Who says aging doesn’t have its perks – like a personal fitness coach who comes right to your home! But Tom Willa doesn’t take age as an excuse for not being fit (in the nicest way possible, of course!). Please enjoy this excerpted interview from the Radiantly You! radio show and be sure to get your personal Exercise and Activity Survey from Tom by sending him an email! If you want to listen to or download the show podcast, just follow this link.
Susie: I’d like everyone to meet Tom Willa. Tom is a certified personal trainer. He helps people over 40 figure out ways and gives them strategies to counter the effects of aging, and Tom has a very interesting background. He comes into the fitness industry from a very unique perspective. He was Command Fitness Leader and Limited Duty Coordinator for the US Navy. And after leaving the Navy, age and lifestyle caught up with him and he decided to make some changes, which ended up taking him down the path of becoming a fitness trainer. And since then, Tom has been absolutely passionate about helping others achieve their optimal fitness, no matter their age. His approach provides a safe, unique, and proactive path to health in your physical body. So thank you for being here.
Tom: Thank you, Susie, for having me this afternoon, and it really was a pathway to fitness and lifestyle changes for me. When I was in my mid-fifties, after I retired from the Navy, I started to experience that kind of negative relationship with my health. I got those phone calls from the doctor that you didn’t want to hear, that he was gonna increase things and things were not going well. So I kind of re-evaluated everything I knew about fitness, and I decided that there’s a relationship to the decades that we spend on the planet, and what we’re able to do. So I’ve been able to embrace that and celebrate health now and try and share that with others. That’s my passion.
Susie: Well I have to admit, I’m a little bit curious about what you did in the Navy as a command fitness leader.
Tom: As a command fitness leader, one of the biggest, I guess, challenges was that some people that weren’t able to physically perform for various emotional and other reasons. So once they started to not be able to perform their testing and satisfactorily, I would work with them on a daily basis in trying to get them to the point where the Navy would accept them as they are. So we all are what our fitness level is, and it’s a matter of working from that spot on. So most of the time there were 20 or 40 people that I was working with.
Susie: So you actually have a long, long history of coaching people, so this was really a natural path for you to take, even though the way you started doing it happened sort of because your own health wasn’t exactly where you wanted it to be.
Tom: Yeah, some of that military style conditioning and training was not something that really we should necessarily continue as we age, but in trying to take a little bit of that knowledge and power and make it so that people have longevity in their lives.
Susie: I love that as a thought, because when you’re younger, you’re signing up for classes like Boot Camp, right. All of these really intense kind of exercise classes and you reach a certain level of fitness. So once you are 40 or 50, and for some people it might be even younger if they have a sedentary lifestyle, your body isn’t really wanting to cooperate with Boot Camp. Are you able to still maintain that really excellent level of fitness?
Tom: You sure are, Susie. And it’s just a matter of really embracing some of the guidelines for even just like for knowing where the minimal kind of effort will actually start to pay off for you, or actually keep you from degenerating. And it’s a really pretty amazing that in just a short amount of time, say about 22 minutes or so, for six days a week, so that’s not that long. So really short for just moderate exercise.
Susie: Oh, that sounds really doable.
Tom: Yeah, and it’s really a matter of knowing that you don’t really have to really necessarily pound yourself into submission in order to have fitness. You can have consistency and achieve dramatic results.
Susie: And that is one of the things that you tend to say a lot right, is “consistency is key.”
Tom: That’s one of my favorite sayings to people. And I’ve had clients that work as little as 12 or 15 minutes. I work with some clients online doing Skype, and we’ll get to do a 15-minute session and we actually make so much progress in that first month that it’s just amazing. Because like you said, some of them are a little bit younger, and they have that sedentary lifestyle and just getting them consistently five or six days a week.
Susie: And I love that you provide an alternative to the gym for people. So you either come to people’s homes or you also work with people on Skype. I think this really opens up a lot of people who are not “gym rats.”
Tom: That’s true and there are a lot of people that either for one or another reason – maybe they’re self-conscious about going to the gym, or maybe it’s just a matter it’s ten minutes to the gym and ten minutes back – don’t want to go to the gym. Well, that’s almost the exercise time that you need to perform. So by the time you’re there, you’re an hour, and so many people in our busy lifestyles just don’t seem to have the time.
