Active living is the key to successful aging

Dr. Roger Landry wishes senior citizens would stop acting their age. Landry, president of Masterpiece Living, LLC, a consulting firm for senior communities that emphasize healthy aging, observes, “Nothing in our DNA dictates that we can’t stay vital into old age. We need to adopt a ‘use it or lose it’ approach to our minds, bodies and spirit.”

After all, Landry points out, Grandma Moses began her illustrious artistic career in her late 70s and lived to 101, painting more than 20 canvases in her last year of life. “I hear inspiring stories like this every day,” he said. “Recently, I met a woman who parachuted down to her 90th birthday party.”

You don’t need to parachute into active senior living, but modest exercise is essential. Not only does exercise build muscle tone and strength, it also creates a feeling of confidence and competence. “When you are physically engaged in life, you’re more ready to try other activities,” Landry says.

Ed Abramson may be living proof. Now 86, the L.A. resident is a highly decorated World War II veteran whose bravery earned him a Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Presidential Citation, Combat Infantry Badge and numerous other medals. As a member of the Army’s 90th Division, Abramson participated in the landing at Normandy on Omaha Beach.

Abramson retired 17 years ago, having run a sales company specializing in high-end furniture for architects and designers. In that time, he’s developed new interests, taking up oil painting, studying the Torah and exercise — all avidly. His seascapes and still lifes grace the homes of friends who admire his work, and one of his granddaughters has asked him to paint Jerusalem’s Western Wall for her apartment.

He enjoys spending quiet evenings with his wife of 40 years, June, as well as playing with his four great-grandchildren. And, barely one month after surgery to remove a cancerous tumor on his lung, Abramson still hits the gym three times a week, where he does an eye-popping 125 sit-ups each time, 45 minutes in a combined walk/jog on the treadmill and a variety of other exercises.

“Sometimes I don’t feel like working out, if I’m tired or have aches and pains,” he admits, “but I force myself to go, since I know I’ll feel a lot better afterward. Working out is a key to feeling good,” he says.

A combination of mental stimulation, social connections and physical challenge is a perfect example of what Landry calls successful aging.

“Research has smashed the stereotype that aging means automatic feebleness or crankiness. People who remain physically, mentally and socially active can maintain high levels of functioning well into their 80s and 90s,” he said.

Landry points to exciting research in the last few years that has focused on the importance of “social connectivity” and its connection to overall brain fitness.

“We’ve always known that it’s good to be with people, but there is a physiological basis for it,” Landry says. “The DNA looks different in those who are socially connected than in those who are not.”

For example, the telomere, which is the end of the strand of DNA, gets shorter and shorter as people age. However, Landry says telomeres shorten more slowly in people who stay socially connected, appearing as a younger cell.

People who maintain strong connections with friends, loved ones and confidants also have lower risks of just about every type of illness, including cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s. Left unchecked, older adults who lose meaningful engagement with people and activities can become depressed, marginalized by society, losing their physical and mental vitality and becoming at greater risk for assisted living.

“It doesn’t have to be that way,” Landry said. “Older people can not only continue to have meaning, purpose and activity in their post-retirement years, they may even find a new purpose, unencumbered by work and parenting obligations.”

Landry recommends that older people do the following each day: exercise for at least 30 minutes (though sedentary individuals should check with their doctors before beginning an exercise program), learn something new to stimulate brain function, meet with or call friends, and do anything they find meaningful, such as joining a book or other special-interest club, doing volunteer work or picking up an old hobby.

“Think back to things you may have enjoyed earlier in life, whether it was stamp collecting, crafts, gardening or politics. Whatever you’re interested in, there’s a group out there for you,” he said.

Judy Gruen’s most recent book is “The Women’s Daily Irony Supplement.”

Do Day School Health Programs Make the Grade?

