exercise and/or diet program at any age is beneficial; we are always capable of improving our health. The prevailing notion was always that as we age there are certain functions that we must inevitably lose; study after study shows that we can maintain and even improve our muscle mass, cardiovascular health, endurance and reaction time–or at the very least slow the progression of their weakening. We all know individuals who were sick and frail who, after a period of rehab, were back to “normal” or even stronger than before their illness or injury. We know that we can transcend the situation in which we find ourselves; we can get better. The lessons of Passover echo this idea; they teach us that we are always capable of redemption. Although there are chronic diseases and conditions like cancer that we may not be able to overcome, we still have greater control over our fitness destiny than we may have thought in the past.
Another connection has to do with the idea of freedom which underpins the Passover story. The Hebrews were not liberated from Egypt simply so they could run around in the wilderness without a care in the world; the exodus had a purpose. The Israelites were forced to serve Pharaoh, which meant that they could not serve God. How could they focus on their connection to the divine when every day was a struggle to stay alive? The purpose of the Hebrews’ liberation was to allow them to serve God and follow the Lord’s commandments that they would receive soon afterwards at Mt. Sinai. The Israelites were made free in order to serve; it sounds oxymoronic, but it is a profound idea.
Likewise, watching what we eat, exercising, and taking care of ourselves is for most of us not an end unto itself. We take care of ourselves so that we are able to do the things we want to do longer, more efficiently and more easily. We build strength and endurance in order to carry out the tasks of our lives. What are those tasks? Certainly much of our lives are taken up with grocery shopping, paying the bills, working, studying, folding fitted sheets (!), etc., and we need to be healthy enough to do that–but most of us look for a deeper purpose to our existence. If, in fact, one of our duties as human beings is to partner with God and our fellow humans in making the world a better place (redeeming it), we cannot do so if we are frail, weak, tired and out of shape. Ideally, we maintain and strengthen our bodies–which are vessels given to us by God–to be able to carry out our mission in the world (however you define that for yourself).
The work of redemption is not easy. It is slow, laborious and often frustrating–kind of like some of our workouts. Jewish tradition teaches us that it is not our obligation to finish the work, but neither are we at liberty to excuse ourselves from the work of redemption. One of the ways that we can ensure that we are up to the task is to prepare ourselves spiritually AND physically. We are capable of changing the world for the better…but not if we don’t first change ourselves for the better–in spirit and in body.
Chag Sameach! Best wishes for a happy and fit Passover holiday!
This is the title of an article that appeared yesterday (April 8, 2019) in the Wall Street Journal. The article by Hilary Potkewitz notes that seniors are going to the gym in record numbers; at the same time the demand for trainers in their 50s and 60s is going up. The article contains some statistics as well as a lot of anecdotes about this trend.
I know that many of my clients are on the “senior side” of things, and part of what attracted them to meas a Personal Trainer is that I am 50+. I understand what an aging body feels like. I know that the vast majority of seniors are not as interested in what their bodies will look like at the beach or pool this summer as they are about their ability to carry out the activities of daily living (not that a killer bod wouldn’t be appreciated!).
On a pretty regular basis clients tell me about past injuries, aches, deficits in strength, etc., and in many cases I can relate because I have been there. Hernia surgery, check! Achilles tendinitis, check! Plantar fasciitis, check! Not only can I relate, but my recovery experiences help me to understand what exercises are effective and which aren’t.
This is not to say that a younger trainer might not be a good listener and even know how to do corrective exercises; there are many out there who are better than I at that. What it does say is that there is a kind of kinship of fellow travelers as we age and we think about our fitness, our jobs, our families, and our goals.
Of course, this is all good news for me and for the fitness industry. Fitness is not just the domain of the “hotshot trainer with the six-pack;” those of us with a little wear and tear have just as much to give…often with a dose of well-earned wisdom!
This past weekend I was in Columbus visiting my kids. I stayed at a Bed & Breakfast not too far from the Convention Center. This past weekend was the Arnold Classic 2019, the largest fitness expo in the country; it is held every March in Columbus.
You should know that I lived in Columbus for the last 16 years and not once did I ever attend this event. This year as well, I had not planned to visit, but on Shabbas afternoon there was not a lot to do at the B&B, so I headed out on foot to the Convention Center. It turns out you only need tickets to get into certain parts (including the marketplace), but there was still lots to see without a ticket. I was able to catch some weightlifting competitions, as well as fencing and ballroom dance (a mambo to the turn of “Baby Shark!”). There were also exhibitions of jump-roping and aerobic dancing. The place was PACKED and all those muscles meant it was even more crowded!
The marketplace has many different kinds of vendors (at least what I could see from outside the doors). Lots of sports nutrition products are available; many are certified kosher…but many are not, so it is important to check labels and ask manufacturers.
Still, it was worth the visit. Next year, I will try to go and get tickets in advance. The event starts on Thursday and runs through Sunday, so if you are Shomer Shabbat, it is possible to do a lot before Shabbat. It is not far from the Ohio State University, so it is possible to arrange to go to Shabbat services and dinner either through OSU Hillel or Chabad. If you are going to make the trip, plan ahead as hotels and home-sharing companies will book up quickly.
Take-aways? Even if you are not a body-builder there is a lot the Arnold Classic has to offer. The event has really expanded to cover many different forms of fitness–over 80 different kinds in fact. There is something for everyone–even if you do not consider yourself a hard-core athlete or fitness enthusiast.
In terms of the Arnold Classic 2020, I think there’s a good chance “I’ll be baaaahk.”