Many years ago, my rosh yeshiva remarked of avid joggers: They are running in order to live longer. But they have no idea what they are living for.
In the secular world, we see many people who act as if swallowing sufficient Omega-3, eating a high fiber diet, and consuming lots of brightly colored vegetables will help them live forever.
Devoting all one’s energy to the Sisyphusean quest for immortality is draining.
That’s why the people one meets in health food stores tend to be a grim-looking lot, wrinkled and prunish in appearance. The guy slicing pastrami in the local deli is much more likely to sport a beaming countenance.
Our world, on the other hand, too often suffers from the opposite malady: an apparent unconcern with all matters pertaining to health. Health and exercise, if they are treated at all, are invariably consigned to the women’s pages of our magazines. Wives are expected to still fit into their wedding gowns, no matter how many children they have had, even as their husbands proudly sport another inch around the waist for each child.
I once asked a member of a large charedi community, “Why is everybody here so fat?” My friend, an incisive wit, neatly captured the mindset, “The goy says its not good to be fat. What does the goy know?”
Give us an anecdote about a heavy smoker who lived to 90 or an avid jogger who dropped dead in the midst of his daily run, and we are happy: no need to worry further about adopting a healthier lifestyle or diet. And we pat ourselves on the back for not allowing ourselves to become thrall to our physical side.
The truth is, however, that that the cost of ignoring our bodies, of not paying Azazel its due, is often paid in terms of our ruchnios. “The dead cannot praise Hashem” (Tehillim 115:17) Too many of us are walking time-bombs just waiting to explode.
Last Shabbos, a friend I hadn’t seen in awhile sat down next to me at a Kiddush. I barely recognized him. He had lost forty pounds since I last saw him. I asked him what happened to him. He described how his wife had announced one day, in a tone that brooked no opposition, that they were going to the doctor.
“What should I tell the doctor?” my friend asked. “For starters, tell him that you sound like you are going to die when you sleep,” his wife replied. The doctor ordered a battery of tests, which revealed that in his mid-40s he had already developed diabetes and his triglycerides were three times the danger level. “My wife saved my life,” he told me.
That same Shabbos another friend related how he had asked someone near him at a shalom zachor why he was breathing so hard. The man explained that he had just climbed several flights of stairs. Still not satisfied, my friend insisted that he speak to a doctor sitting nearby. The doctor told the man to meet him in the hospital on Sunday. While there, the man had a heart attack, which, Baruch Hashem, he survived.
Judging from number of four-color glossy pamphlets still being passed out in shul, there are too many young men in our community who are not so fortunate as to collapse in a hospital.
PREMATURE DEATH IS ONLY THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG. By ignoring our bodies when we are young too many of us our heading for an old age in which we are imprisoned by our own bodies.
Between 1900 and 2000, the average life expectancy in the United States increased by 30 years. Modern medicine has found many ways to cure disease and keep us alive, but the body still wears out. If we are fortunate enough to live long lives, we can count on losing ten percent of our muscle mass every decade past forty, on our hair graying, our eyes growing more far-sighted.
Much of that is inevitable. What is not inevitable is that old age should become a virtual prison, in which even the simplest daily tasks sap all one’s energy. Just getting up out of a chair requires a huge investment of time and energy for many elderly people. Think about what it means to have to plan out each move from one place to another in the room, and decide whether it’s worth the effort.
Fear is the constant companion of the elderly. Each year, 350,000 elderly people in the United States fall and break a hip. Of those one-fifth will never walk again, and two-fifths will have to move to a nursing home. The three best predictors of such a fall are poor balance, muscle weakness, and taking four or more prescription medications. (Those with all three have a 100% chance of falling within the next year.)
But medications can be simplified and even a moderate exercise and weight-lifting program can do much to improve balance and reverse muscle deterioration. We are not talking about Arnold Schwarzenegger-style pumping iron, but repetitions with small weights.
Exercise “is the closest thing we have to a fountain of youth,” says Dr. S. Jay Olshansky, a longevity researcher at the University of Illinois. As far as exercise goes, it is never too late, and never early enough to get started. Many studies show significant benefits from moderate exercise even for those who have lived sedentary lives until their mid-70s.
Experts stress that no more than 30% (and some say as little as 6%) of longevity is determined by heredity. The rest depends largely on lifestyle. And research shows that most of the healthy behaviors that help fight disease also slow down the aging process. Keep moving, shed excess weight, and eat well are the golden rules.
Even where longevity is not increased, much can be done to improve the quality of life. In one controlled study of 568 men and women over seventy identified as at high risk of becoming disabled, the group assigned trained geriatricians, as opposed to their normal physician, were 33% less likely to become disabled and 50% less likely to develop depression over the next eighteen months.
Bottom line: Exercising and proper eating is not at the expense of one’s ruchnios. Rather it provides is with the tools to enjoy productive old age, with a lot more to think about than the most recent physical breakdown.
Appeared in Mishpacha magazine today.