Twenty parents from the Emek Hebrew Academy in Valley Village have come on a chilly winter evening to hear Dr. Francine Kaufman, a national expert on diabetes and childhood obesity, talk about promoting children’s health. Although the school has 455 families, Rabbi Sholom Strajcher, the school’s dean, is not discouraged by the modest turnout.

“We have to change the culture…. It’s a challenge,” he said.

Strajcher (pronounced Striker) tells the group he’s been overweight since childhood.

“When I was growing up, no doctor or teacher ever mentioned my weight,” he said. “I am reaping the result of all those years.”

He is not alone. In fact, Strajcher’s students are even more likely to struggle with weight issues. According to the Institute of Medicine, an agency under the National Academy of Sciences, more than 9 million U.S. children above the age of 6 are considered overweight or obese. The litany of health consequences associated with obesity — diabetes, cancer and heart disease, to name a few — might result in today’s children becoming the first generation in American history with a lower life expectancy than their parents. For children born in 2000, their lifetime risk of developing diabetes exceeds 30 percent.

Many can name factors contributing to these alarming trends: An increase in sedentary activities, such as television and computers; greater demand for convenience foods; advertisements targeting kids with high-fat foods, and an environment that discourage walking and physical activity. Given the breadth of the problem, solutions require action on all levels of society — from government and business to schools and families. Jewish day schools, which may not see their role in the equation, have been slow to address these concerns.

But some have begun to take action.

Let’s Get Physical

At Jewish day schools, the demands of a dual curriculum coupled with limited outdoor space can cause physical education to take a back seat. This is decidedly not the case at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) Day School. When Head of School Sheva Locke joined the Encino school four years ago, one of her first priorities was instituting an athletic program. The school now employs an athletic director and two full-time coaches who supervise physical education classes and activities at recess and lunch.

The athletic department also runs an extensive after-school team sports program. Kindergarteners through third-graders can join in a Junior Sports Club, while fourth- through sixth-graders can participate in competitive sports, including basketball, soccer, football and volleyball — and 98 percent of them do. The teams compete in the San Fernando Valley Private School League. VBS provides transportation to off-site games to make participation easier on parents and children.

“The focus was on getting as many children as possible to participate and to play,” Locke said. “The problem solving and goal setting that goes along with having a physical fitness program is equally as important.”

During the school day itself, VBS provides physical education twice a week, a figure fairly standard in the day school world. For students who don’t participate in after-school physical activities, that amount is woefully inadequate, according to physician Fran Kaufman, professor of pediatrics at USC’s Keck School of Medicine and head of the Center for Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism at Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles.”

“Kids should be active for 60 minutes each day,” she said.

The state of California requires that children in first through sixth grade have a minimum of 200 minutes of physical education time per 10 days of school, which averages 20 minutes per day. In seventh through 12th grade, the time requirement doubles. (According to the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, 51 percent of school districts reviewed failed to meet the state’s minimum requirement for physical education time.)

Those numbers fall far short of the 60 minutes daily recommended by Kaufman and the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans. And as Emek’s Strajcher points out, not all of that time involves being active.

“Even when kids are supposedly playing, how much of that time is spent waiting for a turn?” he asks.

At Maimonides Academy in West Hollywood, instructor Alan Rosen has designed a unique program where lessons on character and values are integrated into physical education. On the play area used by the elementary school students, circles painted on the blacktop list such values as responsibility, humility, effort and cooperation. The words are incorporated into songs and games, and are referred to in the course of regular physical activities.

“If it’s important, you find the time,” said Maimonides’ principal, Rabbi Karmi Gross. “Physical activity doesn’t have to be divorced from what else is being done.”

By the Book

Inside the classroom, the content and amount of wellness-related curriculum varies from school to school. An informal survey taken by the Bureau of Jewish Education of Los Angeles on nutrition education garnered responses from only 10 schools out of more than 30. Of those, half had no “formal” nutrition curriculum, and relied primarily on teacher-generated materials.

