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TOTAL FITNESS: Self Care Basics

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Healthcare is a mitzva!
Your health is in your hands

Diet

Exercise

Cleanliness and hygiene

Sleep, rest and relaxation

Care of eyes and ears

Smoking, Alcohol & Drugs

Morale

Healthcare is a Mitzva!

"Bodily health and wellbeing are part of the path to God. One must therefore avoid anything that may harm the body and one must cultivate healthful habits" -- Maimonides (Rambam) Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deot 4:1). Man's purpose in this world is to know God, learn His Torah and carry out the mitzvot. These elevate the soul, providing an enduring reward in the world to come.

Only with a fit, healthy body is it possible to perform the mitzvot in the proper manner. If the body is sick and in pain, it is impossible to pray to God with proper devotion, study the Torah with full concentration and perform many other mitzvot.

Your health is in your hands

God decrees the time, place and circumstances into which each soul is born. These circumstances include the person's unique body and constitution. The body grows older every day and must eventually die. Yet the health of your body and the length and quality of your life is to a large extent in your own hands.

Taking proper care of your body and avoiding harmful habits can increase the length and quality of your life and save you from many illnesses and other troubles that may strike as a result of neglect and abuse of the body.

Sincere pursuit of the Torah and mitzvot is itself a guarantee of good health, "for they are our life and length of days". "If you will listen carefully to the voice of God and do what is right in His eyes and give ear to His precepts and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the diseases upon you that I have put on the Egyptians. For I, God, am your Healer" (Exodus 15:26). "Serve God, and He will bless your bread and your water and remove sickness from within you" (Exodus 23:25).

In addition to the various mitzvot, numerous practices are conducive to good health and fitness, including proper diet, exercise, hygiene and so on. Taking proper care of bodily health is a precondition for keeping the other commandments, and is itself a commandment. It is so important that our sages taught that it is part of the commandment to remember the Giving of the Torah every day: "Take care of yourself, and guard your soul diligently" (Deuteronomy 4:9).

In the words of the Shulchan Aruch: "It is a positive duty to take all due precautions and avoid anything that may be a danger to life, as it is written, 'Take care of yourself, and guard your soul diligently.' The sages prohibited many things that involve a risk to life. Anyone who violates such prohibitions, saying 'I'm only putting myself at risk — what business is that of anybody else?' or 'I'm not particular about such things' deserves a lashing." (Choshen Mishpat 427:8-10).

Diet

"The tzaddik eats to satisfy his soul" -- Proverbs 13:25 The body can only survive and function properly when adequately nourished by food and drink. Eating and drinking are pleasurable, and enjoying your food is a sign of good health. But it is important to choose the foods you eat for their healthfulness as well as for the physical pleasure they give. There are many different and pleasurable ways to combine foods to make healthful diets.

A good diet is vital for healthy bodily functioning, growth and development. Good eating habits will help you feel good, enhance your mental faculties and give you energy for all your daily tasks and activities. Good food choices reduce the risk for many diseases, while regular excess consumption of unhealthy foods may impair physical and mental functioning and cause serious illness.

What to eat

Different foods contain different combinations of nutrients and other beneficial substances. No single food can supply all the nutrients your body needs in the necessary amounts. To provide your body with a good balance of nutrients and other healthful substances, choose a variety of foods from within and across the different food groups.

Nutritionally, the different kinds of foods fall into six main groups:

1. Bread, grains, cereals, rice and potato
2. Vegetables

3. Fruits

4. Milk, cheese and yogurt

5. Meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs and nuts

6. Fats, oils and sweets
Choose a greater proportion of your foods from the food groups that are higher on the list while eating more moderately from the food groups that are lower down. Remember that many of the dishes you eat may contain foods from more than one group, such as soups or stews containing meat, beans, noodles and vegetables.

Foods from the first group (bread, grains, cereals, rice and potato) together with those from the second and third groups (vegetables and fruit) make a sound basis for healthful diets. Eat moderate amounts of foods from the milk group and the meat and beans group. Choose sparingly foods that are high in fats and sugars while providing few nutrients.

Excess intake of fats, oils, sugars and starches is likely to lead to excess weight, increasing the risk of serious disease. Choose low-fat milk products, lean meats, fish, poultry, beans and peas to get essential nutrients without substantially increasing fat intake. Bread, pasta, rice and grains are filling without being high in fat. So too are fruits and vegetables, many of which provide essential nutrients and other food components important for health.

