Over 200 Followers

Number 200

When I began this blog just under two years ago (in fact, 2/24/21 will be the 2 Year Anniversary of my first post), I had very little idea how this whole thing worked. Luckily, my son Rami Ungar the Writer (you can read his blog too) gave me some tips and helped me along the way.

My goal with this blog originally had been to synthesize Judaism and Fitness; this grew out of my shared experiences of being a rabbi for nearly 29 years and being a personal trainer for the last 3 years. Over time, the emphasis of my posts has shifted some. A year after being certified as a personal trainer, I got a specialization in Functional Aging; this certification transformed my fitness career as I focus more on training older adults. In August of 2020, I officially started At Home Senior Fitness, LLC–my own personal training business for older adults in the Cleveland area–and globally on the web. As a result of this professional move, my blog posts have begun to address more frequently the concerns of older adults. I also have brought posts that discuss nutrition, COVID-19, and the many factors that influence our health and fitness.

While I do every now and then reference Jewish ideas, Jewish texts, and Jewish values, is is not quite as prevalent as it was in the early days. Does that mean that I need to rename my blog? Not so fast…. The Hebrew word for “exercise” is kosher pronounced as we would in English; the word used to describe the Jewish dietary laws is pronounced kasher (with the “a” sounding like “ah”). In Hebrew the words are spelled identically–mostly because written Hebrew uses only consonants; the vowels for each word, however, are different. Even so, kosher and kasher come from the same root. A food which is kosher is one that has been determined to be “fit” for consumption–as in, it is appropriate or OK. And, of course, exercise makes us “fit” as well.

I have taught several classes, given lectures, and been interviewed on the Jewish/Fitness connection. While it is not a major concept in Judaism, there is much in Jewish literature and thought that emphasizes the importance of maintaining healthy bodies; the reason being that we cannot serve God and others if we are too sick, frail, or weak. So it is that the connection between Judaism and Fitness is always there–even if not explicitly.

It will be interesting to see what the next year of my blog–and my business–brings. In the meantime, I am thrilled to have over 200 followers. It means a lot that people from all over the world find meaning, information, and maybe even inspiration in my words. Here’s to the next 200 and beyond!

Thanks for reading.

Prayer and Stress Management

the prayer continued

Stress is a major factor in our health. If stress is not controlled it can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes. On a more emotional level, stress can contribute to anxiety, depression, anger issues, and relationship problems.

There are many resources for trying to alleviate stress. Of course, exercise is one way to reduce it. People often point to meditation as well. There is much research to support both of these approaches.

I used to have a pretty consistent meditative practice. I would listen to on-line guided meditations nearly every day–usually for just a few minutes. Weekly, I would tune into a Jewish meditation group. My schedule got somewhat complicated and with the move to Cleveland, a new home, 3 new jobs, etc., meditation almost completely fell off my list of priorities. I am not proud of this; stress is still a part of my life and I wish I had a better practice of meditation.

Back in 1986 when I was a volunteer on a kibbutz in Israel, and while I was in the process of applying to rabbinical school, I promised myself that I would pray (the formal prayers in the Siddur–or Jewish prayer book) at least one time every day. This was not a huge challenge since I knew many of the prayers and my day had few responsibilities except for picking pomelos during the day and relaxing in the afternoon and evening. Eventually, I made the commitment to pray the traditional services three times per day and since mid-1986 that has been my practice. I have only ever missed it when I have been too ill or immediately following the deaths of my parents–both times when our tradition exempts us from praying.

I got to wondering whether I could “count” my prayer as meditation. They are similar in many ways. I take time out of my day to center myself (sometimes I am more successful than others) and recite the traditional words–kind of like a mantra. Even though it is not always a spectacular spiritual experience (which is often the case with meditation), it does take me out of the mundane for a period of time thrice daily. I may not focus on my breathing, but I do try to quiet my mind and concentrate on the words and what they mean. When I pray with others–which is a story unto itself during a pandemic–I do feel like I am more successful at reaching some kind of spiritual goals.

