Avraham ben Yaakov
Parents' Guide to Teaching Children Healthcare

8 Physical Activity & Exercise

"As long as a person exercises and exerts himself a lot, takes care not to eat to the point of being completely full, and keeps his bowels soft, illness will not come upon him and his strength will increase. And whoever sits comfortably and takes no exercise. even if he eats the best foods and follows healthcare principles in other areas of his life, all his days will be full of pain and his strength will decline."

Maimonides, Hilchot Deot 4:15

Daily physical activity together with sound nutrition is the best formula for a healthy lifestyle.

The greatest doctors, headed by the outstanding giant in Torah and healing, the RaMBaM (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, Maimonides (1135-1204), have always recommended regular physical activity involving effort as being vital to health. Such activity promotes the development of strong bones, strong, flexible muscles and joints that allow free, easy, unrestricted movement. Regular sustained physical activity makes the the functioning of the body's respiratory and blood circulation systems more efficient, providing stable supplies of oxygen and nutrients to all parts of the body and enhancing overall metabolism. Physical activity also aids the digestive system and the elimination of waste products from the body.

Improved functioning gives the body greater powers of endurance in everyday activities while storing energy for emergencies. When a person is fit, the person feels better, physically and mentally, and can stand up better under pressure. Similarly, the dangers of many illnesses are considerably reduced - "Illness will not come upon him, and his strength will increase."

Lack of regular physical activity causes the muscles to become weak and flabby. The joints become stiff and more injury-prone, and the lungs, heart and blood circulation become less efficient. The problems become more serious when we eat more than the body needs, and then the excess food turns into deposits of fat in various parts of the body. Excess fat caused by imbalance between intake of foods and physical activity is the leading cause of heart and other serious diseases today.

The importance of exercise today

In the past, before the development of modern technology, most people's daily routine involved considerable physical activity, including walking and various kinds of labor involving bodily movement and effort. It might seem that they should not have needed additional physical exercise for the sake of their health. Yet Rambam, writing over eight hundred years ago, stated definitively: "As long as a person exercises and exerts himself a lot.illness will not come upon him and his strength will increase." Even then, Rambam saw the need to emphasize the importance of physical activity to health - which means it's even more important today!

Means of transport, sophisticated machines and electrical equipment that does our work for us at the push of a button have made our lives easier in amazing ways. But by saving us a considerable amount of physical effort, they have taken from us many natural opportunities to use and exercise our bodies. The problem is especially great among those whose daily "activity" is mostly sitting, including office workers, drivers and students in Yeshiva. Added to the problem is today's average daily diet, which is richer than in the past, especially in fats and sugars. Inadequate physical activity and unhealthy diet are at the root of many of the health problems and illnesses with which people today are afflicted.

Today, it is more important than ever to set regular times in our daily schedule for some kind of health-promoting physical activity. The need is even greater for those of us whose day involves limited physical activity. Each one of us needs to find the right kind of activities that will help us to maintain and enhance our bodily fitness and reduce the risks of illness.

In the wider world there is ever-growing awareness of the need for extra physical activity and a heavy investment in activities whose declared purpose is improving fitness, health-maintenance and prevention of illness. Yet in fact, the pursuit of these goals has turned into a culture of its own that puts the main emphasis on cultivation of the body and bodily appearance and its ability to derive the greatest enjoyment from life. This culture has spawned a complete industry of sports events, media coverage, advertising, fitness centers, equipment, factories, stores and so on, involving enormous sums of money.

Sport and exercise become idolatry when their essential goal is development of the body and physical fitness for the sole sake of enjoy the material pleasures of life. For Jews who keep the Torah and the Mitzvos, the true purpose of engaging in the physical activities that promote health is to make the body a fit instrument for the service of God.

If only a person would care 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.

Rambam, Guide to Health 1,3

What is exercise?

Many people think that keeping fit requires hard exercises and sophisticated equipment. This is a mistake! Many simple activities can be equally if not more effective in promoting health than many popular kinds of exercise. For example a brisk 20-30 minute walk three or four times a week can provide the quota of physical activity necessary to maintain fitness better than a complicated exercise system.

The Rambam in his well-known Hanhagas HaBri'us, "The Guide to Health" (1,3), defines the kind of physical activity that is healthy in the following way: "Exercise is a form of activity involving bodily movements that may be strong or gentle or a combination of the two and which cause changes in the person's breathing, which becomes more rapid." The Rambam's definition corresponds to the "aerobic" exercise recommended by present-day specialists, 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. Brisk walking is one such activity, stimulating the blood circulation without putting a strain on the breathing. Other examples include running (even in place), dancing, swimming, etc. To achieve the desired results, the activity should be sustained for up to 40 minutes and no less than 15 minutes, and it should be carried out 3-4 times a week. Activity of this kind increases the body's ability to keep up physical activity and effort for sustained periods.

Other kinds of physical movements that have an important role in keeping us fit and healthy are those that require various body parts to apply force against some kind of resistance, exercising the muscles and increasing their strength and endurance. While weight-lifting and exercise machines may be used for this kind of exercise, many everyday activities provide opportunities for the kind of movements that are beneficial to health, such as climbing stairs rather than using an elevator, carrying shopping, many kinds of house work and even kneading dough.

