The importance and benefits of regular exercise and a healthy diet for members of the frum community.
As a grandfather of 10, bli ayin hara, who is a few years beyond over the hill, I am particularly aware and grateful that I was blessed a number of years ago to realize the importance of exercising regularly while also being conscience of my diet. For many years I was slim and trim and my metabolism was such that I just naturally burned calories. When I reached my mid-30s I began to put on a little weight, specifically in my midsection. It was around that time that I began exercising, at first employing a cycling and running regimen. I began to enjoy and look forward to both of these disciplines. However, after a few years, I noticed that though I was feeling much better, I still could not entirely get rid of my small belly. It was then that I was told by a professional trainer that in order to shed pounds in specific areas, you have to work those areas. Today I work out five to six days a week, doing both cardiovascular training and body toning (resistance/weight exercises).
Kol hatchalot kashot (getting started is challenging). It is not easy to go from a sedentary lifestyle, where some of us get more exercise walking to shul on Shabbat than we get the entire week, to a daily cardiovascular workout.
Another obstacle to regular exercise is our very busy lifestyles; with three tefilot daily, at least one learning seder (study session), time spent with our families, parnasa (making a living) responsibilities, community commitments and more, little time is left to take care of ourselves. In order to have a chance at achieving a healthy lifestyle, there must be a commitment to the importance of our health and well-being, and for us it must come from a halachic and hashkafic source.
I would like to suggest, that in addition to the Torah charge of “Venishmartem me’od lenafshoteichem” (one is required to take good care of their soul/body), and that in order to be productive it is crucial to maintain one’s health. There is another vital consideration, uniquely relevant in this day and age, when the importance of health and fitness is so much a part of the society that we live in. I truly believe that, for us to be able to fulfill one of the basic requirements of what it means to be a frum (religious) Jew, to be a walking “Kiddush shem Shamayim” (sanctification of God’s name), we must walk the walk and dress the part.
We are all familiar with the adage “chitzoniut me’oreret penimiut” (the outside affects the inside). It has to be somewhat of a handicap for us to reach out to our brethren who we would like to bring closer to Hashem Yitbarach (God) and His Torah, if we ourselves look like we are unable or unwilling to control our desires. How can we teach the importance of self-control, and the tremendous reward and pleasure it offers, if we do not seem to have mastered it ourselves? You cannot be “toveil v’sheretz beyado” (immerse in a mikvah while holding something that is impure); it does not work. If a talmid chacham (Torah sage) is warned not to appear in public with a stain on his garment, does it not follow that we, as representatives of Torah Judaism, have to at least look good?
However, putting aside the philosophical aspect for a moment, “Derech eretz kadma laTorah” (proper etiquette precedes the Torah); let’s face it: our seichel (common sense) tells us how important and crucial our health is to all the lofty goals we hope to attain. By making time to exercise and being careful with our food intake, we will only be stronger and better able to accomplish all that we hope to during our lifetime.
Some suggestions for the beginner:
1. Drink a lot of water daily; 8 oz. every couple of hours
2. Eat regularly; enjoy a healthy snack every three hours
3. Slowly wean yourself off of sugar and carbs (to the best of your ability)
4. Begin a healthier diet consisting of vegetables (greens), protein and fiber products
1. Start out slowly; do not try to run a marathon on the first day
2. Try something you think you will enjoy, i.e., swimming, cycling, running, walking, etc.
Get a chavruta (partner); having a keviut (set time) with someone else works with the body as well as the soul.
3. Set attainable goals; how many days a week, for how long, at what pace, etc.
4. Listen to Torah lectures while working out, or music that motivates you and allows you to enjoy the exercise experience
5. L’shem yichud; come up with a short focus that you say before beginning to exercise so that you make it the mitzvah that it is
Speaking of l’shem yichud, allow me to share with you a version I came up with a few years ago that I recite before every workout.
Exercise/Focus (L’sheim Yichud)
Thank You, Hashem, for giving me the strength, ability and energy… the arms, legs, ears, eyes, nose, heart, lungs, etc. … and the healthy body You’ve entrusted me with, which gives me the ability to exercise and to try to stay healthy so that I can serve You and do Your will.
I also thank You for giving me the knowledge and understanding of the importance of exercising and taking care of my health. Please help me and allow me to have a safe and successful workout, and to realize that any energy I have comes from You so that I don’t take pride in myself.
May I be zoche (merit) to use my kochot (energy) to be mekadesh (sanctify) Your name in this world.
I then recite one perek (chapter) of Tehillim (Psalms) (121) Shir lama’alot esa einai el heharim me’ayin yavo ezri…. (I lift my eyes unto the mountains from where will my help come from...)
When working out, you can spend the time accomplishing mitzvot.
Here is a list of three items you can focus on (even verbalize after memorization) while exercising (some of us already recite them daily), but on a long ride or run you can repeat them and focus on them, thereby elevating your experience.
6 Constant Mitzvot
13 Principles of Faith
Additional benefits of regular exercise:
1. You will feel good about yourself
2. It allows a person to release some of the tension that accumulates inside all of us
3. You will be a more positive person and people will notice
4. The strong possibility of a longer life expectancy (though there are no guarantees)
Things to be careful of:
1. Too much exercise can be counterproductive.
2. Do not let it consume you (if you miss a workout, life goes on).
3. It is crucial to get a full-body workout—aerobic/cardio and resistance/weight training. (If you feel your time is really limited, a cardio workout would take precedence.)
4. Even with a good, regular exercise regimen you still have to watch what you eat.
5. Get advice from a professional; there is a right way and wrong way to do many exercises, and you can injure yourself if you attempt an exercise incorrectly.
6. It is very crucial to stay hydrated at all times; drink before, during and after a workout (even if you are not thirsty).
In conclusion, hopefully, if we make an effort to take care of the kli (vessel, as in the body) that Hashem, in His infinite wisdom, created for each of us, He will in turn bless us with health and arichut yamim (long life) so that we can accomplish our purpose in olam hazeh (this world).
By Aharon Newman