Do You Have a Dream?

martin luther king

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day comes to an end, I think about his legacy. He was to me the closest thing that the United States has had to a modern-day prophet. Like the prophets of the biblical tradition, he was not afraid to speak truth to power. Dr. King had powerful dreams and visions. He saw this nation the way it was and dreamed of what it could become–not just for people of color, but for all Americans.

Dr. King reminds me of the biblical character, Joseph. Joseph was a dreamer for sure, but he was more than that. He knew how to interpret dreams (both his and Pharaoh’s) and understood what to do next. He was not just a dreamer, Joseph was a man of action as well. This very well describes Dr. King too. He spoke about his dreams, but he also knew how to organize. He comprehended what it would take for change to come. I am sure that he must have also known that this change might not come in his lifetime, but that the work must be done nevertheless.

On this MLK Jr. Day, we should honor the legacy of this great man, and we should also be aware of just how much of his dreams is unfulfilled. There is a great deal more work to be done to ensure that the United States is a nation of freedom and justice. We must do more than just reflect; we are obliged to consider the ways that we can make his dreams a reality, and then plan our first steps, and the second, and so on.

If this sounds familiar to those of you who have been following my blog, it is because the idea of taking a dream/desire and making it a reality is also a part of our fitness journey. We cannot just dream about becoming more healthy. We must first assess the situation and understand the work that needs to be done. Only then can we set goals and establish a plan to begin the hard work.

May we honor Dr. King’s legacy, not just on this day, but throughout the year–doing our part to make his vision of a more perfect nation more than just a dream.

Focus on Behaviors, Not Outcomes

Magnifying Glass

It is that time of the year, and many of us are focusing on our New Year’s Resolutions. I do not have any firm statistics, but I am guessing that not an insignificant number of those resolutions have to do with health/fitness/weight. And (again without firm statistices) my guess is that many of us will be no more successful this year than we were last year.

At a gym where I worked previously, every fall there was a big promotion for a weight loss challenge that would begin in January. The male and female participants who lost the most weight as a percent of their total weight won a prize and bragging rights for the year. One year, I was put “in charge” of the challenge with a couple of other trainers and we decided to shift some of the focus away from weight loss entirely; we knew there could only be two winners, but we wanted everyone to succeed by creating healthy habits. There were two sets of winners: 1. those with the greatest percentage of weight loss, and 2. those who had the greatest number of overall “points.” Points could be earned through weight loss, and also through participating in a fitness class, setting and meeting a fitness goal (like doing a 5K or planking for 60 seconds), or participating in special events like the Indoor Triathlon. We also split into teams, banking on the fact that when we work together in a supportive setting we are more likely to stay motivated. Not surprisingly, attrition during the challenge was quite low; participants really stuck with it because they knew that it was not just about dropping pounds, but also about being accountable to themselves and their teammates–and about building a healthier lifestyle with good habits for the long term.

Unfortunately, most of us do not focus on the permanently changing our lifestyles; we obsess over the number on the scale. I am a firm believer in setting and adhering to simple rules to help make those changes; I even blogged about it. Make a few rules that are do-able, like “no eating after 8 pm,” or “I will go to the gym 3 times each week for 40 minutes,” or “I will take the stairs each day rather than the elevator.” These are all simple, measurable, achievable rules. They are much more concrete than “I will be more healthy,” or even “I will lose 20 pounds.” Neither of those has a plan; they focus on a goal rather than a behavior.

Those who focus on a goal find that it is difficult to stick with it if results do not seem immediately forthcoming. On the other hand, those who focus on the behaviors can be proud of progress on a regular basis. This is much more useful in building a healthier lifestyle.

I have not decided what (if any) New Year’s Resolutions I will make; I am more apt to do this around Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. In any case, if/when I do I will be certain to focus on what I will do, not where I hope to arrive. It is all about the journey….and eventually we make it to the destination.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong (Part II)

Two Vintage Red Cross Bandage Boxes

In my last blog post, I wrote about ways to keep yourself safe while working out at home–focusing on having a safe and secure workout space.

Preventing injury requires more than just cleaning up a large enough space and getting possible obstacles out of the way. There are factors to take into account both at home, and at they gym to consider. An article in at http://www.aarp.org points out 5 issues to bear in mind when embarking on a fitness journey; these factors are especially relevant for older adults.

