How I Imbued Judaism into My Exercise Routine
I am not from the athletes.
When I was a kid, people didn’t really exercise – or, if they did, I didn’t know about it.
I had a few friends who did gymnastics or played softball, but they were few and far between. And they were “athletic,” meaning they weren’t like me. After the movie Ice Castles was released, I, along with hundreds of other star-struck little girls, begged for ice skating lessons. My parents were kind enough to indulge my wish and even bought me a navy blue ice skating dress like the one worn by the film’s protagonist.
Alas, I lasted a mere five weeks. It was a miserable experience. I was uncoordinated. I was weak. I was cold. And I was just plain terrible at ice skating.
A gymnastics class through our local community center produced similarly unsuccessful results. Swimming lessons were no better. I took a few different dance classes in college, but it was clear that any illusion I had about being graceful was just that – an illusion. It seemed that I’d arrived too late to retrain my body with any sense of coordination or grace.
However, I couldn’t seem to dodge the reality that our bodies need to move. Over time, more and more articles were being written about the health benefits of regular physical activity, and I couldn’t ignore the facts.
My adult life is dotted with myriad bursts of effort: a gym membership here, a personal trainer there – genuine effort, by the way. I undertake each endeavor with complete devotion, at least for a time.
That leads me to wonder: When it comes to exercise, what is the true definition of success? Is it a daily trip to the gym? Is it the ability to run a distance race?
Most runners don’t complete a marathon. I did, but that did not make me a runner. It made me a marathon finisher.
I put in the time and the miles in 2005.
I crossed the finish line and didn’t run a single step after that for years.
My focus was on the finish line. And while I am extremely proud of my accomplishment, I now realize that I was focused on the wrong thing.
I’ve returned to running time and again. I’ve completed races of all different distances only to discover this: I hate running. I hate it, which is quite likely the reason I have difficulty sticking with it.
But that doesn’t let me off the hook.
Every recent scientific study supports the notion that daily exercise is essential for a healthy body. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, one of the greatest 19th century rabbinic scholars, writes in The Nineteen Letters that we are to respect the body “as the receptacle, messenger, and instrument of the spirit” – which means it is a Jewish value to get moving, no matter how I feel about it.
The reality is that I need the exercise. My body mass index needs it. My blood sugar needs it. I need the fresh air. I need time away from my life.
So I walk. Being outside and walking for several miles forces me to momentarily sidestep the daily chaos and just live inside my head. There are days I need the respite so fiercely I cannot wait to hit the road.
I have also finally found an exercise class that doesn’t require a great deal of grace or coordination. A new barre studio opened in my area that has attracted not just the lithe, graceful bodies, but all bodies. The workouts are challenging yet exhilarating, in a way that my runs never were. The focus is on strength and breathing and pushing one’s self just a little bit harder every day. And listening and respecting where one is on any given day.
I’ve tweaked my focus. No longer is the physical exertion merely an activity to check off my to-do list. It is preceded by a blessing. It is done with intention. There is no end goal; there is only the journey.