Because health is not a subject for which the state requires standardized testing, public school districts vary in the degree of emphasis they give the topic. Los Angeles Unified School District specifies knowledge and abilities that students are expected to master in grades four, seven, and high school.

In both public and private schools, a dedicated health class is generally taught in middle school. Seventh graders at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge take a health and life sciences class that focuses on the physiology and biology of the human body. An eighth-grade nutrition unit includes a screening of the school version of “Super Size Me,” in which the filmmaker traced his odyssey eating McDonald’s fare exclusively three times a day for one month, and how his body suffered as a result.

“We talk about individual choices and about society, and we discuss where responsibility lies,” said science teacher Liz Wenger. “We look at how society is changing the way we eat, such as not eating at home as much, and eating larger quantities and higher fat foods.”

The students calculate their own caloric intake and use a calorimeter to measure the amount of food energy in various foods. They also build pumps to replicate the heart and use stoppers to illustrate cholesterol build-up.

VBS employs a full-time nurse whose duties include teaching health-related lessons to all grade levels. At Milken Community High School, ninth graders take a class, designed with input from a health educator and a rabbi, which explores physical, social and emotional health as well as sexuality and tobacco, drug and alcohol abuse.

Ess, Ess Mein Kind

Learning about nutrition doesn’t necessarily translate into action. Most of the schools interviewed expressed concerns about the food they provided to students, not only through formal meal programs, but also informal means such as class parties or incentives.

Eating can be an emotionally charged issue given its integral role in Jewish practice. The ubiquity of food is illustrated in the oft-repeated definition of Jewish holidays:

They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.

“Every time we celebrate, we celebrate with food — and there’s nothing wrong with that,” said Emek’s Strajcher. The question is what kind of food and how much. He said that traditionally, when students began to learn the aleph-bet (Hebrew alphabet) in school, the rebbe would put a drop of honey on each letter so that the children would associate learning with sweetness. Even in the synagogue itself, congregants throw candy for auf-rufs (engagements), bar mitzvahs and other celebrations.

Some parents are troubled by the amount of sugary snacks given to their children.

Kaufman noted that packaged kosher snacks can be some of the worst offenders in terms of saturated fat content.

Last year, Emek parents formed a committee and worked with the school’s caterer and a nutritionist to improve the healthfulness of school lunches. Parent Amy Leibowitz, who spearheaded the committee, said it was a challenge to satisfy nutritional, budgetary and kashrut considerations simultaneously. The results included adding fruit and salad, subtracting dessert, serving foods that are baked instead of fried, serving leaner, lower-salt meat, and making water available at mealtimes. She said that classes now celebrate all the month’s birthdays at one time to limit the influx of sugary treats.

Maimonides also revised its lunch program, and modified the practice of using food as an incentive. Instead of giving Israeli chocolates as rewards, principal Gross now gives Israeli postcards.

“We’re not yet where we want to be,” he said. “But we’ll eventually get there.”
Vending machine soft drink sales — a tempting source of revenue for some schools — will likely decline due to a decision announced in May by the nation’s largest beverage distributors to discontinue selling beverages with more than 100 calories to schools. It is estimated that the practice will affect 87 percent of the public and private school market.

As schools grapple with decisions regarding food policies, Emek’s Strajcher says that they can look to Judaism for a model of dietary self control.

“Kashrut [shows us that] when it comes to food, there has to be a certain discipline,” he said.

And as Eileen Horowitz, principal at Temple Israel of Hollywood, noted, “The [mission] for a Jewish school is teaching how to make good choices. That applies to how we talk to a neighbor as well as what we put in our mouth.”

Just Do It

Some administrators cited the challenge of fitting in adequate time for physical activity and comprehensive health education on top of an already full dual curriculum.

“There’s tremendous pressure for time,” acknowledged Dr. Roxie Esterle, Heschel’s associate head of school. “It’s a very full day and it gets fuller and fuller,” she said, mentioning computers and technology as examples.

