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.

One Year Later

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It’s hard to believe, but an entire year has passed since I moved to Cleveland. What a year it has been.

After ten years of being together, Michele and I are finally in the same city and under the same roof. This could, of course, have gone badly, but it has been wonderful from day one. We have learned a lot from and about each other. I imagine this is a never-ending process.

It has been a year of pleasant surprises…and others less pleasant. We have had our share of health-related issues in the last 12 months, but thank God we are doing fine now. We have traveled to some pretty exciting places: Columbus, Omaha, Chicago and Alaska! Lots of exciting plans for the future. Both of us have had unexpected opportunities and disappointments professionally. Through it all, we have been at each others’ sides.

My good friend, Rev. Tim Ahrens, is somewhat of an expert on the topic of transitions. He recommended a book that taught me a lot; one of the main points was that there cannot be any beginning without an ending. I think in previous parts of my life, there were new phases of my life that I tried to begin without really having ended the previous one. Although there were some issues (emotionally and otherwise) that I needed to work through, I think that my time in Columbus really did come to an end and wasn’t followed by a period of lingering. I jumped right into my new life: a new city (Cleveland has WAY surpassed my expectations), a new home (one that my wife and I have created together), and new employment.

I am thoroughly enjoying my work at Beth El – The Heights Synagogue; it is a small, independent minyan in Cleveland Heights–traditional and egalitarian. The shule has an interesting history and is not without its challenges, but it is very rare to find a place that embodies the kind of “pitch in and get things done” attitude that you find at BE-THS. This is a place that does not necessarily NEED a rabbi; there are plenty of members (some of whom are rabbis) who know how to give a drash, read Torah, etc. It is a shule that WANTS a rabbi and I am fortunate to have become connected with a really wonderful bunch of people. Did I mention we like to sing?

Work at the JCC has been most interesting. Although I passed my ACE certification to become a personal trainer in May of 2018, I did not start as a trainer at the JCC until mid-August and then did not train a member one-on-one until October. It is one thing to pass the exam and quite another to be able to translate the knowledge into action. I made my share of mistakes (more to come, I’m sure), but I have not hurt anyone. On the contrary, I am gratified to see the progress that many of my clients are making–especially some of my older adults who are seeing increased strength, agility and confidence. I have worked on a few projects (the Weight Loss Challenge–my team won!) and have several more in process now. I really like my colleagues who make it fun to come to work. I have been told by veteran trainers that it takes two years to really learn the “business” and to build a full roster of clients; I am pleased with my progress but I know there is a lot more hard work to come.

My take-aways from this last year:

  1. It is true that you cannot start something new without ending the old thing. I am glad to have had the circumstances in place to make the transition the right way.
  2. Transitions are difficult, and it helps to be kind to yourself. I am tough on myself and I am impatient. I am in the process of re-inventing myself after 26 years in the same role. Rome will not be built in a day, so I should not beat myself up when I have a setback.
  3. Humility is a virtue. I went from working as a congregational rabbi–a field in which I excelled and had a lot of experience–to being a personal trainer–a field in which I a newbie. It is good to be reminded that I have a lot to learn.
  4. Through the tough times of transition, there is nothing like the love of family to get you through it all. My kids have been so supportive–each in their own way. My siblings in Michigan have stayed close as always. My wife’s family has made me feel at home; it is a real treat to have family so close by and to be able to watch nieces and a nephew grow up in the neighborhood. And, of course, how very fortunate I am to have an amazing partner by my side. My wife is everything and more than I could have ever hoped for. She reminds me every day that good things come to those who wait, and some times nice guys finish first.

Today I celebrate a major milestone. Tomorrow…back to work and learning and loving. Thanks to all of you for joining me on my Kosher Fitness journey.