• This Is Why

    Community Service

    A PT gets his neighbors moving.

    • By Chaim Backman, PT
    • March 2010

    Podcast: Listen to 'This Is Why' 

    I graduated in 1996 from the physical therapist (PT) education program at Hunter College in New York City. Two years later I opened a private practice in my home community, the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. The area is know as "the headquarters of Chabad-Lubavitch," a Hasidic movement in Orthodox Judaism to which my wife and I and our four children belong.

    Once my practice was established, I had time to sit down and analyze my patients and the conditions that had brought them to me. I came to realize that, more and more, my recurrent message to them was, "You need to start living a healthier lifestyle. You need to start exercising."

    More often than not, my patients would respond, "I don't have the time." Sometimes they'd ask, "Do you?"

    The fact was, I'd been very physically active in my teens and even into my 20s, swimming and running regularly, but like a lot of people I'd grown more and more sedentary as the demands of school, family, and career took over my life. My patients' reminder that I wasn't taking the time to exercise, combined with the example my wife was setting by running up to 5 miles a day on the treadmill, eventually motivated me to start running again.

    It long had been a dream of mine to someday run a marathon, so when I turned 39 I decided the time had come. I signed up for the nearby Yonkers Marathon and started training. I successfully completed it, and then I was hooked. I ran another marathon the following year. Later I completed my first triathlon.

    Training had become part of my life, and I began encouraging my friends and patients to join me. I took a course and became a USA Triathlon-certified triathlon coach. Before long I was giving classes in Brooklyn's Prospect Park for people who'd never run before. Word quickly got around. People started coming up to me to say they wanted to join my class. I was urged to start exercise programs for schoolchildren. People thanked me for finally getting this relative or that friend off of his or her "fat tuchus" (that's Yiddish for "backside"). The rabbi even made reference in synagogue one Saturday to the health craze that was under way in Crown Heights.

    A few months later, on a drizzly, overcast afternoon, a friend and I went to the park for a run. The place seemed almost deserted at first, but before long we started meeting up with small groups of runners-first one, then another. They all were people from the neighborhood who I'd encouraged to start running.

    Finally my friend looked at me and said "Look what you've done. You've really started a revolution here! The park is full of your students and friends-people who are running because of you."

    I got to thinking about that. The whole reason I'd become a PT was to live the lesson I'd learned in Yeshiva: that we all should strive to make positive change in the world, one person at a time. As I ran through Prospect Park that day, watching my friends and neighbors literally taking the steps necessary to improve their health, it hit me that the fruits of my career choice were right before my eyes.

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