Getting in shape is good at any age

Formerly sedentary, Gil Rudolph joined a healthclub at 71 and caught fitness fever

Personal training

Health & Fitness

November 23, 2003|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,SUN STAFF

One in an occasional series about the fitness habits of Marylanders.

The future would likely be spent in a wheelchair.

That, in a nutshell, explains Gil Rudolph's late-life conversion from rubber-legged, high-blood-pressured, dangerously out-of-shape widower to a hale-and-healthy, 76-year-old, self-confessed "gym rat."

Shortly after his wife, Betty, died in 1999, Rudolph's doctor urged him to get physically fit or else risk losing his ability to walk. He had been a career traveling salesman. Too many years of imprudent eating, drinking and lounge-around-the-house inactivity had taken its toll. Rudolph was on heart and diabetes medication. He had trouble getting up from the dinner table. It was a chore trying to wash his feet in the shower.

"I was bed-pan material," declares Rudolph, who lives in Kirkwood House, a senior citizen complex in North Baltimore.

But joining a gym at age 71 seemed as daunting a task as training to become an astronaut. A friend finally made an appointment for Rudolph to visit a Baltimore health club. He took out a membership ... and, feeling self-conscious about his spindly legs, wore a full-length sweatsuit to his first workout.

Rudolph quickly came under the wing of trainer Jeff Urban, who realized he had a special client on his hands. No matter how far most people let themselves go, they can at least recall what it's like to be in condition or have had some passing acquaintance with exercise. Rudolph was a blank slate.

"With Gil, it's been a total learning experience," says Urban. "It's like teaching an infant to walk. He's so receptive to everything. He's really unique in that sense."

When Urban changed jobs and became regional fitness director for Gold's Gym, Rudolph followed him to the chain's Towson facility. He works out on his own every Friday, but has a private, one-hour session with Urban Monday and Wednesday afternoons.

Gil Rudolph isn't looking to win any Gray Panther bodybuilding contests. Urban designed a basic fitness program for him that emphasizes major muscle groups and core strength, usually focusing on legs one day, upper body the next. About a year and a half ago they added stretching to the mix.

In August 2001 Rudolph suffered a mild stroke. He spent a month recuperating at Good Samaritan Hospital. The fact that he'd already gotten himself in shape hastened his recovery. Indeed, Randolph felt his physical therapist was babying him too much and asked to be put on the rehab fast track: "They doubled me up to four hours a day, seven days a week."

Other than slightly impaired balance (for which he sometimes relies on a cane), Rudolph bounced back completely from the stroke. He is 5 feet 11 and holding steady at 180 pounds, but his body fat has dropped from 20 to 15 percent and he's stronger top to bottom. He can leg press 225 pounds 15 times; in the beginning he struggled with 45 pounds. He does 28 squats in a minute. Hamstring flexibility has increased from 45 degrees to almost 90.

Like an illiterate man who belatedly learns the joy of reading, Rudolph is amazed by this "new world" he discovered: fancy weight machines, born-again muscles, deeper sleeps, more energy ... athlete's foot.

It's a profound change for someone who hadn't broken a sweat since high school, since before the Korean War.

"I want everybody else to have for themselves what I do now," he crows. "It's so damn good."

Rudolph feels so spry that he celebrated his birthday last May by going sky diving, free-falling about 10,000 feet at 120-plus miles an hour. A photo of him soaring like an eagle hangs on the wall of Gold's Gym. Jeff Urban wants to take him white-water rafting next year when he turns 77.

As they play pitch and catch with a small medicine ball during a workout, Urban notes that he likes this particular exercise because it improves both strength and coordination.

"This is something that I like to do with the older crowd," Urban says between ball tosses.

"How about senior crowd?" says Randolph. "I don't like that word `older.'"

Training Tips

Senior citizen Gil Rudolph offers three tips for staying in shape.

1. Find an exercise you like. Rudolph tried jogging around a track and got bored after one day. The idea of joining a walking group wasn't appealing. But things clicked for him at the health club.

2. Get motivated by the bigger-picture goal. Quality of life is at stake here, not six-pack abs. For example, Rudolph fell several times during his weaker days. No more. It's comforting, he says, "for an old man to know that if he falls he can get up."

3. Make fitness part of your routine even at home. Rudolph grabs hold of the bedpost each morning and does 15 or 20 squats to loosen up. He also does several sets of "chair squats" during the day to keep his legs strong.

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