Keeping himself shipshape

Navy vet's course: exercise for life

Health & Fitness

Personal Training

March 07, 2004|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,Sun Staff

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

Bill Nissen, the highest-ranking enlisted man at the Naval Academy, thought about cashing out of the service in 1998 and collecting his 25-year pension.

The master chief thought about it seriously enough to take a pre-retirement physical, whereupon he learned there really wasn't much point in retiring -- because he was already dead.

At least Nissen was a goner according to the base hospital's EKG machine: It couldn't get a reading on him. Turns out, however, he was in such good shape his resting pulse rate was only about 60 -- too low to record a reliable EKG. He had to elevate his heart rate by doing leg kicks.

Now 49, Nissen can still bang out 80 pushups and has no intention of slacking off when he finally does retire. "This is a lifestyle," he explains. "It has nothing to do with the Navy."

Originally it had everything to do with the Navy.

Raised in Missouri, Nissen enlisted in 1974. Although he'd played high school baseball, he was 5-foot-10, 225 pounds and deserved his nickname, "Lump." Apparently the kid never struck out at the dinner table.

"I ate more in a day than I eat now in a week," he says.

During Navy basic training he shed 40 pounds of flab. But a year later, while stationed in Japan, Nissen noticed the weight creeping back on, so he started running sprints on a basketball court every day. His routine gradually evolved into a six-day-a-week commitment to weight lifting and aerobic activity.

Nissen was once a power-hitting outfielder on the All-Navy softball team, logging as many as 200 games a year before hanging up his spikes at age 42. He also played flag football. Those sports took a toll on his knees (two operations, plus arthroscopic surgery coming soon) so nowadays he mostly gets his off-duty juices flowing on the treadmill and stationary bike.

In addition to 90-minute solo gym workouts, he tries to squeeze in one or two sessions a week with his wife, Nilda. They each have grown children from a previous marriage, plus Nilda's 15-year-old daughter, Krysta, lives with them. Nilda says her husband has as much energy as any of the kids. Maybe more. She expects he'll keep exercising until he stops breathing.

"I told him, 'I think you're going to be just like Jack La Lanne,' " says Nilda. "He never slows down. ... We went to his 30-year high school reunion and some of his classmates didn't recognize him. They said, 'Is that you, Lump? Look at your chest and your arms!' "

The secret isn't yoga or Pilates or balance boards. Nissen sticks to what he considers a "mainstream" fitness program, although one with a few improvisational wrinkles. For example, while posted in the Philippines during the late 1970s, Nissen developed the habit of jogging in place inside a sauna to super-burn calories.

Although most doctors would say he is crazy, Nissen still regularly takes sadistic saunas, counting out precisely 3,000 foot falls as sweat puddles form on the floor. "I can drop 4 pounds of water weight in 20 minutes," he says, noting he usually cools down afterward by doing 30 minutes on a recumbent bike.

He keeps close watch on his weight, steering a steady course at 205 pounds. He holds that line in part by drinking gin and (diet) tonics, and by shunning dessert. It has been "years" since he was seduced by a piece of pie or chocolate.

"You won't see any junk food in our freezer or our house," says Nilda.

Most of Nissen's career has been spent on submarines, but in August 2002 he dry-docked himself by accepting the master chief post for the brigade of midshipmen in Annapolis. He's in charge of 30 "senior enlisted leaders," all seasoned military hands who help ride herd on 4,100 "mids" -- one leader assigned to each brigade.

It was Nissen's idea to have those senior leaders join him for a group workout every Tuesday and Thursday morning. They meet on the basketball court inside Macdonough Hall or on the outdoor track for 45 minutes of communal pain. The exercise menu varies: One day it's core-strengthening calisthenics; another day the focus might be on quads and calves or circuit training.

"This is one of the ways they choose to stay in shape," says Nissen, finessing the fact that senior-leadership attendance on Tuesdays and Thursdays is all but mandatory. "They're also setting an example for the mids."

Everyone in the Navy is required to pass a basic fitness test twice a year. But Nissen insists he hits the gym to keep feeling good. Middle age is its own motivating force.

"If I take two days in a row off," he says, "my back starts hurting real bad."

Training tips

"You have to make a commitment that your fitness routine, whatever it is, is a way of life," says Bill Nissen, master chief at the Naval Academy in Annapolis.

* Traveling on the job is no excuse: "In hotel rooms, I'll do pushups, sit-ups and ab work."

* Dumbbells aren't for dummies: Nissen prefers them to heavier, two-arm barbells, which restrict your natural range of motion and can put undue stress on shoulder muscles.

* Mix things up: "Vary the different routines and exercises," he says, "so boredom doesn't become part of the equation."

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