I ran across an interesting blog post by Marek Struszczyk, a co-manager of http://www.managerup.com. Although the blog is directed to executives, there is a great post about prayer and stress that has broader implications: https://www.managerup.com/prayer-for-stress/. Struszczyk cites a number of studies that show the positive effects of prayer in reducing stress. I did not take a deep dive into each of the articles cited, but the conclusions indicate that prayer can help us to center ourselves, focus on areas of stress and how to alleviate them, and bring better health outcomes.

In Judaism, the verb for “to pray” is actually reflexive. It kind of means to “pray one’s self.” Rabbis have noted that prayer does not just go out to a higher power, but it should also go inward. Prayer should not just move God (or whatever higher power you believe or do not believe in), but should move us to action as well. For instance, there is a prayer in the weekday Amida recited three times a day for justice; because our prayer is reflexive, we address God asking for judges and other authorities to administer laws fairly, and we also challenge ourselves to make justice a reality in our world. It’s not all up to God; we are partners in making prayers into reality.

This way of looking at prayer can reduce stress by helping us to recognize the stressors in our lives and pushing us to find ways to resolve them. It seems almost oxymoronic, but by naming the stress we make it real and can then confront it.

I am a personal trainer and a rabbi so, of course, I’m going to recommend prayer as part of a way to address one’s spiritual, emotional and physical health. At the same time, do not think that prayer alone will make a difference health-wise; it is reflexive and has to be done in tandem with a proper diet, exercise, and sufficient rest.

I will strive to add some meditation back into my schedule, in the meantime, it is encouraging to know that prayer serves a similar purpose and can provide many of the same benefits when it comes to stress. Just knowing that has already relieved my stress a little!

Looking Forward to Fitness

Looking forward...

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!

Eating Differently in a Pandemic

April 13, 2018

The most recent issue of AARP Magazine (August/September 2020) featured an article by Ruth Reichl entitled “The Changing American Table.” In it she discusses how food tastes, the taste of food, shopping habits, and eating habits have changed over the last 50 years. It is a fascinating look at the major events and trends that helped to define American cuisine. Here is the link: https://www.aarp.org/health/healthy-living/info-2020/changing-food-trends.html.

What was most intriguing was her take on the effect that the COVID-19 Pandemic has had in the last 6 months. The pandemic disrupted (and still does) our food chain. Packing plants became COVID-19 hot spots, restaurants shut down (some temporarily, others permanently), some food went to waste, and other food simply wasn’t produced. For many Americans, it was the first time that we actually began to fathom all the steps that take place from the farm or sea to our tables.

Americans (you should pardon the expression) are a little late coming to the table on this one. Judaism has always emphasized an appreciation of food–what we may or may not eat, how it is prepared, and how it must be sanctified through blessings before and after the meal. An observant Jew at each meal is reminded through all these steps exactly where the food came from…and the many miracles that accompany its journey to our stomachs.

Reichl noted that during this pandemic many people turned their attention back to the sources. People planted gardens and grew vegetables. Others began cooking and baking from scratch. Many in rural areas did what the norm was a half century ago and went straight to the farm to purchase produce and meat. If there may be one silver lining to COVID-19, it is that it reconnected us to an awareness of the sources of our food…and to the fragility of the system.

Personally, I have been a cook and bake from scratch kind of guy (although not exclusively) for a long time. There are still a lot of processed foods in my diet. Even so, during the last several months, I have found myself trying to go back to the basics. We even planted some basil, tomatoes, peppers, parsley and cilantro!

Whether COVID-19 will have a long term impact on how we view the food we eat is unknown. Certainly there are encouraging signs that we will think more about where our food comes from. On the other hand, we know that many of us have put on a few pounds, simply because we are sitting at home more surrounded by food and because our gyms and other ways in which we are active are not as accessible.

My hope is that our society will learn from the Jewish approach to food. It is a blessing and it is to be enjoyed–but always in the right context and as a way to fuel the human body (not destroy it). A good lesson for a pandemic…and afterwards too!

What Does Judaism Have to Say about Coronavirus?

MERS Coronavirus Particles

Coronavirus has been on nearly everyone’s mind the last few weeks. Although the impact in the US has been relatively light, there are legitimate fears that it could cause major disruptions to our daily living–not to mention the suffering and possible deaths of many people.