Eating a variety of fiber-containing grains, fruits and vegetables is important for proper bowel function and may reduce constipation as well as lowering the risks of some diseases.

Choose a diet moderate in salt. If you eat sugar, sweets and candies, do not overindulge. Excessive snacking between meals may lead to weight gain.

What to drink

The body depends on water, which is the main component of all the fluids making up the different body systems, carrying nutrients to the cells and organs, removing waste substances and performing many other vital functions.

The body is constantly losing water through breathign, sweating, urination, bowel movements and the like. It is important to replace this water. Most foods contain water, especially fruits and vegetables, but food alone cannot provide you with all the water you need. Depending on how much water you are getting from foods and other liquids, it may be advisable to drink six to eight cups of water per day, and more if you are physically active or when the weather is hot. Milk and juices may be healthful in moderation. It is unwise to rely on tea, coffee and soda for most of your liquid intake.

Vitamins and supplements

Vitamin, mineral and other supplements may help meet special nutritional needs, but supplements do not supply all the nutrients and other substances present in foods that are important to health. Daily vitamin and mineral supplements are usually unnecessary for people who eat a good, varied diet.

How to eat

Healthy eating habits maximize your body's ability to digest, absorb and assimilate the food you eat. Eat only when you are hungry and drink only when thirsty. Eat sitting down. Chew your food well. Don't keep eating till you are too full. Rather than drinking a lot with your meal, wait till the food starts being digested and then drink as much as you need, though not to excess. Don't engage in demanding physical activity directly after a meal: wait till the food is digested.

The table at which we eat is compared to the Temple altar (Berachot 55a). On the altar, representatives of the mineral, vegetable and animal worlds were transmuted into a "sweet savor to God" (Leviticus 1:9). Our task in eating is to elevate the physical food through devoting the energy it gives us to Torah, mitzvot and the service of God. The many different commandments involved in the preparation and eating of food contribute to this elevation. The blessings we recite before and after eating and drinking transform these physical functions into acts of spiritual service, giving blessing to the food and drink as it enters our bodies.

Exercise

"As long as you exercise, take care not to eat to the point of satiation and keep your bowels soft, you will not fall ill and your strength will increase… The opposite is true of someone who leads a sedentary life and takes no exercise… Even if such a person eats good food and takes care of himself according to proper medical principles, all his days will be full of pain and his strength will wane." -- Rambam, Hilchot Deot 4:15

From ancient times until today the greatest doctors, with Rambam at their head, have taught that regular exercise is vital for bodily fitness and long-term health. Fitness is the ability to use your body to energetically pursue your daily tasks and activities while retaining reserves of strength for emergency demands. Being fit gives a good feeling and zest for life as well as the ability to withstand stress.

What is exercise?

Many people imagine that exercise must entail lengthy drills and sports sessions. This is not so. A brisk twenty-minute walk three or four times a week may be equally if not more healthful than many fashionable exercise systems.

The kind of "exercise" that promotes health is defined by Rambam: "Not every bodily movement is 'exercise'. Exercise is defined as any form of movement – whether vigorous, gentle or a combination of both – that involves some effort and causes an increase in one's breathing rate" (Hanhagat HaBriut 1:3). This corresponds to what today is called "aerobic" exercise, a steady, non-stop activity that involves a certain degree of effort and leads to increased rates of blood circulation and breathing without putting strain on the heart and lungs.

Besides regular brisk walks, other examples of activities providing health-promoting exercise are: swimming, running and certain other sports, house-cleaning and many other kinds of physical labor and dancing at a simchah!

Regular exercise develops muscular strength, flexibility and endurance, strengthens the heart and lungs, enhances digestion, body metabolism and removal of wastes, reduces the risk of many diseases, reduces stress, improves sleep patterns, increases energy and helps maintain a relaxed body and tranquil mind.

Why exercise is important today?

In previous eras, before the labor-saving technology of the modern era, many people's routine daily activities involved sufficient walking, carrying and other kinds of physical activity to make it unnecessary for them to take additional exercise to maintain health. But with the coming of motorized transport, elevators and all kinds of labor-saving technology, people today are often considerably less active physically than those in previous generations. This is especially problematic in the case of those whose main occupation is sedentary (such as full-time students, those working in offices, etc.)

A life of physical inactivity is likely to lead to weak muscles, stiff joints and general deterioration of the body. When people eat a rich diet but do not balance their intake of nutrients with physical activity, the excess nutrients turn into fat that is deposited in various parts of the body. This may lead to heart disease and other serious illnesses.

