Old man and the gym

LEDE, Calif. -- Don't call Richard Commins "spry," that condescending adjective frequently attached to any older adult who is ambulatory enough to get out and do something.

LEDE, Calif. -- Don't call Richard Commins "spry," that condescending adjective frequently attached to any older adult who is ambulatory enough to get out and do something.

OK, so what do you call an 82-year-old who -- when not working in his lush yard or repairing the roof of his home -- is pumping iron, puffing away through push-ups and pull-ups, revving up the elliptical machine, working those core muscles and maintaining balance on a trampoline?

Answer: personal trainer.

No records are kept, but Commins might be the oldest personal trainer in the nation. He gained accreditation in 1985 after completing classes at California State University, Sacramento, following retirement as a longtime middle school industrial arts teacher.

After working in health clubs for years, schooling gym members in the fundamentals of fitness, Commins is starting to ease back a bit. He has a handful of clients who come to his humble home gym, and he serves as an on-site trainer when he and his wife, Rona, go on cruises.


"I think I can be an inspiration to people," says Commins, smiling but sans boastfulness. "A lot of people look at me and say, 'Boy, if he can do that at 82, I ought to get in shape.'"

Indeed, if Jack LaLanne had a kid brother, it would be this guy.

At 5-foot-9, 150 pounds, Commins is built as solidly as when he played football in the Bay Area back before joining the Marines during World War II. His buzz cut betrays no hint of gray, though his pencil-thin mustache is pure white.

Commins' metacarpal-crunching handshake, alone, attests to his enduring strength. But there also are mementos from his Masters weightlifting days as a regional gold medalist in the Senior Olympics. (Ten years on, he still holds the 70-74 age group record for the snatch and clean-and-jerk in the Pacific Weightlifting Association.) His ramrod-straight posture is that of a man at least 20 years younger.

He has also climbed Mount Whitney four times, albeit as a younger man, and two years ago beat prostate cancer, saying the radiation therapy and recovery "felt like just a bad cold" to him.

"That's because I've stayed in shape," he says. "Some mornings, I don't feel like working out. But if I don't, I tell myself I won't be in as good of shape to do what I want to do as I get older."

And what does Commins want to do?

Pretty much everything.


He sent a videotape in to the producers of "Survivor," trying for a spot. (He never heard back, alas.) He insists on doing all the work in his sprawling yard at the end of a cul-de-sac himself, though a team of gardeners would get a good workout keeping up.

Inspiration to others

And what he most wants is to help other people enjoy the hearty old age he embraces.

One recent morning, he demonstrated pull-ups from the seated position to one of his clients, 70-year-old Richard Stoeltzing, who marveled at the ease with which Commins executed the exercise.

"Can you believe an 82-year-old can do that?" Stoeltzing asked. "I've known Richard for 35 years and he's been having me do dips and push-ups and gets me to strengthen my back and legs, not just (his chest). I travel a lot in my job (for Wachovia Securities), so I can do these exercises anywhere."

Back when he was affiliated with health clubs, Commins said, he trained people of all ages. Now, it's mostly people his age -- well, those within a decade or two.

"I think they like the idea of someone older working with them," he says. "It makes them feel more comfortable."

His quick wit and sly smile are engaging, but Commins' own sterling shape -- and his dedication to exercise -- might intimidate the uninitiated.


His wife doesn't work out with him. She prefers the more social aspect she finds at a local chain health club. But Rona Commins says he finds ways to inspire her, mostly by example.

"He puts everybody to shame," Rona says. "I had a book club at 10 o'clock this morning, so I was thinking, 'Heck, I don't need to work out.' But I got up to be (at the gym) at 7:30 because of Richard.

"Always, he was exercising. When we first got married 50 years ago, he'd jump rope, had a rowing machine, tennis ball machine. He was always doing something. Weightlifting was new, after he retired."

Commins likes to say he was just a "weekend athlete" until he retired. His wife disagrees, as does daughter Merrin Hansen.

"It was just sort of a way of life for my father," says Hansen, a dietitian. "When he'd watch TV, he'd do step training or use one of those wheels with handles and stretch out on the floor (for abdominal exercises). I ran track in high school, but I never felt pushed by him. But the (fitness ethic) was just sort of ingrained."

Commins says he really didn't get serious about exercising until his 60s and claims that he reached his fitness peak at age 70. He admits he's losing strength with age, despite his best efforts. But he hopes to keep age at bay as long as he can.

"I still work pretty hard," he says. "The body's like a bridge. If you keep the muscle, the bridge won't sag so much.

Have to keep it up


"The key is consistency. You can lose (strength) if you stop. Then, even if you come back, you can't get it back. I can't lift as much as when I was competing. Sometimes, I'm forced to stop (exercising). Like when I fell off the roof at (age) 80. If it wasn't for me being in shape, I don't think I'd have gotten through that fall with just a concussion. I think I had enough muscle to hold things together."

Though he shows few signs of slowing, Commins has made some accommodation to age. He has given up hopes of being selected for "Survivor," for example. But his wife says he still puts men decades younger to shame.

"At church on Sunday, he told me he had to go move a table and turned and walked away," she says. "I'm watching him go and, from behind, you'd think he was 30 years younger. There's that energy, that spring in his step."

But just don't call him spry.

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