Secular schools also struggle with these issues. A recently released national report found that the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was threatening physical education time because subjects that are not tested — including physical education — receive lower priority. In Los Angeles, 68 percent of high school students failed to meet recommended levels of physical activity according to a 2005 study by the CDC.

Yet, practicality dictates that schools take action on this issue: The California Department of Education states that healthy, active and well-nourished children are more likely to attend school and are more prepared and motivated to learn. The 2006 Shape of the Nation Report, issued jointly by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education and the American Heart Association, recommends that schools across the country “make physical education instruction the cornerstone of a comprehensive school physical activity program that also includes health education, elementary school recess, after-school physical activity clubs and intramurals, high school interscholastic athletics, walk/bike to school programs and staff wellness programs.”

Given that Judaism mandates the care of our bodies, Jewish day schools have an imperative to address these issues.

“If you’re not healthy, it’s hard to serve God with fullness,” Strajcher said. “Your soul can only do what it needs to do when your physical self is intact.”
He hopes to spare his students from facing the weight issues that have plagued him since childhood, and from the dire consequences which may result.

“If this is preventable and we can do something about it, it’s our obligation to do so,” he said.

Health Report Card for Schools

To determine how well your school promotes wellness, here are some questions to ask:

  1. How much physical education time is allotted?
  2. Is the physical education instructor certified?
  3. Are children actively engaged during physical education and recess?
  4. Does the school offer after-school activities or team sports?
  5. Do health lessons address nutrition and physical activity?
  6. What is the content of school lunches, and who determines this?
  7. Are fresh fruits and vegetables offered daily?
  8. Does the school have a policy on desserts and snacks?
  9. Is there a vending machine on campus? What does it offer?

Strasser – I Wanna New Hug

Back in the primitive days of male hugging, my dad was what trend watchers might call “an early adapter.” When few of the other Little

League dads hugged their sons, my dad clutched my older brother any chance he got, Mr. Focker-like, at the drop of a bat.

My brother appeared to hate the whole experience, which didn’t deter my dad at all. He didn’t get hugs from his dad, and his son was getting hugs, like it or not.

Now, it seems the rest of the world is catching up. For the American male, it’s never been cooler to show affection toward other guys. Or, in the great words of sleazy agent Ari Gold on HBO’s “Entourage,” to “hug it out.”

You might think Jews, like the fictional Ari, have long been more comfortable with warmth and physical affection between guys, but I posit that even for ethnic groups considered on the cuddly side of things, acceptable male hugging is only now coming into vogue.

Once, it was reserved for guys who scored a last-second leaning fade-away jumper or pitched a no-hitter. If you wanted a bunch of guys hugging you, you had better be in the end zone spiking a pigskin. Aside from sports achievement hugs, a son might get an embrace from his dad, but only on special occasions — weddings, graduations, funerals, before or after a stint in the military. It would be a constrained, starchy sort of hug, its awkwardness exceeded only by its brevity.

That was before hugging became the new handshaking, on screen and off.

Today, you can not only watch the macho, Queens-bred guys from “Entourage” hugging and back-slapping their way through Hollywood while easily retaining their masculinity, you can also witness the man who may have single-handedly revolutionized the world of straight, male affection: Vince Vaughn. He’s white, he’s white bread, he’s all-American and if he’s coming your way, look out.

Sure, he was chummy and demonstrative with his male buddies in “Swingers” and “Old School,” but in his current hit, “Wedding Crashers,” the 6-foot-5 actor doles out more bear hugs than an addiction counselor on chip day. In this romantic comedy, the most effecting and loving relationship is between Vaughn and his best friend, played by Owen Wilson. Vaughn not only frequently hugs Wilson, but also kisses an elderly gentleman right on the lips. There is nothing even remotely sexual or uncomfortable about this kiss; it is just one man’s way of expressing his joie without even a fleeting concern about whether or not you think he’s straight.