  1. Start slowly. With New Year’s Resolutions on the horizon many of us may resolve to start working out more often. Going from 0 to 60 in 3 seconds may be great for a sports car, but our bodies require us to move forward gently–especially if we have been sedentary for a while. Working out for too long, too often, or with weights that are too heavy is a recipe for injury. Muscles need to get used to the new routine; they need to grow and strengthen before we get more intense. Ease into it.
  2. Speaking of going from 0 to 60, every workout should begin with a warm-up. Typically, a before-workout warm-up should involve dynamic stretches or motions; in other words, they should be comprised of actions similar to those you will do as part of the workout, just at a slower, more gentle pace. The goal is to warm up the muscles and get the blood flowing throughout the body. Static stretches can be done after the warm-up, or (as I prefer) after the workout; static stretches are the ones where you hold a certain position for a given amount of time.
  3. Get the right athletic footwear. Shoes are like tires; some work better in different situations, and some only work on certain models. As we age, many of us develop issues with our posture and the rest of our kinetic chain (think of the hip bone connected to the thigh bone…); proper athletic footwear can help us excel, avoid pain, and stave off injuries. Like tires, they also have a mileage limit; if the treads on your shoes are gone, time to get new ones. I recommend going to a shoe store that only sells athletic footwear; their employees are trained and can get you the right fit for whatever quirks your feet might present. Do not let me catch you barefoot or in socks!
  4. Switch it up. Do not do the same exercise day in and day out. First, you will get bored. Second, you may cause injuries due to overuse. It is also important to work all the various muscle groups; varying the workout can help make that happen.
  5. My favorite one: if you are not sure about how to begin, reach out to a fitness professional. Most gyms have personal trainers or other fitness experts who are happy to help; often, an initial session is offered for free so that you can get acquainted with the gym and its equipment. If you prefer to work out online or one-on-one with a trainer at home, there are personal trainers who specialize in these kinds of settings–and you will probably save money not having to pay for a gym membership. A trainer will make sure that you cover most of the points above and will help keep you on track. There’s nothing like a good personal trainer to keep you accountable to your goals.

Of course, injuries do happen. Sometimes there are accidents, and other times we have physical weaknesses of which we are not aware. While there are no guarantees, the points above are certainly excellent guidelines to keeping your workout–at home or at the gym–less likely to cause an injury.

Overcoming the Odds

Hanukkah menorah

When most people think about the holiday of Hanukkah (today is the 5th day out of 8), they think about the miracle of the oil that lasted for eight days even though there was only enough for one. What oil, where, and when remains a mystery to a lot of people.

The story of the oil that is the basis for lighting a Hanukkah menorah is found in the Talmud and is considered a legend rather than historically verifiable fact. The story of the miracle was meant to help bring God into the picture, when from a historical standpoint the holiday celebrates an event in which God may not be readily apparent. At its heart Hanukkah is about a military victory.

Over 2000 years ago, there was a strong Hellenizing (Greek) influence in the Jewish world and the Land of Israel. There was a great deal of assimilation to the point that a statue of a Greek god was placed in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. This was too much for traditionalists who formed an army–the Maccabees; they fought the Assyrian Greeks and defeated them, even though the Maccabees were outnumbered and outpowered. This allowed the followers of the Jews to purify and rededicate the Temple; they also rooted out the Greek influence that had become so prevalent. The original Temple built by Solomon was dedicated over an eight-day celebration, which is why Hanukkah (which means dedication) was also an eight-day festival; the story of the oil is just icing on the cake really.

What does all of this have to do with fitness? After all, this is a fitness blog. Although Hanukkah is really about religious freedom and autonomy, it is also about our ability to overcome great odds when we set our minds to it. This is true in fitness as well. When I was 40, I never would have thought about running a half-marathon, but when I was 51 I did it. Of course, it took a lot of training, but it also took a change in my way of thinking. I began to consider not my limitations, but rather about the possibilities. I cannot help but think that the Maccabees did the same thing; they could have looked at the overwhelming forces of the opposing army and simply given up, but instead they fought with valor and tenacity until they were victorious. Jews today owe our existence to their grit and determination.

Hanukkah is a known as a festival of miracles. The miracle of the oil is a legend; what seems miraculous is the way in which the Maccabees overcame the odds. We are no less capable today of creating miracles in our own lives–whether it has to do with our education, our relationships, or fitness. We can overcome the obstacles (most of which we put in front of ourselves) and make miracles happen.

6 Month Kidney-versary

Today I have a lot for which to be thankful. I have been blessed in so many ways: an amazing wife, incredible kids, excellent friends, a fulfilling career, a wonderful community, and good health.

