Movement for Learning and Health

For many adults, the activities we spend the most time engaged in (typing, sitting, driving, cellphone, etc) are inactive and place our bodies in postures that strain our necks, backs, and sometimes our whole bodies.  This can have a significant negative impact on physical health and wellbeing for some of us, and not only does it impact our bodies, but evidence is mounting about the negative impact this has on our cognition and emotion as well.

At Gesher, we have spent the past three years training faculty members in an approach to learning and classroom management called Responsive Classroom.  Among a number of research-based practices this method employs is something called either a “brain break” or sometimes an “energizer.”  The practice asks the teacher to intersperse less active learning with 2-5 minute breaks during which children move their bodies, smile, laugh, interact, and have fun (these can still be educational activities).  Sometimes these activities are planned in advance, and sometimes a teacher notices either sluggish or wiggly children and decides to interrupt the planned learning for a quick brain break.

Children’s bodies and minds are still in sensitive developmental periods, so this kind of activity is particularly crucial at young ages (though still very important for adults!).  Children have to experience regular movement for lots of reasons, among them the normal development of both fine and gross motor systems, balance and proprioception (knowing where your body and limbs are in space), non-verbal communication skills, adaptive problem-solving, and memory.

In Rabbinic Judaism, we generally expect to find the most value placed on cognition and Torah study, rather than physical pursuits.  However, there is a strong current of Rabbinic thought that does indeed place an extremely high value on physical self-care, with underpinnings in the idea that because our bodies are both in the image of G-d as well as in some sense on loan from G-d, it is crucial to take good care of them.  Another stream emphasizes the idea that without a healthy functioning body, we would not be able to engage in Torah study.  In the Talmudic example below, a father teaches this lesson to his son:

“Rav Huna said to his son Rabba: What is the reason that you are not to be found among those who study before Rav Ḥisda, whose halakhot are incisive? Rabba said to him: For what purpose should I go to him? When I go to him, he sits me down and occupies me in mundane matters not related to Torah. For example, he said to me: One who enters a bathroom should not sit down immediately and should not exert himself excessively because the rectum rests upon three teeth, the muscles that hold it in place, and there is concern lest the teeth of the rectum dislocate through exertion and he come to danger. Rav Huna said to his son Rabba: He is dealing with matters crucial to human life, and you say that he is dealing with mundane matters? Now that I know what you meant, all the more so go before him.” 
Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 82a

I wonder what these Rabbis would say if they could see and comprehend our modern lives?  Would they encourage us to exercise, to get up from our desks and stretch and walk, so that our feelings and our minds would be healthier?  Would they create rulings or guidelines about what foods we should eat to maintain our health beyond the laws of kashrut?

As we enter the High Holidays, I’m reminded of Rav Kook’s take on Teshuvah, which we translate as “repentance,” but really means “returning.”  He wrote about the importance of a healthy body, the inherent holiness of the body, and mentions that our Teshuvah can’t truly be spiritually successful without including a component of returning to physical health.

In our most frustrating moments, when we feel low, overwhelmed, stressed, scared, or angry, may we remember the simple power of movement to help us return to our best selves.  When we interrupt our patterns of distress during challenging times to take even a five minute walk, to breathe, to step outside and literally move the emotions through, the impact is profoundly healthy [click here to learn more about this research –].  Perhaps one key to creating healthier relationships and a better society is to simply encourage one another to move a bit more.

Wishing you a Shanah Tovah U’Metukah – a sweet and good New Year, and a Shabbat Shalom!