Seeing a man hug another man makes me feel fuzzy inside in a way I can’t explain. It conveys a Vaughn-like self-confidence and swagger. Maybe on some deeper level, it suggests that the males in my pack are at peace and won’t start brawling over resources. I don’t know. Who am I, Margaret Mead? I just think it’s sweet.

There are still limitations to public displays of male affection, subtle rules that must be obeyed, styles of embrace that are acceptable. When I polled my male friends, who likely comprise the first generation of true huggers, I learned some specifics.

There’s the “‘Sopranos’ hug.” This is an embrace that includes two to three burly back slaps (given with enough force to dislodge food from a person’s gullet) followed by a double shoulder squeeze and the simultaneous uttering of an affection-neutralizing epithet. I asked for a demonstration of the “Sopranos hug” and found the whole thing unpleasant. My friend Ted’s handprint still stings on my back, but I got the idea. You throw in a little muscle with your affection, and badda bing, everything is OK.

This leads me to the less painful “high-five hug,” which as you would imagine, begins with a sporty, introductory high-five, and folds into an upper arm pat or in some cases a full embrace. The inclusion of the high-five negates any feminizing effect of physical affection.

The most common male hug seems to be more of a handshake/hug hybrid. You reach out for a handshake, await some non-verbal signal that more is welcome, and let the momentum of your hand pull you into a one-armed embrace.

While hugs are quickly becoming standard, they are not for strangers or acquaintances. Hugs between men are earned, and in many cases signal an upgrade in the friendship.

As women, we’re expected to hug. If you are female and we’ve met before, I’m pretty much going to have to touch you in some way to convey that I like you, or that I’m not a cold, unfeeling snob. It’s a given, which is what makes male on male affection even more irresistible. Guys don’t have to hug each other. In doing so, they risk looking foolish. Still, the male hug’s time has come, and there’s an embrace for every guy’s comfort level — from the handshake hug to the full Focker.

Teresa Strasser in an Emmy Award- and Los Angeles Press Club-winning writer. She’s on the web at

A Towering Achievement

At a willowy 5-foot-10 1/2, Jennifer Rosen ticks off the quandaries of growing up supertall, female and Jewish: At her Miami Beach religious school she scraped her knees on the desk, which practically stuck to her backside when she stood up. At her Conservative bat mitzvah, she danced with boys who had to lean their heads on her chest. While reciting her Haftorah, she even towered over the rabbi: "He was wearing a bad toupee, and I was looking down on it," said Rosen, now in her 20s.

Her height felt all the freakier because Jews are generally more vertically challenged than, say, Swedes.

Rosen, who now wears high heels, eventually embraced her stature. It’s a journey she recounts in her debut monologue, "Tall Girl," a visiting production at The Groundlings Theatre, directed by Groundlings founder Gary Austin. The tall tale is a more G-rated version of the kind of comic monologue, celebrating the liberated self, epitomized by shows such as Margaret Cho’s "I’m the One That I Want."

In the highly physical piece, Rosen plays herself and a variety of characters, such as classmates who called her Big Bird and Daddy Long Legs. Throughout her childhood, she said, "There were stares and people pointing at me and thinking I was older. I felt extremely awkward, unsure of what to do with my limbs."

Her mother shlepped her to endocrinologists and also to acting class, which helped draw the painfully shy teenager out of her shell. After graduating from Stanford, she studied at Manhattan’s Circle in the Square theater school and with Austin, who taught her to use her long limbs to comic advantage.

"Initially, Jennifer was more self-conscious," recalled the director, who has also coached stars such as Helen Hunt. But as he helped her develop "Tall Girl," she "became much more committed to using her whole body, not just while playing herself but in the extreme character work."

These days, the poised Rosen still stands out at Jewish singles events such as Friday Night Live, where she’s taller than many of the guys. "But that no longer bothers me," she said.

"Tall Girl" runs Tuesdays through March 30. $15. 7307 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 934-4747.

