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Columnist Peter Simpson tries out the equipment at the Lynds Den Health and Fitness Centre in Bridgewater, under the watchful eyes of Lynds Den owners Mike and Allison Lynds. The Lynds and their staff will be offering advice and encouragement to Simpson as he works toward an improved fitness level by age 75 next year. (Contributed)
Columnist Peter Simpson tries out the equipment at the Lynds Den Health and Fitness Centre in Bridgewater, under the watchful eyes of Lynds Den owners Mike and Allison Lynds. The Lynds and their staff will be offering advice and encouragement to Simpson as he works toward an improved fitness level by age 75 next year. (Contributed)

Fitness and good health are two of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, and those who love you.

Baby boomers, those folks born from 1946 to 1964, are placing tremendous pressure on the health-care system worldwide — multiple medications, repeat doctor and hospital visits for an assortment of illnesses and diseases, both physically and mentally. Sadly, this situation is expected to accelerate.

The youngest among this silver tsunami demographic will turn 55 next year, while the oldest will be trying to blow out all 73 candles on their birthday cakes.

My mom and dad beat the boomer rush by a couple years, resulting in my birth in late 1944.

Growing up in north Toronto, I was your average kid who idolized the Toronto Maple Leafs and participated in hockey, softball and what was to become my passion, track and field.

In my early 20s, I was a compositor at the Toronto Telegram. When the Tely folded in 1971, I was fortunate to land a job right away at the newly launched Toronto Sun, where I worked my way up the production and word-smithing ladder to the stress-laden positions of columnist and section editor.

Sun staffers were heavily into team sports, mainly hockey and fast-pitch softball and I joined right in. Our hockey team was decent, but could have been better if some guys didn’t smoke on the bench. The Sun fast-pitch softball team, however, often topped the Toronto Press League standings.

We rewarded ourselves after winning a game by guzzling back a few pitchers of beer at our favourite smoke-filled press bar, Crooks. Come to think of it, we all shuffled into Crooks after a loss, too.

I had tons of fun, and banked many fond memories, but a disturbing trend became clear: working to meet tight deadlines in a fast-paced newspaper environment, drinking gallons of coffee, smoking (at my desk, no less), then pounding back post-game beers until the bartender kicked us to the curb.

My lifestyle exposed me to a possible downward health spiral, and I needed to address the situation quickly and responsibly.

So, on my 40th birthday, I gave up my trifecta of habits — coffee, cigarettes and beer — cold turkey. And I figured if I focused intently on working toward an achievable goal of some kind, the effort would help to make me forget about what I had given up.

That’s when I turned to my aforementioned passion, track and field. At age 40, I was eligible to compete in Masters athletics. Athletes compete in five-year age groupings — 40 to 44, 45 to 49, etc.

I had met world-class sprint coach Charlie Francis at a sports media event, so I called and asked him to train me. Surprisingly, he agreed, but his one condition was that at training sessions I didn’t bother his elite athletes, namely then-future Olympians Ben Johnson, Angella Issajenko and Mark McCoy.

Unfortunately, Johnson morphed from Olympic 100-metre champ to chump when a banned drug was detected in his system and he was stripped of his gold medal. Issajenko and McCoy soared to greater heights, winning Olympic medals, including a gold for McCoy in the 110-metre hurdles.

The elite athletes, who were likely bored, often wandered over to offer pointers, so Francis turned a blind eye. One day, Johnson, after trying new sprint spikes for 10 seconds, decided he hated them, so he tossed them to me. The spikes were too small for me, but I took them anyway. I still have them.

After a year of heavy training sessions, typically four to five days a week, I had shed lots of fat, gained a little muscle, improved my aerobic capabilities and refined my technical form.

Francis said I was ready to enter a Masters track meet, so I competed at an indoor meet at Brown University in Providence, RI and came home with a silver medal in the triple jump. I was hooked.

Many meets followed, including a World Masters Games, where I won gold and silver medals. It was a total rush. More than 8,300 veteran athletes from 61 countries participated in 22 sports. In my mid-50s, my enthusiasm for competition waned, so I hung up my spikes and ceased training or working out in any form. In my mind, there was nothing left to prove, and I retired to a La-Z-Boy.

Fast forward two decades. I’m 74 years old, 30 pounds overweight, my mid-section looks like it’s hiding an inner tube and it’s been years since I tucked in my shirts. Trudging up a hill gets my heart pounding, my joints ache and my favourite clothes are stored in a garment box in the basement.

If there’s a positive side to all this, it’s that I still don’t smoke or drink coffee, but I do enjoy a craft beer occasionally. And I’m still capable of volunteering with our local fire department.

It’s never too late to begin improving fitness levels and next month I intend to start doing just that.

The Lynds Den Health and Fitness Centre and I will be inseparable until at least my 75th birthday. Workouts will be moderate and tailored to my age and ability. My competition days are long gone, but I want to be able to spend a few more quality years with my wife, daughters and granddaughters.

I will chronicle my progress on the journey to improved health in this monthly column, along with some personal stories of my gym mates and a little advice on fitness and nutrition from Bridgewater Lynds Den owners and fitness experts Mike and Allison Lynds.

Mike is a pro bodybuilder and certified personal trainer, while Allison is a nationally ranked fitness competitor. Both said they were involved in track and field some years ago.

Mike said he likes to share success stories about dedicated people who are clearly on the path to improved fitness levels.

“Every month we feature in the newspaper a member who has achieved an extraordinary improvement in his or her fitness level. Some members have lost well over 100 lbs, while others have changed their lifestyles for the better and no longer have to take medications,” he said.

“We want to create in our members the need to be more active, and start eating nutritional food. As we age, our bodies slow down. The less a person moves, the more problems they might develop.”

Mike said fit people spend less time with their doctors. “If you have high blood pressure or elevated blood sugar levels, one of the first things a doctor will tell you is to develop an exercise program.”

I’m excited about taking this first step on a journey to improved health and fitness. Stay with me.

Next month: The equipment I am using, adjusting my diet, what my body is telling me, more advice from Mike Lynds and excerpts from a new study on the consequences of age-related muscle loss.

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