A man of humility and strength

bataan-memorial-death-march-marathonIn 2011, somewhere on a remote military base in southern New Mexico, I was 500 yards away from checking an important item off of my bucket list. But before I could pat myself on the back, I had to finish puking.

I was in the homestretch of the Bataan Memorial Death March Marathon. The grueling event is aptly described as “26 miles of high desert, 26 miles of pure perseverance.”

It honors American and Filipino service members who defended the Philippine Islands during World War II. Approximately 75,000 of these troops were surrendered to invading Japanese forces in 1942. The captured troops were force-marched 65 miles, under harsh conditions, to Japanese prison camps. Thousands died along the route, which became known as the Bataan Death March.

Sgt. Major John Mims and his second wife, Nena.

John Mims experienced the Bataan Death March firsthand. On the day before we participated in the Memorial version, my Dad and I met Mims.

He addressed a standing room crowd on the military base. Mims spoke softly. Sometimes he lost his train of thought. When it happened, he poked fun at himself. He was nearly 90 years old.

In 1938, Mims was too young to join the Army. But he was a teenager living on his own – both parents were dead – and he was hungry. So, he fudged his age on his recruitment papers.

At first, for young soldiers like Mims, assignment to the Philippines must have felt like a tropical vacation. There was plenty of food, plenty of sunshine and plenty of friendly girls. Things changed drastically when the Japanese invaded.

First time meeting Mr. Mims.

The prisoners’ quarters were numbered. Those who were healthy enough to work lived in hut #1. When health started to wane, prisoners were moved to huts #2 and #3. The men were moved to hut #4 to die.

Mims suffered a broken jaw, a broken back and a broken neck during captivity. Eventually, he found himself in hut #4. He was basically a dead man.

Except he survived. Mims lived to tell his story, over and over, so that those who died would be remembered.

My brother and Dad marching.

My Dad and I will participate in the Bataan Memorial Death March again in 2017. Mims won’t be there. He died recently at 94.

Judging from Facebook comments following his death, his plan worked. A humble man with great courage told his story, so that others would not be forgotten. They are remembered, and so is Mims.

Innuendo and grit

My first time teaching exercise class to seniors, one of my female students announced, “I would do better if there were ass slaps involved.”

Despite lack of training in risqué scenarios, I was able to keep the class on track. Everyone kept their hands to themselves.

img_1493Most of the seniors seem to like me. People know me as “the exercise guy,” or occasionally “the dancing man.” Nonetheless, admiration has its limits. I had to bump the start of class from 11:00 AM to 1:00 PM, to avoid conflicting with The Price is Right.

My class shares a community room with other seniors who are eating their lunch, using the computers or watching TV. So, I arrive early to stake out a spot.

img_1496-2I bring a rolling tub full of exercise equipment and a Bluetooth speaker. I rotate a few different playlists. Kool & the Gang, ABBA and The Commodores are staples of each mix.

As I lead warm-up aerobics to a low-tempo version of “Brick House,” they mirror my movements from an upright or seated position. Each exercise has different versions. For example, a tricep extension exercise has two different base positions – standing or seated – plus several more variations depending on the student’s range of pain-free motion.

The average age of my students is 68. However, this group has endured surgeries and ailments that exceed their biological age. There are walkers, canes, artificial hips, fused necks and metal rods in legs.

And…there’s optimism. In a makeshift exercise room with fake flowers, there’s a sense of determination. There’s no whining or self-pity. The group possesses a quiet, persistent strength. So when a student tells me that her range of movement is improved or her energy level is higher because of my class, that’s an amazing feeling.

img_1492The favorite part of class for most students is the exercise ball. It’s a small inflatable that fits in one hand. We imitate familiar movements like dribbling, passing, shooting and bowling — without ever letting go of the ball. I think the ball activities inspire childhood memories.

I conclude each class by commending each student for their commitment to fitness. And I thank them, sincerely, for being there.

Life, lessons and clipart

flyerOne thing you don’t learn while becoming a certified senior fitness instructor: How to choose proper clip art.