I am also grateful that this past year I was able to successfully give the “gift of life” by donating my left kidney to someone with advanced kidney disease. I have worked hard over the last couple of decades to eat right, exercise, get plenty of rest, and practice other forms of self-care. It has paid off. I have always said that one of the best motivations for being physically active and eating right is in order to be healthy enough to help those around you–sort of like the message of the air masks that fall during an unlikely cabin depressurization; I have helped myself first, and then assisted others around me. This has been the focus of my career as a rabbi and now as a personal trainer as well. I never imagined, though, that I would be able to donate an organ (at least, while I was alive)–especially at the age of 58–but all those years of watching what I eat and going to the gym helped make it possible–not only for me, but for the two people and their loved ones who benefited from my donation.

A couple of weeks ago we had a 6-month Kidney-versary dinner here in Cleveland (pictured above). It was great to get the three donors and three recipients and their spouses together. It was even better to see everyone doing so well. I hope that we will continue to get-together as we are able to give thanks for the miracles of modern medicine that make it all possible–along with the outstanding doctors, nurses, and other caregivers. We are now all tied together by a very special bond.

For the first time this year, I feel like I am truly thankful not only for what I have, but for what I am able to give. I look forward to more opportunities to continue on this path…but I do plan to keep my other kidney!

Wishing everyone a happy and healthy Thanksgiving!

One Year as a Self-Employed Trainer

Champagne

Today marks one year since I left my position as a trainer at the local JCC. I had worked there for over two years and it was the first position I got after my certification. I am grateful for the friendships and experience that I got, and that management was willing to take a risk in hiring an “old guy” like me. Being new to the Cleveland area, it was a great way to connect with the local Jewish community as well.

In late summer 2020, though, I decided that I wanted to branch out and try training privately. It was certainly slow at first, but the pandemic actually helped. Many folks felt uncomfortable/unsafe going into fitness facitilies and either wanted to train virtually or one-on-one at their home. Within a few months it was apparent that I was onto something; there was a need for someone who worked exclusively with older adults, understood their particular needs, was affordable, and convenient. I knew it was a big leap to go out on my own, but I also knew that, as they say in Yiddish, “you can’t dance at two weddings.” In other words, it is difficult if not impossible to grow a new business while still employed somewhere else. If I wanted to At Home Senior Fitness to thrive, I would need to give it my full attention. November 15 was my last day at the JCC and I have not looked back.

I am really happy to report that I have a full book of clients. I am working with a great group of older adults and am gratified to see the progress they are making. I have clients from as far west as the Bay Area in California and as far east as Ashkelon in Israel. I am training virtually, in-home (within 5 miles of my home), and leading a regular fitness class on-line three times/week. My clients range in age from 58 to 93. Some are quite agile and active; others are recovering from strokes and other serious health conditions. A hallmark of At Home Senior Fitness is that the program is never “one size fits all;” each client has a fitness plan designed especially for them that will keep them safe, injury-free, and working toward their goals.

The biggest news is that I was recently tapped by a local publication for older adults to be their “expert” on fitness. I will be a regular contributor with a column appearing in each issue. This is really exciting and a great opportunity to expose many seniors to the idea of keeping fit as we age. I will share more details as I am able.

I look forward to what the next year will bring. Stayed tuned for more exciting announcements about what is planned for 2022.

Finally, a big thank you to my clients and to all those who have supported me on this journey (especially my patient wife!). You all give me a reason to be up and at ’em each day!

This $h!t Really Works!

Waimaku Falls

This is the view that greeted us last week after a one-hour uphill hike at the Haleakela National Park on Maui in Hawaii: the Waimaku Falls. Of course, this picture does not do it justice; there are actually three separate falls cascading 400 feet into a clear cool pool that empties (eventually) into the Pacific Ocean. This was not an easy hike; there were lots of steps, stones to climb up, and a few slippery spots. The views were magnificent and part of the hike passes under a giant banyan tree, while another section traverses a bamboo forest. Simply breathtaking and unforgettable!

As a personal trainer working with older adults, I have noted that my clients have different motivations for why they choose to exercise, and why with a personal trainer. One of the key reasons is that they want to be able to remain active and do the things they enjoy for as long as they can. A significant number enjoy traveling (whether on vacation or to see family), and they want to be able to get up and go…instead of just sitting on a couch. Not all of my clients would be able to climb up to Waimaku Falls, but a good many would. Earlier in the week we saw a fair number of older adults climbing to the top of Diamond Head in Honolulu. It was impressive. A regular (and supervised) exercise routine can help make this a possibility.

