Protecting those Knees

As we age, we hear more and more about people requiring knee surgery or even knee replacement. While the knee is not the most complicated joint, it is one that gets a lot of use and bears a lot of weight. It is important to be cognizant of the proper form while exercising to avoid injury; in particular, doing lunges or squats the wrong way can put a great deal of pressure and stress on the knee.

When we talk about the knee, we cannot just talk about the bones (the femur, tibia, patella, etc.) but also about the tendons, ligaments, and cartilage. All of these are susceptible to strain and injury. Working with a fitness professional is one way to help ensure that knees stay healthier–or at least avoid serious damage.

A new study referenced in the most recent issue of IDEA Fitness Journal reaches some enlightening conclusions about the connection between exercise and the risk of physical harm to the knees. As a runner (although I run less now than I used to), I always worried about the risk to this all-important joint; I assumed that our knees were like tires: they last for certain amount of miles and then they need to be replaced! Researchers at the University of Southampton and University of Oxford (both in England) found that the benefits of exercise–even for the frail and elderly–outweights the risks with regard to our knees. The study focused on the likelihood of developing knee osteoarthritis from physical activity. 5000 participants were followed for 5-12 years and the data suggests that neither the amount of energy spent in physical activity or the length of time were associated with a risk of developing arthritis.

This is good news; my last blog post focused on a related idea. Many people are afraid to work out for a variety of reasons–including injury. Studies show that the more information that can be shared with those beginning an exercise regimen, the greater the chances of success; that information should include debunking myths and stressing the benefits of exercise (versus the risk of not) as well as setting proper expectations of what the process will be like.

My knees have not worn out (yet), but it is good to know that it does not appear that years of running and physical activity might lead to knee arthritis in the future. One more reason to go boldly ahead keeping myself fit for whatever the future brings.

Well, That’s a Stretch…

Those involved in fitness as professional and as consumers know that an important–but often overlooked–part of exercising is stretching. Everybody agrees that it is a good thing but, unfortunately, many of us are inconsistent in our stretching; even worse, some people do it improperly causing more harm than good.

A recent trend in a field allied to fitness is Assisted Stretching. Assisted stretching usually involves a practitioner and is done in-person. It can, however, also be done remotely or as part of a group setting. The “stretcher” helps the “stretchee” (is that a word?) release tension from muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints. A recent article on CNN.com highlights the ways in which assisted stretching is being used to relieve chronic aches and pains. This technique is being used in people of all ages, and it is not just for athletes. In fact, many people who spend a great deal of time sitting or otherwise inactive can develop tightness that can cause discomfort.

Recent studies are not exactly conclusive about how effective assisted stretching is. Can it be better than stretching on one’s own? We can look at this the same way that we look at personal training. Yes, a person can perform the same exercises suggested by a personal trainer on their own, but will they? A personal trainer helps to keep clients accountable, progresses them at an appropriate pace, and helps to prevent injuries. That is why trainers are popular and effective. Likewise, a person can stretch on their own, but will they do it correctly and consistently?

This trend, according to the article is growing rapidly. While more research is likely needed to ascertain the true effectiveness and possible drawbacks, assisted stretching looks like it can help keep our muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints in better shape. That can only be a good thing.

In the meantime, remember to stretch before and after your workout. Questions about how to best do that? Ask a fitness professional who will be happy to help you develop a routine.

The Keys to Happiness as We Age

A recent article in The Atlantic by Arthur C. Brooks highlights ways that we can help to ensure happiness as we get older. Brooks is an American musician, social scientist, and professor at Harvard University. He has written many articles and a book on this topic.

In the article, he cites an ongoing study (over 80 years) that traces the attitudes, conditions, and well-being of the subjects over the course of their lives. Here are some fascinating conclusions: 1) Happiness declines through young adulthood into middle-age and bottoms out at about age 50. 2) After that it starts to go up again until about the mid-60s. 3) After that, it can go one of two ways; there are those who get much happier and those who get much more unhappy.