In childhood most people are given the gift of physical fitness and flexibility. It is a gift that is easily lost if you do not take care of it through exercise and other healthful habits. Exercise turns into idolatry when its sole purpose is the cultivation of the physical body. The true purpose of physical exercise should be to make the body strong and fit for the service of God.

In Practice

  • If you are sedentary, try to become more active. Exercise and sports can help you stay fit, but staying fit does not necessarily entail sports or exercise regimes.
  • Walk on an errand where possible; use stairs rather than elevators.
  • Take a brisk twenty-minute walk three or four times a week. (You can use the time to mentally review your studies, listen to a class on tape or to carry out self-examination and reckoning.)
  • If your weight is too high, reduce your consumption of fattening foods and balance your food intake with more physical activity.
  • Ask your doctor or a fitness expert to recommend some simple exercises to promote flexibility and strength.
  • Go running, swimming, cycling, etc. if you enjoy these activities.
  • Washing the floor, shifting furniture and other kinds of physical work provide good exercise.
  • Dance on Simchat Torah, at weddings and other joyous occasions.

Cleanliness & Hygiene

The body's function of cleansing itself of wastes is so amazing that it is the occasion for the blessing Asher yatzar after we attend to our needs.

"Blessed are You, O God, King of the universe, Who designed man with wisdom and created the body with all kinds of openings and cavities. It is revealed and known before Your Throne of Glory that if just one of them were to be ruptured or one of them blocked it would be impossible to survive and stand before You even for a brief moment. Blessed are You, God, Who heals all flesh and acts wondrously."

Each individual is different, and there are no general rules about how often a person should relieve himself. But the halachah is clear that one should relieve oneself as soon as possible if one feels the need (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 3:17; Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 4:1).

Infrequent urination and concentrated urine may be a sign of dehydration, which occurs when a person loses more fluids (such as urine or sweat) than he takes in. This may occur after intense physical activity, in hot weather, or as a result of illness or dieting. Thirst is the best indicator of potential dehydration. If you ignore your thirst, you may feel dizzy and light-headed after a while, and you may also have a dry mouth and nose and produce less urine. To avoid dehydration, drink eight cups of water a day, and more if you exert yourself and sweat a lot. Caffeine teas, coffee and sodas are not good ways to replace fluids.

Bowel movement

Normal bowel movement varies from person to person and may range from anywhere between three bowel movements a day to three a week. Normal bowel movements should be soft and easy to pass. They should not be dry, hard or painful. If they are, or if you've gone for more than four days without having one, you have constipation, which means you are not moving your bowels often enough and your bowel movements are hard and dry.

You may be able to help your bowels return to a regular schedule by eating fewer fatty, greasy foods (such as fried foods) and fewer sugary foods (candy bars and ice cream). Eat more foods that are rich in fiber (such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains.) Drinking more water each day can also help, as can exercise, which is one of the best ways to keep your digestive system moving.

Diarrhea is when you have to move your bowels frequently and your bowel movements are loose and watery. This may be the result of a change in the kinds of foods you eat or because of certain kinds of medicine. Diarrhea may also be caused by an infection in the body. Sometimes the digestive system seems to switch back and forth between diarrhea and constipation. If this recurs, consult a doctor.

Washing hands

Washing the hands on rising from sleep, after attending to one's needs, before prayer and before eating is part of the daily life of the Jew.

Besides the halachic requirement of purity of the hands, keeping them clean by washing them whenever necessary is also one of the most important ways of preventing the spread of illness from one person to another through infection. You carry millions of microbes on your hands. Most are harmless, but it is easy to pick up germs that cause illnesses, for example by touching door handles and stair railings touched by other people who are not good hand-washers. Touching your nose, mouth and open wounds with unwashed hands can allow disease-causing germs to enter your body.

Washing your hands with warm water and soap can greatly reduce the chances of spreading or getting germs.

You should wash your hands

After you

  • Use the bathroom
  • Handle uncooked foods, particularly raw meat, poultry or fish
  • Blow your nose, cough or sneeze
  • Handle garbage
  • Tend to someone who is sick or injured.
  • Touch or play with an animal
Before you
  • Prepare or eat food
  • Treat a cut or wound or tend to someone wis sick
  • Insert or contact lenses.
Wash your hands using warm, running water and soap. Wash all surfaces thoroughly, including your wrists, palms, the back of your hands, your fingers and under your fingernails. Rub your hands together for at least 10-15 seconds. If possible dry your hands with a clean, disposable towel. Pat your skin rather than rubbing to avoid chapping and cracking. If necessary, apply hand lotion after washing to soothe your skin and help prevent drying.