Susie: What are some of the top challenges that you see in working with people who are say, over 50?
Tom: Okay, well for people that are over 50, there are a couple different components of fitness that I think that we all kind of know about. And that would be the cardio and the muscular strength. And we all kind of embrace those and we know that we have to perform some of those and that muscles start to deteriorate and get smaller. Our metabolic system starts to slow down a little bit. So there are those kind of elements, but the things that we don’t necessarily think of as component of fitness are things like balance, agility and power. There are things that actually we can focus a little bit on and have fun with and actually increase our muscular strength, and our skeleton strength because our bone density starts to decrease, our joints, they’re not as lubricated as they used to be when we were in our 20s and our teens.
Susie: So it’s a very holistic approach to fitness. It’s not just doing jumping jacks, or push-ups, or weights.
Tom: Yeah. The jumping jacks and the push-ups and weights, are really for a lot of people in their 50s who either maybe are just getting started or maybe they’ve had a lifetime of fitness sort of similar to me but things aren’t working are just when there’s those, they’ll embrace it and then they’ll break down and then they’ll deteriorate. So finding things that are gentle but effective is my whole philosophy.
Susie: And, Tom, one of the things you do with people when you start working with them is an assessment, right?
Susie: So you talk about not needing to push our limits as we age. Are there parts of us that do become more fragile that we need to watch out for?
Tom: Well, I think our knees and our hip areas, are one of those areas because we’ve sat a lot in lifetimes and just the fact that we’ve been up and down and on our knees, so there’s a lot of things, little tips, and suggestions even just warming up your knees before you decide you’re gonna stand up. Giving them a good rub on each side and actually making, using your hands sort of as a brace. So for people that are having trouble getting out of the chairs, there’s little tips and things like that so we build strength around some of those muscles that do it, but also there’s that, let’s have a little bit of caution and move wisely as we go through the world.
Susie: And aside from just the physical body type of benefits to staying fit, there’s also the brain-link.
Tom: Oh yeah. There’s the brain-link, and this is the one of the most interesting parts to me is that some of that resistance training and that event kind of things that maybe we do some light weights and stuff. Every time you do an action, your spatial conceptions of where things are is enhanced. So doing a few light dumbell overheads might help you find that jar of soup that you push in the back.
Susie: And I also noticed that you teach aerobics at the Renton Senior Center; how is that different teaching aerobics to an older class as opposed to younger?
Tom: Well, there’s really a diverse population of people that come in there, and for them we do a low to moderate impact kind of aerobics and so we are not gonna jump up and down, and leap both our feet, and push ourselves that way. But it’s amazing to me that for somebody in their 60s and even into their 70s, how much they can actually really push my limits, but there are others of them that are in there just picking up their feet and doing our step aerobics, which are grounded. And they get a benefit from it too. So it’s a very, very beneficial thing, and it’s calming for them, and we have fun.
Susie: We’re gonna take a quick break but when we come back I would love to talk to you about what are some of the traits that you notice in people who are older, and even getting into their 60s and 70s? What are some of the traits of the people who actually are able to maintain their fitness? So we’ll talk about that when we come back. You’re listening to Radiantly You with Susie Hindle Kher. Please, stay with us.
I want to tell people how they can reach out to you. So on Facebook, you can find Tom at, Start Aging Strong. On the internet at www.agingstrong.net, and you can email him for a consultation, whether you are in the Seattle area or you live somewhere else, Tom also does Skype work. So what are some of the traits that you notice in people who maintain their fitness and even their health into years where other people in their 50s are very ill.
Tom: Well, Susie one of the traits is hydration. As we age, our tendons and things, our muscles really do start to dry out. And I celebrate a healthy holiday for Halloween where we reduce sugar. We cut back on our sugars and we know what we’re eating. So these people like to move. They understand that even getting out and walking down to the store, walking around, some of them, if they can’t go to class, they’re out on the pathways walking. They know there’s benefits to staying in motion.
Susie: So they’re continuing their movement and they’re trying not to be sedentary.
Tom: That’s true.
Susie: So tell us a bit about how you start an assessment. What do you do with people?
