Mental Health and Exercise

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A lot has been discussed in the past several days since the mass shootings in Gilroy, El Paso and Dayton regarding mental health.

I am always bothered when mental health gets dragged gratuitously into discussions about gun violence. Mental illness occurs all over the world, and yet we still have a terrible record in the United States when it comes to gun violence and mass shootings. Additionally, the same elected officials who focus on the role of mental illness in our violent culture are often the same ones who have worked to provided greater access to mental health services. (End of that sermon).

As a personal trainer and a rabbi, I am by no means an expert in mental health. I do have some background in pastoral counseling, but I also know when the issue at hand is beyond my training and capabilities; then I refer to a professional. I have also dealt with mental health issues in my family–who hasn’t? A lifetime of living tells me that there are no easy answers, that you cannot just “get over it.” Depression, anxiety, panic disorders, etc., are real and they can be debilitating. The good news is that most mental illnesses are treatable, and success rates are highest with early intervention–which is why it is so important for all of us to work toward de-stigmatizing mental illness.

My own fitness journey really intensified about 11 years ago after my mother passed away. It was not that long after my divorce and after the end of an engagement that did not lead to marriage. I was not at my best. For several years, I had periods when I would go to the gym more regularly and others when I would not. After my mom passed away, a fellow mourner at synagogue services gave me some advice (I have mentioned this in a previous post): “take good care of yourself, this will be harder than you think.” I resolved from that moment to take good care of myself; I made visits to the gym a regular thing and was more careful with my diet. Those decisions–along with the support of family and friends–made a difference. Mourning for a parent was harder than I thought it would be, and taking care of myself was an important part of getting through it. I have stuck with it ever since and it has helped me through emotionally trying times.

Anecdotal evidence aside, there is a firm basis in science for the effect that exercise can have on our mental health. We know about the benefits to our cardio-vascular system, brain health, and musculo-skeletal system, but we do not often talk about what it does for our mental well-being. There are several good articles out there on this topic, and google will be your friend if you want more info.

A few points worth mentioning. Exercising releases chemicals in our bodies that create a greater sense of well-being–in particular, endorphins. The latest research also indicates that increased blood flow, nutrients, and oxygen to the brain as a result of exercise can aid in neurogenesis (the creation of new neurons) in the hippocampus–the part of the brain that helps regulate memory and emotions. For more on this topic, go to: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/what-works-and-why/201803/how-your-mental-health-reaps-the-benefits-exercise.

Additionally, depending on the exercise we are doing, we can develop greater capacity for mind calming (running, swimming, yoga). Small group classes can help build a supportive community. A personal trainer can create a plan to help us reach our physical fitness goals; many of my clients talk about the emotional well-being they feel as a result of the experience as well.

Exercise will not solve the mental health care crisis in our nation. Exercise will also not put an end to violence and mass murder in our society. Exercise is, however, one piece of the puzzle–not just to improving physical health, but mental health as well.

The world we live in is difficult–harder than we think. The advice I pass along: take good care of yourself. Exercise is one way to do that.

The Mental Work of Working through Physical Recovery

It has been one week since my foot surgery and hopefully only another three until I can walk again.
The physical recovery has not been as difficult as dealing with emotional issues that come along with an injury/illness. The first few days after surgery were not that tough; the block on my lower leg meant that I did not feel anything below the knee–especially pain. Once that wore off, I began to feel the discomfort. I really wanted to avoid taking pain meds since I don’t like the side effects, so I’ve been icing and trying to take it easy with several doses of acetaminophen daily. Today I wanted to go to morning minyan (prayer services); I got up, showered, got dressed, but was in too much discomfort to go. Big bummer.

The past several days have been difficult since I am so accustomed to doing a lot of the work to prepare for Passover. For those unfamiliar, imagine two Thanksgiving Dinners two nights in a row, but having to start with all new ingredients. In the past, I did a huge amount of the work and my wife pitched in with some sides and desserts. We were so excited to be doing all the preparation for the Seders together this year, but it ended up being all her. I tried to help where I could, but I felt kind of useless.

That feeling was made worse when I started receiving all the emails from the gym that all my clients were being cancelled for the entire month. That is a tough situation for anyone, but when you are just starting out in the industry and trying to build your client base, it feels devastating (even if the real effect may be much less). Since I don’t know what my recovery will be like and whether I will ever be back to where I was nine months ago before the pain began, there is an added level of anxiety. Will I be able to get back to training as quickly as I want? Will I have restrictions? Can I be successful at this new endeavor in my life? All questions swirling in my head.

It is always nice to have an objective party to discuss these issues with, and I did that today. I have in my mind that these four weeks are just a total write-off, but I can use this time productively. I will spend the week studying and hopefully obtaining my Functional Aging Specialization. Getting ready for that basically requires me to sit on my butt and read…I think I can do that this week. I also have to take things one at a time; I think we can all sometimes get into a downward spiral and follow a rabbit hole into the worst-case scenarios. I have to stop myself and let things unfold as they do without getting ahead of myself.

What has surprised me is just how much this recovery from surgery is emotional as well as physical. I have to deal with not working out, which is my usual stress reliever. I have to consider the possibility that my body may not fully recover. I have to face the fact that I am aging; this doesn’t mean that I’m all washed up, but rather that I have to change my approach. Hopefully, that awareness will make me a better Personal Trainer in the long run–especially as I train those in my peer group.

Wishing everyone a Happy Passover, belated Happy Easter, and all the best in whatever you celebrate. I also celebrate the process of healing–physically and emotionally. But it is hard work!

