Our community rightly prides itself on its reverence for life, a reverence that we have discussed at length in recent weeks in connection with end of life issues. Yet there are other, less obvious areas in which we do not show the same dedication to the preservation of life, starting with our own.
Despite improvement, far too many teenage boys still view smoking as "cool". We have not yet reached the point where lighting up is considered tantamount to wearing a sign, "I'm an idiot." At the supermarket on Erev Shabbos, one stares in wonder at the cartons of tooth-rotting soft drinks and high calorie, low nutrition treats piled on the checkout counter.
As a community we – at least the male half – exercise too little, and it shows. Exercise in any form is still associated with bitul Torah and Greek culture. As one of my roshei yeshiva once said about joggers, "They say they are jogging to live longer, but they can't tell you why they are living."
True enough. But it's only part of the story. The evidence is simply too overwhelming to ignore that proper exercise adds arichat yamim ve'shanim – not only length of years, but quality to one's days. And in ways that offer the potential for more Torah learning rather than less.
We all know of great Torah scholars, household names in our world, who use a treadmill regularly on doctor's orders. But it is not necessary, or even wise, to wait until one receives such an ultimatum and is staring the Malach HaMaves in the face.
The list of benefits from proper exercise is almost too long to enumerate – not only physical, but mental and emotional as well. Aerobic exercise is a fantastic mood enhancer. The current issue of The American Journal of Preventive Medicine reports a study of a group of mildly depressed adults who engaged in a half an hour of aerobic exercise – walking or jogging – three to five times a week. After twelve weeks, they reported half the symptoms of depression they experienced prior to the program. Those results were comparable to those achieved with medication or therapy.
Six meta-analyses of various studies on exercise all found that its anti-depressant effects begin immediately and continue for a time even after the cessation of exercise. Exercise is linked to higher self-esteem and even to more refreshing sleep, with less rapid eye movement.
The rule for mental acuity seems to be use it or lose it, which would explain the large number of gedolei Torah, who remain major marbitzei Torah into their 80s and 90s. Here too there is abundant evidence that physical exercise also aids both cognitive and motor function. A recent University of Illinois study of adults between 57-72 shows that those who exercise retained an ability to engage in the complex thinking needed to handle sudden changes comparable to that of university students, unlike less active adults. Other studies show that exercise can even generate new brain circuitry.
The physical benefits of exercise are, of course, the best known and most obvious: weight reduction, lowered blood pressure, improved cardiovascular health, reduced rates of major killers, such as colon cancer and adult onset diabetes, and better ability to handle invasive procedures – e.g., heart by-pass surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy. Among a group of men between 65-75, researchers found that frequent exercisers had 1/3 the level of interleukin 6, which is associated with the loss of muscle mass and strength, but twice as much of the anti-inflammatory interleukin associated with longevity and reduced heart disease.
Most of us associate weight-lifting with morphological grotesques, but actually strength and flexibility training is vital for all of us, and especially for the elderly. Muscle strength tends to decline rapidly after 50 – 15% per decade, rising to 30% per decade after 70. By the age of 90, most seniors function have only 30% of their original strength. That loss of strength makes even the most common everyday activities, like getting up from a chair, a challenge.
Strength and resistance training can reduce that loss of muscle strength by over half, and leave one with 70% of his or her original strength at 90. Those who engage in such training show significantly increased flexibility of the hips, shoulders, knees, elbows and lower back, even when compared to those who engage in only cardiovascular exercise. Increased muscle mass reduces the likelihood of falling, and, by combating osteoporosis, the damage if one does fall.
The good news is that exercise does not need to be terribly rigorous to be beneficial – we are not discussing septuagenarian marathon runners here – and it is never too late to start. A study of 2,500 inactive men over the age of 60, found that those who worked themselves into shape had one-half the cardiovascular morbidity and total death rate of those who remained unfit. Another program with frail individuals over 75 reduced total disabilities by two-thirds with seven months of strength and balance training. I have a close relative who began exercising regularly at 70, and today at 84 walks and carries himself like someone in his mid-50s.
In short, there is no reason to resign ourselves to an old age spent shuffling along the street, with traffic backed up behind us on the stairs or sidewalk, or struggling to stand up from a chair or open a can.
Finally, regular exercise provides special benefits for writers: it is a fecund source of metaphors. The ba'alei mussar tell us that any regimen of spiritual improvement requires small, incremental steps. In the gym, one quickly sees how great a distance can be traversed in a short time through small, but constant improvements. Over the last six months, I have watched one pudgy yeshiva student shed over fifty pounds, and go from someone who was huffing and puffing after 10 minutes of walking on the treadmill to being able to run at a fast clip for 45 minutes.
The ba'alei mussar also tell us that there is no standing still in life – one is either going up or going down. Anyone who exercises regularly knows that b'chush. After even a two-week hiatus, one finds that one cannot lift as much or run as far or as fast.
It's either up or down, but no standing still.