Head Trip

Jim Wayne has cut my hair for more than 20 years. He created first the wedge look and now the clipped curly style of my professional photos. He cut my hair after my husband’s funeral and let my hair grow long when I began dating. He set my daughter’s French twist for her bat mitzvah and did a blunt cut for her high school senior prom. Once, in a fit of creativity, he chopped my locks to within an inch and dyed what was left purple. Curly or wavy, tinted or natural, we’ve been through it all. But though Jim and I go back a long way, nothing prepared either of us for the day last week when he took an electric shaver and buzzed me bald.

"You have a great-shaped head," he said. "You’ll be fine."

His voice was a low growl, the way men sound when they are swallowing tears. The timbre reminded me of how my surgeon, C. Gordon Frank, sounded when he was getting ready to take out part of my lung.

"You’re tough," Frank told me. "You’ll be fine."

Jim sat me in Nicole’s manicurist corner with the curtains drawn. We gossiped about politics, culture and everyone we all know. As I heard the sound of the shaver, I held on tight and reached for a prayer.

"Thank you, God, for allowing me to reach this season."

I felt insane. Why was I saying "Shehecheyanu," the prayer of survival, in the midst of chemotherapy? First, I couldn’t think of anything else. But also because it was the right thing to do.

I had been losing my hair all week, beginning day 12 after chemo. My parents, visiting for Passover, were thrilled to see me looking normal and healthy, and I was happy to comply. Cancer is a disease as much about appearance as reality. We won’t know how the tumor cells are doing until the next CT scan. But we all know that a woman with her own curly hair is doing well.

By the end of their stay, I was leaking hair all over my pillow. I wore my wig for my folks, so they wouldn’t go into shock the next time.

"You look cute," my father said. "You’ll do fine."

But as Jim’s razor made its way up and down my scalp, I felt quite other than fine. I felt militantly grateful. And powerfully confused. Grateful to science for getting me to Taxol, the chemotherapy of choice for lung cancer.

But confused: The whole world would look at me, a bald woman with a fringe of black hair, and say "Oh my God, Marlene has cancer." I wanted them to say, "Oh, thank God, Marlene’s in treatment for her cancer." If I weren’t in chemo, then surely I would keep my hair and everyone might be relieved. And just as surely, I would die.

Coincidentally, I had forgotten to bring my wig to Jim’s. I left his Beverly Hills salon and drove immediately to a feminist seder at Kehillat Israel. I walked into the synagogue social hall, late and tall. Immediately there were 150 people eyeing my new naked do. I felt strong and sexy, like in the ’60s when I went out without a bra. And just as saggy when the night was through.

The next day I wore my wig. It is blonde, elegant and organized in a City Councilwoman Laura Chick way, which my curly hair has never been. There was nothing to explain. No politics of uplift. No one asked how I was, because with a wig, I look fine.

Here is my dilemma: I can present myself to the world bald, brave and true — and scare people away. Or I can wear the wig, attractive and false, and get the comfort from others that I need to survive.

Judaism has two words for female beauty, reflecting the public and private spheres of life: they are yofi and chen.

Yofi is conventional, physical beauty, the kind that attracts men and women to each other at the currently popular Speed Dating extravaganzas. Would I wear my baseball cap or go bald to a Speed Dating session? Probably not. Would I wear the turquoise turban that makes me look like my Aunt Anna? Only on the 10th date, if then.

Chen is the more difficult, intimate beauty. It means finding favor. Chen is inner light, truthful self-acceptance, and it is rare indeed.

Maybe the answer for the wig vs. bald conundrum is that there are no set answers. Like cancer, I deal with it one day at a time, one situation on its own terms.

One might hope that my closest friends would find my bare skull attractive. They saw me through my surgery. They sit with me in my chemo. They understand my doctors. They say "Shehecheyanu" with each victory. They know the chen in me.

But if we are going to the theater, they’d probably say, "Yofi. Live a little. Wear the wig."