The study makes clear something that should be clear to begin with. The decisions that we make earlier in our lives have an impact on how we will feel later in life. The investments (not just financial) of our earlier years pay dividends–or if we have not invested wisely, we suffer. This is a pretty stark reality, but it is also not 100% accurate. There are those who are born into wealth, who inherit good genes, have tragic accidents, etc., whose lot is determined in large portion by events beyond their control.

There are, however, factors that we can control according to Brooks. All things being equal (which they are not), making the right choices in these realms will yield better results (happiness) in later years. In short, here is the list.

  1. Don’t smoke, and if you do, quit.
  2. Drink in moderation.
  3. Maintain a healthy body weight.
  4. Keep active every day.
  5. Develop coping skills for when life gets challenging.
  6. Never stop learning.
  7. Invest in interpersonal relationships.

Nothing earth-shattering, right? How many of these 7 are we doing right now? Is there time to make a change? Of course! All the research on fitness, shows that it is never too late to make a change, and it will have positive outcomes.

I am the happiest I have ever been. I do what I love with people I love. I put effort into all 7 categories above. I have a few years until I hit my mid-60s, but I am hopeful that I will fall into the “getting much happier” category. I hope you will join me there!

I’m a Contributor

It’s official! The latest issue of Northeast Ohio Boomer & Beyond is out and I am proud to be an official “contributor” to this publication on matters of Fitness for Older Adults.

In speaking with the editors several months ago, they told me that they had felt that this topic was one that had been missing from the magazine. Luckily, someone in the advertising department was a client of mine at a gym where I worked previously and recommended me. I have been interviewed for radio programs and articles in the Cleveland Jewish News on older adults and fitness, but this is my first regular gig. Now I will appear in every forthcoming issue; the magazine is published six times per year. Additionally, some of my blog posts will be featured on their website.

I am honored to have been chosen to be a regular contributor. It is always satisfying to be recognized for one’s hard work and expertise.

If you are in NE Ohio, check it out or hit the link above to see the article.

Losing a Client

yahrzeit-candle-250w-2_resized_1

Most personal trainers worry at some point about losing clients. If they leave for another gym, another trainer, move out of town, or just decide to stop training it can be a hit–not only to our wallets but also to our egos. There are other circumstances, however, when none of that really matters.

Just a couple of weeks ago, one of my clients passed away. When I began specializing my personal training career to only working with older adults, I knew that the day would come when this would happen. This client had a number of health issues; in his younger years, though, he enjoyed athletic activity and overcame some serious injuries. His long-term outlook was not good. In the short-term, however, his family felt he would enjoy working with a trainer at the fitness center where he lived.

Each client comes with his/her own capabalities and limitations, and he was no different. I enjoyed the challenge of putting together different workouts each week for him. I understood that there might not be room for great improvement in his mobility; at the very least, we would be working to maintain the levels where he was. I was impressed by the effort he put in; I know the workouts were not easy, but athletes almost always love and are up for the challenge.

About a month ago, he called me and told me that he had tested positive for COVID-19 so we would have to skip the session that week. I checked back a week later and his wife said that things look bad. A few days later he was gone. I received a text from a family member with the news, and a thank you for having made a difference in the short time we worked together.

In the fitness world (as in most industries), we talk about the importance of results. With regard to our own health and fitness, we know that there is much we can do to influence our own personal situations. In the end, however, we all succumb to the impermanence of our physical state. Does that mean that the work I do with older adults is in vain…or worse a scam? On the contrary, if I can add independence, value, and fun to someone’s life, this means something. We all know what our end will be; what we do not know is what will happen between now and then. I am proud that I am able to help my clients remain more vibrant, capable, and independent so that they can get the most out of that “between now and then.”

The loss of this client was a humbling experience for me. It makes me realize how crucial it is for me to do my work well. It also taught me that the working with clients is about more than just results or the “business;” it is also about the relationships that can be built and the difference that can be made.

Rest in peace, friend. I imagine you are up there somewhere tossing a football around with friends, no longer limited by the toll that time has taken on your body. Thanks for the time and effort you put into our time together. May your memory be a blessing.

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!