Functional Aging Specialization


At the end of last week, I had the opportunity to attend the IDEA Fitness Conference East in Alexandria, VA. In particular, I went to participate in the pre-conference training to receive Functional Aging Specialist Certification presented by Cody Sipe, PhD.

I had never been to a Personal Trainers Conference before and was not sure what to expect. The Conference East is the smallest of their gatherings so it was a more intimate crowd. My workshop on Thursday had between 50 and 60 people–ranging in age from 20s to 60s. I was afraid I might be the oldest one there (at almost 56) and the one who is newest to the industry; luckily, neither was the case. I actually felt that I fit in…which is a good feeling.

The focus of the day was to prepare us to pass the certification exam to become Functional Aging Specialists. What is a Functional Aging Specialist? The approach, which seems somewhat intuitive (but really isn’t) is to train seniors (50+, but more likely 65+) not by simply having them do cardio and strength training that simply works different muscle groups. Instead, the approach is individualized to each client based on their specific needs and wants. Needs: assessment can reveal where there are deficits like difficulties with balance, sarcopenia, poor reactivity, etc. We train with a program that specifically addresses the deficits. Wants: listening to the client can reveal what they would like to be able to do–be able to complete a 5k run, participate in a travel adventure that will require hiking, being able to get up the stairs without pooping out, etc. Again, we can train using a program that will help them to reach those goals.

The next few weeks will be filled with studying so that I can pass the exam. I know that this can be a great niche for me in a sector of the fitness world that is growing at a very fast pace.

Additionally, research shows that many seniors do not want to train with a shredded 20-year-old; they want to work with mature trainers who understand themselves how our bodies change as we age. More on that topic later this week.

When a Trainer needs a Trainer

Last week I went to Columbus and signed up for a training session with my long-time personal trainer. It had been 8 months since my move, and frankly I was a little nervous. I’ve had some health setbacks and was worried that I had atrophied while I was gone.

It was a tough workout but I made it through. What it made me realize–which is kind of like a “duh”–is that there really is a benefit to working with a trainer. Of course, as a personal trainer myself, I see the results in my clients. So many of them are reaching their fitness goals, have greater stamina, improved balance, and have taken control of their health. Sometimes it takes a trainer–not a doctor or family member or friend–to push you beyond what you think is your capability. As I said in a recent blog post: “If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you.”

I left Columbus knowing that I may not need to hire a personal trainer, but that it makes sense for me to ask one of my fellow trainers (which I did) if we could work out together. We had a short 20 minute session today. He told me that he pushed himself because I was there, and I certainly went beyond my usual. It felt great!

I know this sounds self-serving, but if you feel like you are in a rut, not getting the results you want, and that you are continually playing out the same fitness drama…seek professional help. I did. You can too! 🙂 Personal Trainers make a difference.

Who am I?

My name is Michael Ungar. I am an ACE Certified Personal Trainer and an ordained Rabbi.

I was born in Detroit in 1963 and grew up in Southfield (a suburb). I graduate from Kalamazoo College with a double-major in Political Science and Spanish with a minor in Latin America Area Studies. I was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) in 1992, where I also received an MA in Jewish Education, specializing in Holocaust Education.

I served as a congregational Rabbi from 1992 through 2018. When I moved to Cleveland in the summer of 2018 I became the spiritual leader at Beth El- The Heights Synagogue in Cleveland Heights; it is a small, independent, traditional egalitarian congregation with about 70 families. I also began working as a Personal Trainer at the Mandel Jewish Community Center; my clients range in age from 16 to 77.

On a personal note, I have five kids (blended family) ranging from 18 – 25, an amazing wife who supports my hopes and dreams, and a bichpoo named Belle.

I love to travel and have been all over the USA, Latin America, Eastern Europe, Israel, Egypt and the Caribbean. I speak English, Spanish and Hebrew fluently; I can get by in French, and know just enough Yiddish to get in (and out of) trouble.

Growing up, there was not a real emphasis on fitness in my family. I was typically chosen last for every team in elementary and middle school. I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease at age 12 and spent much of the next three decades trying to keep that under control.

In my late 30s I was given a 5-pack of personal training as a birthday gift. At my first meeting, the trainer said, “I’ll meet with you once a week, but you’ve got to get in here at least two times a week on top of that.” I did not want to disappoint this guy; after all, he could crush me! That was the beginning of my beginning to take my fitness more seriously.

I made use of the services of trainers on and off over the years, but pretty consistently once I moved to Columbus in 2002. Two trainers in particular, Todd Johnson and Carlie Snyder, inspired me to set audacious goals and work to achieve them. I competed in my first triathlon in 2011. I have competed in more 5Ks than I can count (and even won two of them in my 50s!), have completed 3 half-marathons and several obstacle course races.

After 26 years as a congregational Rabbi, I decided to focus on helping people in a different way as a Personal Trainer. I attended classes at the Ohio State University to prep for the ACE exam and passed on my first sitting–such naches! I am thrilled to be the Rabbi at BE-THS; I love the people and I love the davening. I am also thrilled to be a Personal Trainer at the Mandel JCC.

I hope to make contributions in both of these careers through this blog. I look forward to getting to know you, my readers, and allowing you to get to know me too!

Why Kosher Fitness?

I am a Rabbi at a small congregation in the Cleveland, Ohio area. I am also an ACE Certified Personal Trainer.

The old joke says that a Jew believes the only thing his body is for is holding up his/her head. While our tradition does emphasize learning, we are ultimately judged for what we do and how we act.

If we are not able to do because we have not maintained our bodies (which are gifts from God), we cannot hope to fulfill what it is that God wants us to do on earth.

Follow this blog for tips on fitness, nutrition, wellness as well Kosher recipes and words of Torah. Bruchim Haba’im to Kosher Fitness!