Movements that involve stretching different parts of the body are also important in developing muscle and joint flexibility, giving increased freedom of movement and contributing to a relaxed bodily feeling. Such movemealso reduce the danger of muscle and joint injuries, including pulled muscles and sprains.

Each person needs to find the kinds of exercises that are suit him or her personally. Exercise can help in many cases of neck, shoulder and back pain as well as other physical problems. It is worth raising the subject with your doctor.

Physical activity for children

God gives most people the gift of physical fitness and flexibility in their childhood, but this precious gift is easily lost unless we ourselves take proper care of it. The best way to protect our health is by developing healthy habits from the earliest age, of which one of the most vital is regular exercise.

The need for physical activity begins in childhood. Physical activity is essential to build strong bones and muscles, maintain muscle and joint flexibility and develop the endurance of the respiratory and blood circulation systems. The positive effects of healthy levels of physical activity in children are seen immediately, while the long-term benefits include general strength and flexibility, healthy blood pressure, healthy weight, overall good feeling, confidence and a willingness to get the best out of what God has granted us, physically and mentally.

People often imagine children as being active and busy running, climbing, jumping and playing - but in fact, the picture is not accurate. Many children are not sufficiently physically active. Children who do not have sufficient opportunities to exercise their bodies become tired, lazy and indifferent. It is our duty to teach our children the importance of physical activity and to provide them with suitable opportunities.

The need for physical activity by children on a regular basis starts at the age of about two. The activity should be in the form of "play". One of the best places for healthy play is on the play equipment in the public park. There is no need for the child to feel he is involved in "physical activity": he plays and enjoys himself. The most beneficial games are those that require greater physical effort than regular activities, such as those that involve running, jumping, climbing and so on. When it is not possible to play on play equipment, parents should use their imaginations in providing the children with healthy activities. For good results, the activity should continue for at least 15-30 minutes, several times a week. Children's play should be under supervision to avoid accidents.

Older children and teenagers

The need for physical activity continues and indeed increases as children grow older and enter puberty and adolescence. The need of girls for physical activity may be met with games like skipping rope and other children's games, movement and dance. Household tasks involving some kind of physical effort - from washing floors to kneading dough - also fulfil part of the need for physical exercise.

In the case of boys and young men who spend much of their day sitting studying Torah, the need for additional physical activity is greater. Not only will this contribute to their health and fitness, it will also increase their alertness, concentration and ability to think. As the boys grow older, their hours of study are longer and their free time becomes increasingly limited. Parents must help them to take advantage of simple, everyday activities to give their bodies exercise.

Encourage your children to go on foot instead of by bus etc. when this is possible, to climb the stairs instead of using the elevator, and so on.

Help your children make it a habit to take a brisk walk for at least 15-20 minutes 3-4 times a week. Friends can go in pairs or groups at a pace that is sufficiently relaxed to allow for conversation without being too slow. Students can use the time spent walking mentally reviewing their studies, listening to a class on a walkman or thinking their thoughts.

Consult with a doctor or fitness specialist about simple exercises for strength, flexibility and general fitness.

Use vacation times (Bein Haz'manim) for physical activities that time does not permit during the rest of the year. It would be desirable if more educational institutions would organize camps of the kind that combine swimming and holiday activities with study in a relaxed environment.

Encourage the children to dance energetically on Simchas Torah and other joyous celebrations. Dancing is good for the body and the soul!


Regular deep breathing helps supply the body with flesh oxygen and stimulates blood circulation. This refreshes and energizes the body, making us more alert and energetic, and at the same time more relaxed. Many people's breathing is too shallow, leading to a loss of energy and clarity, nervousness and lowered resistance to illness.

Parents should learn the following simple breathing exercise and teach it to their children: breathe in steadily, letting the lungs swell with air until they are full to capacity. Hold the air in the lungs for a few seconds, then release it in a slow, complete exhalation. Ten slow, deep breaths before going to sleep, on rising in the morning, when feeling tired, at times of strain or on any other occasion provide immediate relaxation and stimulation.

The Benefits of Exercise

1. Physical activity "burns" calories. When we burn more calories than we take in, we automatically reduce weight.

2. Activities involving physical effort (even climbing the stairs instead of using the elevator) strengthen muscles and bones and increase the body's endurance during periods of sustained activity.

3. Movements involving stretching of various body parts promote muscle and joint flexibility, and help the body feel relaxed. They also reduce the risks of muscle and joint injuries (e.g. pulled muscles, sprains).

4. Sustained physical activity (between 15-30 minutes) such as brisk walking, running in place and dance, improve the functioning of the lungs and heart, stimulate the blood circulation and increase the body's endurance during periods of sustained activity.

5. Physical exercise enhances overall bodily functioning and strengthens immunity against illness.

6. Regular fitness activities improve the quality of life, bring increased strength and stamina, reduce tension and anxiety, promote healthy sleep and relax the body and the mind.

Chapter 9: Sleep, Rest and Relaxation




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