Sage advice: Maimonides’ wisdom can inspire us to embrace healthy lifestyle

Cathleen Kronemer

By Cathleen Kronemer

Does a difference exist between secular and “holy” reasons for keeping our bodies fit?

Traditional Jewish thought suggests that we must keep our bodies well for the sake of spiritual pursuits and in order to fulfill mitzvot. Sadly, in today’s modern times, a focus on fitness is often seen as an act of inappropriate and needless vanity.

Within the strict Orthodox community, for example, time is a commonly stated reason for the reluctance to focus on exercise; time spent on secular sports takes away from hours that could be spent on Torah study or performing mitzvot. According to the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides extolls the virtues of exercise and healthy eating, yet many individuals fail to take his recommendations to heart. Maimonides states that a Jewish individual “should engage one’s body and exert oneself in a sweat-producing task each morning.”

This theme is also a component of morning tefillah prayer, emphasizing the importance of health and good posture: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who straightens the bent.” We can view such words simply as metaphor; yet it is worth contemplating the physical manifestation of the prayer. Might regularly engaging in exercise straighten our bodies and enable us to be truer to our words? Whether one engages in the slow and complex exercises of yoga, or completes a heart-pounding circuit training class, these activities can facilitate a deeper connection of our physical being to the mental/spiritual realm.

Rabbi Simcha Bart points to a line found in Deuteronomy 4:15, “And you shall guard yourselves very well…” For some individuals, this sums up the necessity of healthy eating and proper physical exercise. Maimonides lends support to this idea, stating in his magnum opus that “The body being healthy is of the ways of the Lord, for it is impossible to understand or know the knowledge of the Creator while unwell. Therefore, one should keep away from things which destroy the body, and accustom oneself to healthy and curing matters…”

Having worked in the fitness industry at the Jewish Community Center for over 30 years, with a predominantly Jewish population, I regularly witness the desire for improved strength, endurance, flexibility and overall good health. Whether this is a strictly Talmudic observance or simply a manner in which to improve quality of life really does not matter. I consider it to be an action of the heart, a true “win-win” situation. By serving our Higher Power, we become better versions of ourselves…mind, body and soul.

Cathleen Kronemer, NSCA-CPT, Certified Health Coach, is a longtime fitness instructor at the Jewish Community Center. She is also a member of the St. Louis Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.