Washing the body

How often you wash your body in the shower or bath etc. is a matter of personal preference, depending on your daily activities, climate and other factors.

As a person enters puberty and adulthood it is natural for the sweat glands to become more active not only when the person is hot but also in response to feelings and emotions. The armpits, groin, palms of the hands and soles of the feet produce oilier sweat, which starts to have an adult odor. It may be advisable to take a shower or bath every day. If you are concerned about body odor, use an antiperspirant or deodorant, or consult a doctor.

Care of Teeth

Strong, healthy teeth help you chew the right foods to keep you strong and healthy, as well as helping you to speak clearly and look your best.

Taking proper care of your teeth helps prevent plaque, a film that sticks to the teeth attracting bacteria and sugar, which cause cavities in the teeth and gum disease. The cavities and gums may become very sore. The more often you eat foods that contain sugars and starches and the longer these foods stay in your mouth after eating before you brush your teeth, the greater the risk for tooth decay.

Proper brushing of the teeth breaks down plaque. Brush your teeth at least twice a day, after breakfast and before bed, and if possible after lunch and after sweet snacks. If you are unable to brush your teeth directly after eating, it can help to rinse your mouth with water, especially after eating foods containing sugar.

When brushing your teeth, make sure you brush not only the front but also the sides and back of your teeth. Brush away from your gums in order to keep them healthy. Spend at least three minutes each time you brush. Make sure your toothbrush has soft bristles and get a new toothbrush every three months.

Another important way to remove plaque and keep teeth healthy is by regular "flossing" – cleaning in between the teeth with strong thread or "floss" (available in the drugstore). Break off about 40 cm. of floss. Wind most of it around the middle finger of one hand. Then wind the other end around the same finger of the opposite hand. Hold the floss taut between your two thumbs and forefingers with about 3 cm. of floss between them. Using a gentle sawing motion, ease the floss between the teeth. Avoid snapping down on the gums. The aim is to use the floss to remove the plaque on the sides of each tooth. Pull the floss down against the side of one tooth, then reinsert and repeat for the adjacent tooth. Don't forget the far side of your rearmost teeth. If you are just starting to floss, your gums may bleed for the first few days but will normally heal soon afterwards.

Try to visit the dentist twice a year.

Sleep, rest & relaxation

"If a person sleeps in order to allow his mind to rest and to give rest to his body so that he should not become sick and unable to serve G-d because of illness, in this case his very sleep is service of G-d. This is the meaning of the precept of the sages that "all your deeds should be for the sake of heaven" -- Rambam, Hilchot Deot 3:3 Sleep is as important as breathing or eating. In fact, people can survive longer without food than they can without sleep. Sleep is vital to give your mind and body a rest to prepare them for the next day.

People differ in how much sleep they need. It is not good to sleep more than you need, but it's also not good to get less sleep than you need. When you have a lot to do it can be tempting to skimp on sleep. Skipping a few hours of sleep periodically may not be too bad, but if you regularly get insufficient sleep it is likely to impair your ability to think and function properly as well as making you irritable and depressed. A half-hour rest during the day lying down and closing your eyes even without going to sleep can be very refreshing. In general try to get all the sleep you need, while making sure to get the most out of your waking hours.

Care of the Eyes

The eyes are among the most precious and hard-working organs in the whole body. For students in particular, long hours spent reading under artificial light may put great strain on the eyes, leading to vision problems as well as fatigue even when the body itself is not in need of sleep.

Covering your eyes with the palms of your hands for a few minutes is a simple yet highly effective way to relax and rest your eyes so that you can return to your work refreshed and ready for a new bout of concentration.

Rest your elbows on a desk or table, close your eyes and cover them with your hands so that your palms are over your eyes with your fingers on your forehead extending up to your scalp. Cup your hands just a little so that they don't press on your eyeballs but rest lightly on the muscles surrounding the eyes. The idea is to shut out as much light as possible without putting pressure on the eyes. The warmth of the palms helps relax the eye muscles.

Practice this for periods of anywhere from a minute or two to 10-15 minutes or even longer if your eyes are particularly strained. It can be done anywhere and at any time. Particularly when you have a lot of work to do but feel eye-strain and fatigue, covering your eyes for a few minutes can be very refreshing. Practiced at the end of the day before going to bed it can make your sleep more restful and refreshing.