What does Judaism have to say about all this? The virus is new, so it’s not like the Medieval commentators talked about it, let along the modern ones. There is a parallel, however, in a section of the Torah that deals with a skin affliction that is often thought to be leprosy. Two Torah portions–Tazria and Metzora–deal with questions of bodily fluids and disease; they are rather mysterious and represent the best guesses of the ancients about how to deal with medical situations they did not fully understand.

It is significant that the Torah talks about it at all. These two Torah portions seem out of place. With regard to the leprous condition, there are precise instructions about what to look for, who would determine what the condition really was, and what the process would be after that. Surprisingly, the ones who would administer care to those afflicted were the Kohanim–the priests–who in most other circumstances were to avoid any kind of impurity. Here, however, they were to do the examination and all the follow-up as well. This sends an important message. If the holiest in our midst are to concern themselves with the ill (and contagious at that!), how much more so should the rest of us see to the welfare of others?

A few other important points: 1. Elsewhere in the Torah there are instructions for us to do whatever we can to prevent injury to others, such as fencing off a pit or building a parapet around one’s roof; we must go out of our way to make sure that others do not get hurt. This can be further interpreted to mean that we must do whatever we can to prevent disease and its spread, including washing our hands, etc. 2. The Torah does not specify that only those who can afford treatment should get it; from the most prominent to the least among us, care is to be given. In the end, we do not really know the value of each person–what their hidden talents might be, what holiness they bring into the world. 3. The Talmud teaches that to save one life is as if an entire world is saved. The fatality rate may only be 2%, but those in that 2% are created in the Divine Image; they are God’s children and we cannot simply write them off.

Finally, 4. Judaism sees humans as partners with God. We cannot just pray on this or hope for a miracle. It is up to us to support research for prevention and treatment. We cannot twiddle our thumbs and wish that it goes away. We must use all our God-given talents to prevent and ease suffering.

Readers of my blog know that Judaism has lots to say about how we treat our bodies. They are holy vessels loaned to us by God and it is up to us to care for ours…and others as well. Let us hope that our leaders and medical professionals take these lessons to heart and help to prevent what could be a major catastrophe if we don’t act wisely and quickly.

My prayers go out to those who are ill and I send comfort to all those mourning the loss of loved ones. May we come together to prevent further tragedy. May we preserve our health and the health of those around us so that together we can help to make God’s world a better place.

New Study out from NIH and AARP: Over 50? Start Exercising now…

Waiting For Their Turn
Is this what our senior years should look like?

A article in the most recent AARP Bulletin (May 2019, Vol. 60, No. 4, pg. 4) highlights something that those in the Fitness Industry have been saying for years…and now there is even more research behind it.

The study began in 1995 as a joint venture between AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) and the NIH (National Institutes of Health), and tracked the exercise habits of more than 315,000 people ages 50-71. It showed that even if a person has been inactive most of their lives, getting into regular exercise can add years to our lives and quality to those years as well.

The research shows that: “those ages 40-61 who begin exercising after years of physical inactivity can still extend their longevity. They had a 32 to 35 percent lower risk of mortality. The odds of death from cancer and heart disease also decreased. Compared with those who never exercised during the multiyear study, those who exercised their entire lives had a 29 to 36 percent lower risk of death.”

This is good news indeed–especially for fitness professionals who face the skepticism of those who have never been physically active during most of their lives. Of course, the real challenge is changing that behavior in the first place. Those who have felt that exercise or taking proper care of themselves was not a priority earlier in their lives are not necessarily going to “see the light.” Usually it takes a “wake-up call” or “Aha moment” to change the way they act. It should be comforting for them to know that not all is lost; even in their later years, they can have a significant impact on the quantity and quality of years in their lives.

As for change, Judaism has always taught that we are capable of change. Most religious traditions have a similar viewpoint. This is why there is a strong emphasis in the faith community on redemption in its many forms; there is a sense that we can always improve ourselves, and as a result, the world around us. We are not stuck with “it is what it is.” We have the potential to make “it what it ought to be.”

Good news indeed!