Susie: Susie, well one of the things I do is a survey and activity assessment. But just to give you kind of an example of how we might proceed if you wanted to inquire into your cardiovascular health, I have a real simple kind of at-home test that we can do. We don’t have a lot of fancy machines because we’re mobile and we’re in home. You just sit down (if you have high blood pressure this isn’t the test for you – any time you start some sort of physical activity or program you should always consult with your doctor to make sure that you can do this.) So you relax and take a few deep breaths and then you take the deepest breath you can and you see how long you can hold it and you time yourself. For somebody who has a pretty good oxygen exchange rate, somewhere between 45 seconds to a minute is really a healthy rate for most people. We all have to process oxygen, that’s how we get our energy. And if you’re down in the 30s or something like that, that’s okay too because that just means, that gives me an idea of what cardiovascular stresses we can start with.
There are a couple other methods. The heart rate method where you subtract your age from a number or where you include your resting heart rate method. So the Karvonen method, that’s another method. It’s where you have a resting heart rate. And that just is added in to the equation of your age and what percentage actually you might want to achieve in terms of your intensity, so it deals with your pulse rate.
So there’s so many different ways. And, Susie, cardio, like I said in the beginning, and muscular activity are so important. But some of the other elements that I think people kind of put to the side that maybe we’ll say they forget about is there’s a whole nother skill level that, as we age, the coordination, our ability to multitask or to grab one thing, grab the pen and pick up the phone at the same time, and rub your head and do those kind of things. They’re pretty important. And then balance is one of those things that definitely deteriorates. And that’s the other thing about these people that are really active. They know that there’s contributing factor to the balance. That medications, that their inner ear is changing. That they need to get their eyes checked because that’s a big part of the vision too. So they are willing to actually work on that skill. They do a little bit of reflex reaction training. So those muscles when you do have to use them, if you find yourself in the garden starting to stumble, you have the strength to put your foot out and put it to the side. It’s pretty exciting knowing these people and experiencing and helping at their age.
Susie: So what would you say to somebody who maybe isn’t already out there and well-versed and knowledgeable about their body as they’re aging. Somebody who’s thinking, “Well, I’m at this fitness level at this age and it’s all downhill from here as you get older.” Is it possible even at an older age to say, “in 10 years you could be even more fit than now?”
Tom: That’s so true. There’s a couple key phrases if you want to do it when you’re 80, do it when you’re 50. But really as somebody pointed out to me, if you want to do it when you’re 80, do it when you’re 79 1/2. So, it’s never too late if your birthday’s tomorrow.
Susie: It’s never too late, I like that.
Tom: So it’s always good. Because it’s amazing what will happen if you have been in a sedentary how far you can go in a minimal amount of time.
Susie: What would you do for example if somebody was quite sedentary. Perhaps even exercise averse and they just find no joy in exercising.
Tom: Sounds like a lot of my clients when they first start. I do try and make it fun but the first question I have for him is, “Can you stand up out of a chair?” And if you can do one… I had a client we started with three and we eventually after about a month and a half, now he was a little bit younger, got to 18. And that was pretty quick. But there’s little cardio things that you can do and… The other parts of your body, if you cannot, let’s say you really your back and your things, we can do swimming in the chair. You can raise your arms to the sides.
And another one of the things, is to work on our posture. That’s really important because as we open up our lungs our ability to exchange oxygen increases.
Susie: Okay, I need to sit up straight now. The fitness man is in the house, I’ve got to watch my posture. You can definitely breathe better and even in the energy work that I do oxygen is energy, it’s one of the most vital forms of energy that our body takes in. We might compartmentalize posture as part of the physical body, but really it’s all interrelated.
Tom: It is, it really is.
Susie: What are some really interesting stories that you’ve seen in your years of doing this, where you have just seen amazing turnaround or challenges overcome?
Tom: Challenges… I started with a client back in the spring who had been three years in bed for a condition. And this is one of those clients that, like I said, is one or two standing up out of the chair and still has some balance issues because she also had some tendons that got torn when she was younger dancing and things like that.
So, and it’s a matter of doing a combination of strength and conditioning for her legs even while she’s sitting in the chair, doing some quad and extensions things. And actually stretching out what’s left of her tendons and things. They’re all connected, it’s just there’s a lot of scar tissue.
Susie: So how is the progress?