You can put the time you spend relaxing your eyes to good use to mentally review your studies, examine and work on yourself, offer your personal prayers, listen to a Torah tape or just relax.

Care of the ears

Sh'ma Yisrael! Whether saying and hearing our prayers, studying Torah, communicating with one another and hearing what is going on around us, we depend on having healthy ears.

The best way to keep your ears healthy outside and inside is to wash them every day. You can wash them with a warm, soapy washcloth or when you take a shower. Shake out any water from inside your ears and dry them well.

If you think you have wax or dirt on the inside of your ear, a pharmacy can supply drops to loosen it. Don't stick your fingers, cotton swabs or anything else inside your ears, even when you feel the need to scratch or get something out. This could easily hurt your ear, make it bleed or even cause an ear infection. If you have a persistent ear pain, consult a doctor.

Protect your ears from very loud noises, including extremely loud music whether live or from speakers and headphones. Exposure to loud noise over a long period of time may damage your hearing. If you know you are likely to be exposed to loud noise, it is a good idea to bring earplugs to protect yourself.

Smoking

Many people think smoking is attractive and a sign of adult freedom and independence. This image is promoted by the cigarette manufacturers in their advertising. Many people start smoking because they have friends who smoke.

Smoking is a proven hazard to health, putting people at much greater risk for heart disease, cancer and other fatal illnesses. Even inhaling other people's smoke is hazardous. Smoking shortens peoples' lives. Every cigarette can cost from five to twenty minutes of the smoker's life.

The nicotine in tobacco is more addictive than serious drugs. Smoking is expensive. The smoker smells, as do his clothes and breath. His teeth become stained. Smokers are short of breath and prone to more colds flu and pneumonia.

Leading rabbinical authorities have ruled that it is forbidden to smoke. If you don't smoke, don't start. If you do smoke, quit. This may seem hard, but it can be done, especially with support from family and friends and if necessary a doctor. You'll have more time, more energy and more money in your pocket.

Alcohol

Drinking alcohol in small quantities may lead to altered judgment, poor functioning, headaches, nausea, exhaustion and more. Alcohol slows the function of the nervous system, leading to hangover and bad breath and damaging one's ability to perform well in studies and other activities.

Drinkers quickly become dependent on alcohol. Drinking increases the risks of accidents, injury and death. Long-term alcohol use can damage the liver, pancreas, heart and brain. Those with a drinking problem need help as soon as possible.

Drugs

Drug abuse is when a person uses a drug. Addiction is when the person is so used to the drug that they have to have it. Addiction may be physical (when a person's body is dependent on the drug), psychological, or both at the same time.

Drugs cause serious physical and psychological problems, changing sleep and eating habits, affecting physical health, causing uncontrollable mood swings, anxiety and depression, withdrawal from relationships with family and friends, loss of interest in studies and other activities, leading to theft and other crimes. Recognizing a drug problem is the first step to getting help.

Morale

"A joyous heart is good medicine but a broken spirit dries the bones" -- Proverbs 17:22 Everyone goes through ups and downs at different times. The problems and stresses of everyday life, difficulties in our relationships with others and many other factors may at times make us feel low and depressed.

When you feel low try to put yourself in a better frame of mind by looking on the good side of things. When problems come up, have faith that something good will come out of them. This will help you find ways of turning even disadvantages into advantages. Pray to God to help you be happy. Look for the good in yourself. Instead of dwelling on your shortcomings or on what you don't have, think about your positive points and what you do have.

Normally a depressed mood will pass. Should a depression continue for weeks, months or even longer, it may become a serious condition that can affect a person's ability to function in the world. This can come about for many different reasons, including events like the death or illness of a relative or friend, a negative, stressful atmosphere in the home, factors affecting the way one feels about oneself, learning disabilities, physical illness, substance abuse and many others.

Depression can show itself in different ways: as a depressed mood or sadness for what may seem like no reason; lack of energy; constant feelings of tiredness; inability to enjoy things that used to bring pleasure; anxiety, irritability and anger; difficulty in concentrating and making decisions; low self-esteem; feelings of guilt and worthlessness; significant weight loss or gain, unexplained aches and pains when nothing is physically wrong; feelings of hopelessness and thoughts of death and suicide.

Expert guidance combined with understanding and support from those around can usually help a person rise from even a serious depression. If you often feel depressed or know someone else who you think may be suffering from depression, seek help from a rabbi, teacher, counselor or some other competent person in whom you can confide.

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