This past May, I had a pretty major operation. The trip to Hawaii was planned before I knew this surgery would take place. My regular fitness routine helped with my recovery and made it possible for me to do these two hikes without really thinking too much about it–aside from sunscreen and water. Additionally, I was able to snorkel, walk long distances, and even take surfing lessons! I hope that I never take for granted that the work I put into keeping myself fit makes all of these adventures possible. I do appreciate that it allows me to be able to keep up with my pre-K and elementary-aged nieces and nephew. I am proud that I rarely have to ask: am I up to it at age 58?

More adventures are planned for the future (God-willing). There are more reefs to snorkel, More mountains to climb. More journeys to begin. I sometimes have wondered whether the exercise and proper nutrition are worth the trouble, but after these last couple of weeks in Hawaii, I have concluded: this $h!t really works!

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth (and Your Values) Are

Money Roll - $100 Dollar Bills

Just a couple of weeks ago, I gave a “sermon” on the evening of Yom Kippur about aligning our actions with our words and values.

I focused on a time-management tool with which many of us are familiar; take a piece of paper and divide it into 2 rows and 2 columns. At the top of one column put “Important” and at the top of the other put “Not Important.” In front of one row put “Urgent” and in front of the other put “Not Urgent.” The exercise is to review an entire week and categorize each activity on the grid: laundry, grocery shopping, watching Netflix, exercising, working, studying, etc., and attach a time component to it, ie., how many hours were spent doing each activity. Finally, do the math. How much time was spent on activities that are not important? How much on stuff that is not urgent? Ideally, anything that is not urgent and not important should grab the least amount of our attention, time, and energy; conversely, we should focus on those things which are important and urgent. How well does this line up in reality?

This is not just a question of time. It is also a question of our finances. How much money do we spend on things that are not important or do not line up with our values? A recent FaceBook post by Amanda Malcolm-Brown addressed this very issue. She relates it to our health and fitness. How many of us complain about the high cost of gym membership or personal training, but are willing to drop a lot of money to go to a pro football game? Why will we spend a fortune at a fancy restaurant, but balk at spending a little extra at the supermarket for foods that are healthier for us? Malcolm-Brown notes that what really counts are our actions–not our thoughts or intentions. This is, of course, a statement that aligns with Jewish values and is at the core of the High Holidays and the Kol Nidre (Yom Kippur eve) service.

Here we are in the last quarter of 2021 (or the beginning of the Hebrew year 5782); what can we do now to ensure that our actions (and money) help us to reach our goals? Perhaps a good start is to take a piece of paper, divide it into four quadrants….

Weights? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Weights!

Pushups

As the pandemic wears on, more and more people who used to be regular gym-goers are realizing that it has been 18 months since they have stepped foot in a fitness center. Some have found other ways to keep fit, but many have simply stopped working out altogether. It is a sad reality, and one whose end is not necessarily in sight.

One of the issue stopping people from working out at home is that they lack the equipment found in gyms. I have been working virtually with clients (first for a local gym, and then in my own business “At Home Senior Fitness”) since the earliest days of the shutdowns in 2020. By now, many of my clients have at least a couple of dumbbells or perhaps some resistance tubes. Even so, I am able to put together workouts for clients that use body weight alone. This is especially helpful when clients are traveling and cannot bring equipment with them.

Is a body weight workout effective? The answer is a definitive yes. To paraphrase the classic film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, “Weights? We don’t need no stinkin’ weights!”

Of course, there are certain principles that should be followed. As in workouts using weights/resistance, the best results occur when there is a pattern of progression. In other words, either increase the weight being used, decrease the rest period between sets, increase the number of reps and sets, etc. In a body weight fitness regime increasing the weight does not figure in, so it involves getting more creative. There are many ways to make the workout more challenging: single limb exercises, changing the angle, increasing tempo, introducing hybrid exercises, etc.

It should go without saying that this applies to resistance training, but it is also the case in cardio workouts. Treadmill, ellipticals, and stair climbers were created to replicate already existing body movements. Instead of a treadmill, one can walk or run on a street or trail; speed can be varied and (depending on where you live) so can incline. Running or jogging can replace ellipticals, although the impact on joints is much greater. Bicycle riding can replace a stationary bike, and one can simply climb stairs! We have become so accustomed to thinking that we have to go to the gym, but it is possible to be fit–and even “ripped”–without using equipment.

Finally, a body weight workout regime requires a lot of creativity. Every piece of equipment in a gym is designed to work a certain muscle or muscle group; these muscles can be exercised without that equipment as well, but it may take a fitness professional to help adapt them. Finally, a personal trainer can help to ensure that a body weight workout is not only effective and safe, but also fun!

Weights are great, but their absence should not be a reason for avoiding a workout. The good Lord gave us all bodies, and we can use them creatively to keep ourselves fit and healthy.

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.