Jews & Exercise

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


A Great Mitzvah

A mitzvah is a good deed. We Jews are encouraged to do mitzvahs at every opportunity. In fact, we seek such opportunities and we can show that our attention to helping the helpless and the needy far exceeds the general average. I mean that we collect more money in proportion to our population of only 1.8% of the American people for charitable purposes than is true of any denomination in America.

We are also “the people of the book”.  We write, we read, we chase diplomas.  

There is, however, one mitzvah which most of us neglect. This was already true in the days of Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides (1135-1204). A physician by profession, he wrote this: “exercise and exert yourself greatly.” (Mishneh Torah Deot. 4:14, 15.)

Whatever one may think of Mishneh Torah, it is hard to deny that we are obliged to “work out”, to exercise, to keep our weight down and to take care of the body given us by Hashem. Relying on Maimonides again, we read in his Guide to the Perplexed that ball games, wrestling, boxing, etc. should not be viewed as frivolous, as some would have us believe, but that exercises and sport are imperative.

Kabbalistic literature also features the need to exercise.

If you are acquainted with the curricula in our Jewish day schools and yeshivot you will notice that physical exercise is given the least support of any part of the curriculum. Furthermore, a large number of Americans of any faith fail take care of their body, which is the only equipment we have. There is a song in Hebrew which we have all heard at some time. Eretz Yisroel, belee Torah, he kegoof, belee neshama. This means: The Land of Israel without the Law is like a body without a soul”. We can say as well, that a human without a healthy body is like water without a container. All the intellectualism we prize so much cannot exist without taking care of the body.

Here are some facts:

1.Only 22% of American adults exercise on a regular basis. 30% of us never exercise.

2. Those who exercise only 20-60 minutes three times a week at an intensity of 50-85 percent of maximal oxygen consumption reduce both systolic and diastolic blood pressure by an average of 10mm Hg.

3. The risk of death from cardiovascular disease is greatly reduced by regular physical exercise.

4. At least 34% of us are overweight. Overweight is usually defined as 120% of desirable weight in relation to body mass.

5.Exercise reduces anxiety. Many of us suffer from anxiety and its painful consequences, including lack of sleep. Exercise can be of great help in both areas.

6. Exercise improves our sense of self esteem. It reduces mood swings and gives us a feeling of well being. Exercise banishes “the blues”.

7. Regular exercise slows the aging process and increases life expectancy. This is particularly true of heart disease. U.S. Government statistics show that those who do not exercise are 1.9 times more likely to suffer heart trouble than those who do exercise.

8. This is even more true of men than women. Men who exercise regularly have a 23% lower death rate than men who do nothing.

9. Exercise reduces the onset and the consequences of arthritis.

10. Those who exercise and are over 70 years old lose only 7 decibels of hearing while those who do not exercise lose 15 decibels of hearing over the same length of time.

It is easily visible that about one third of all Americans are overweight. The U.S. Department of Health and Welfare defines overweight, also called obesity (from Latin. Ob meaning away and edere, to eat), as weighing 20% more than is desirable. Desirable depends on the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. tables. Accordingly, a 5'7” woman should weigh no more than 147 lbs and a 6 foot man should weigh no more than 169 lbs.

Studies have shown that 33% of adults who are overweight at age 36 were already overweight at age 7 and 63% were overweight at age 14. Although smokers are usually less likely to become overweight than non-smokers, this is hardly a recommendation to poison the system.

We have just discussed the importance of exercise. Nevertheless, dieting is still the principal means of keeping our weight down. National surveys show that dieting is the means of achieving weight loss in 84% of women and 77% of men. It must be understood, however, that those who do not exercise generally regain the weight they have lost. Therefore, we have to do both. We have to diet and exercise.

Now consider this. Someone burning 1900 calories a day at age 30 will only burn 1672 calories at age 70. That means that 228 calories a day will have to be cut from the diet of those who have reached age 70. Otherwise the fat will show around the hips and elsewhere. Women therefore should not eat more than 1600 calories a day and men should limit themselves to 1800 calories or less, depending on size.

Just in case anyone finds this intake not to his liking, it may be of interest that the death rate for men age 60 who are unfit is 122 per 10,000 while the death rate for those who are deemed fit is only 68 per 10,000. Is it not a mitzvah to stay fit and alive with your family? So fulfill the mitzvah.

This is what we must do because Judaism demands it and reason supports it. Join the Jewish Community Center. Go to the gym (from Greek meaning nude. The ancient Greeks exercised in the nude.) three to four times a week. This will not only benefit your body and your mind. It will be a pleasure because you will meet such friendly pleasant people there all the time. About one half the exercise enthusiasts there are members of St. Gregory the Great Parish. So we have a good deal of “ecumenism” (Greek from oecumen or world) there as well. So do it and do it now. Be a Jew. Be a “mensch”. Live and enjoy and forget about TV.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Man's Ascent to Reason (2003) & the forthcoming Football & American Identity.

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