The first flyer that I created to promote my senior exercise class was a failure. I used a stock image of smiling, happy, silver-haired men and women of all races. I posted my flyer on bulletin boards at both of the senior apartments where I planned to teach.

The stock photo was indistinguishable from the half-dozen other flyers promoting the Avon lady, life insurance and healthcare providers. In one building, my flyers kept disappearing from the elevator. Very mysterious.

Exactly zero seniors attended my first exercise class.

I worked in the corporate world. I understand that success takes time and patience. But when you can’t even entice one senior citizen – in a building full of them – to show up in the community room for a FREE exercise class? Man, that’s a low feeling.

The Powers of Ten

flyer2Fortunately, there are two good books on this topic. Now, neither one of these books is, per se, dedicated to increasing BIS (Butts in Seats) at your senior exercise class. But I gleaned this important wisdom from both authors: If you want to be successful in your field, you gotta work very hard.

According to Malcolm Gladwell’s famous book, Outliers, it takes 10,000 hours of work to become elite in one’s professional field. That’s about 27 years. In The 10X Rule, Grant Cardone encourages readers to amplify their efforts tenfold to achieve true success.

Also, I found this pithy advice in chapter 6 of Cardone’s book to be oddly motivating: “Don’t Be a Little B*tch.”

Bring it on

I took my flyer game up a notch. Screw the boring stock images. I replaced them with bold, colorful clipart. Now, anyone walking past the message board was sure to notice the bright yellow smiley face, hammering out bicep curls while warding off sweat with his sporty red headband. Take that, Avon lady.

I posted my flyers on every floor. I put one in the laundry room, at eye level above the washing machines. I stuck a few in the magazine rack next to the TV in the common room. I even developed a theory on why my flyers were disappearing from the elevators: I suspected a rouge pushpin thief. My counterplan: Scotch tape.

Making gains

It’s been just over a month since I started teaching. A small, dedicated group of regulars attends each class. Several students use a cane or a walker. Many are coping with medical and physical limitations. No one whines.

I’ve seen improvements in some students’ strength and mobility over the past month. It’s an incredibly rewarding feeling. Sometimes a student will approach me and ask for help with a specific exercise or activity. Whenever that happens, I’m motivated to increase my own knowledge so I can be as helpful as possible.

So far, the attendees are all women. A few men have expressed interest; sometimes they stop by to chat or to check out the ladies.

With 2017 fast approaching, I’m planning a “New Year’s Resolution” marketing campaign to boost class enrollment among men and women. Now, I just need to find some really colorful clipart.

Ol’ Blue Eyes still has it at 101; Drew Carey is pretty nice, too

I like to mix in some trivia questions while I teach fitness class to seniors. Today would have been Frank Sinatra’s 101st birthday. That was one of my trivia questions today. Then, I played “My Way” on Spotify. The song brought one of the ladies in class to tears. There will never be another Frank.

Seattle’s pro soccer team, the Sounders, won a championship this weekend. Trivia question #2: Name the Sounders minority owner who’s also a comedian and host of The Price is Right. The 1:00 PM class watches Price is Right together in the TV room, so they nailed Drew Carey as the answer (“He’s so nice.”) The 2:30 PM class whiffed on this question. Like me, the 2:30 group is sentimental for Bob Barker.

I provide strength and balance training to a group of about eight seniors. This group is no joke. They’re coping with serious medical conditions and traumatic surgeries. One lady does bicep curls with her one good arm. Another does aerobics with a metal rod in her leg. And so on.

There’s no complaining in this group. Just a straightforward reciting of medical conditions – fused neck, multiple sclerosis, cancer, etc. – so that we can appropriately modify the exercises.

Today a student told me that she’s finally able to wash her hair without pain, thanks to the exercise regimen she follows during our class. That made me very happy.

She missed the third trivia question of the day (What performer, born on this day, sang “Do You Know the Way to San Jose”?). But that’s just fine. There’s nothing trivial about the work that she – and this entire group of seniors – puts in during every class. I’m truly inspired by them. And that’s my final answer.