Tom: She’s doing well as a matter of fact some of the people that are evaluating her they’re always like, “You’re doing so well. Why are you using this?” I’m like, “No, we need to keep moving.”
Susie: Right, right.
Tom: Yeah, she’s pretty amazing she’s out and walking. I mean literally it would take her minutes, five or 10 minutes to get up and down the stairs, now if I go to see her she’s like up and… Not that she wants to run up and down them several times, but she moves at a pace that’s similar to mine. So I’m really happy with how she’s progressed. Other clients, some of them will turnaround, I’ll work with him and all of the sudden they’ll be going, “Well, where is the aerobics class?”
Susie: Get them hopping again. That’s nice because once your own physical body isn’t limiting you from enjoying the many, many things that you can do when you get out and about, life kind of reopens up.
Tom: The possibilities are amazing, like the ability to walk around the block is one of those things that I have seen people celebrate. So, it’s been really, really rewarding.
Susie: That’s beautiful. So the ‘hand holding’, coaching type of work that you do with people, how are you adding something that the gym doesn’t add? What are some of the things that you would do so that is a real benefit to them sticking with it or not hurting themselves compared to just hopping it to the gym?
Tom: Well, I always make sure, especially as we age, that we do a nice warm up. And so much of the shorter warm ups are really not conducive to us as we age that lengthening the warm up and for anybody who has kind of any kind of cardio conditioning and stuff and even some of the areas that some of us start to experience a little bit of asthma and things like that. So knowing where we’re going with that is really important. If you have the space of a chair and a little bit of clear space, we can make a work out for you.
Susie: Okay. You are adaptable. It doesn’t take much.
Tom: It doesn’t take a lot of room and it doesn’t take a lot of equipment, sometimes I might share a band or even just an old kick ball with somebody to work on their inner legs and things like that.
Susie: And another thing that you had mentioned to me when we were off the air was that you have great strategies for helping people who might be working and don’t have a lot of time to add fitness into their schedule.
Tom: That’s so true because if time is the factor then the things like Skyping with them at their convenience is something that I like to celebrate with people and I’d like to offer up for people because some of the people just, their schedules are… And I’m very flexible that way.
Susie: Do you get a lot of ex-military people coming in?
Tom: I have not had a lot of ex-military people, but I know that some of the ex-military people could use a little bit of help, and I’m always willing to work with them. I probably would offer them special rewards because I’m proud of their service.
Susie: My dad was military and I have to say one of the things that is impressive is that it’s definitely worked into their daily regimen, that ethic of working out and being fit, always being at your best. And it’s something that my dad has taken with him as he’s getting older and he stays active. He may not be at the gym hanging out, but it’s just ingrained in him.
Tom: And consistency is key, and like you like say, the more we move, that’s the aspect of our that body adapts to what we put in terms of what we put the strain on it. So, putting a gentle strain on it gives it a gentle reward.
Susie: One last question I have is in terms of the younger generation. So you’re working right now with people who are maybe 50 and older who grew up in a time that was perhaps more active, we didn’t have cell phones or internet and things like that that kept us sedentary so what’s going to… If you could predict what’s going to be happening with some of the youth right now who are on their computers all the time? They just don’t have that community even to go out and play. What’s going to happen with them as they get old?
Tom: I heard that scary statistic that I was gonna outlive my granddaughter in terms of longevity. And I mean there’s a lot of environmental factors into that and actually my granddaughter is a pretty perky little girl, so I don’t know if it’s true.
Susie: She might not be the best example but we get the point.
Tom: The point is that I have had a few clients that are in their 30s and really have a sedentary life that has started to catch up to them and they’re really a challenge, because their eyes get open like the people in their 50s and 60s because they’re starting to have events happening to them that didn’t used to happen to people until the later.
Susie: It’s a really good point. Maybe you don’t even need to use your age as a benchmark of needing to get in shape because your metabolic age might be way off where it should be.
Tom: Yeah, and that’s where that assessment comes in. That free assessment is really one of the things that people really can benefit from, so that’s why I am offering it.
Susie: Thank you very much for joining us.
Tom: Thank you for having me, Susie.
Susie: I really appreciate all the tips that you have today because our physical health is so important.
Tom: Thank you.[Listen to the archived show]