I opened my talk on Jewish Fitness at Limmud Ottawa on November 2 by quoting from the Guide to Health Guide to Health by Maimonides, the 12th century physician, rabbi and scholar.
“If only a person would care for himself the way he cares for the animal he rides on, he would be saved from many bad illnesses. You will not find anyone who gives his animal more food than necessary. He measures out the animal’s feed according to what the animal can take, but he himself eats to excess without measure and without a thought. Similarly, he calculates how much exercise and activity his animal needs to keep fit and not become sick. But the person himself does not apply this to his own body, and gives little thought to exercise, even though it is the key to maintaining health and avoiding most illnesses, and there is no other substitute whatever for physical activity and exercise.”
How many times have you said to a family member, “Don’t feed that to the dog!”? Maimonides noted that people carefully measured out their work animals’ feed to prevent overeating, yet they themselves ate mindlessly. Today, most of us also give more consideration to our pets’ dietary intake – both the quality and quantity of their food – than to our own consumption. Why do we forget about portion control, when filling our own plates? We go for second helpings before we’ve given our brains a chance to register that we’re full. We say blessings over food, even when the food is unhealthy. We are a nation plagued by preventable, lifestyle-related health issues. We want instant gratification. We want the pleasurable feelings – whether physical or emotional – that we get from food.
Maimonides’ progressive observations ring true today; we attend to our animals’ needs for adequate exercise while neglecting our own such needs. Even if we don’t have pets, we often focus our energy on caring for others, such as our children, spouses or elderly parents. We also devote much of our time to our careers, housework or volunteer work. We then feel zapped of energy or lack the time needed to take care of ourselves.
Some people are very health conscious, consistently making smart choices about diet and exercise. If you’re one of them, you’re in the minority.
If we continue to neglect our health, we run the risk of becoming sick. When we are not well, it’s difficult to be a good parent, friend or colleague. In the Mishneh Torah, the code of Jewish religious law, Maimonides advocated good hygiene, exercise and healthy eating habits: “Since by keeping the body in health and vigour one walks in the ways of God – being impossible in sickness to have any understanding or knowledge of the Creator – it is a man’s duty to avoid whatever is injurious to the body and cultivate habits conducive to health and vigour.”
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote in The Nineteen Letters (1836): “Respect your own body as the receptacle, messenger, and instrument of the spirit.”
If you think that changing your deeply ingrained bad habits and improving your health is unrealistic, take note of the advice Maimonides offered 900 years ago in the Guide for the Perplexed: “It is not impossible to conquer a bad constitution by training … The well-being of the soul can be obtained only after that of the body has been secured.”
The key to success is to make one small change at a time. Pick your pain points. If you have a sweet tooth, instead of jumping on the anti-sugar trend by banishing all sugar from your diet – a sure-fail strategy – pick one sugary food that you can eliminate from your diet. As you begin to accumulate small successes, you’ll feel more motivated to further challenge yourself. And when you falter, remind yourself that you are not a failure. No one is perfect.
Jewish fitness encompasses a strong mind, body and spirit. When one part of a machine is damaged, the other parts become taxed and may end up breaking too. Physical activity and sensible eating can prevent further damage. Some Jews think that sports and exercise are a waste of Torah study time. I believe God wants us to nurture and strengthen our bodies and minds so we can lead fulfilling, meaningful, spiritual lives. Maimonides believed this is our religious obligation.
Gloria Schwartz is a personal trainer at the Soloway JCC and the author of Personal Best: Train Your Brain and Transform Your Body for Life.