Want to be going strong at 81? Take some tips from Robert Gallant.
Gallant’s father and older brother both developed diabetes in their fifties and died from complications of the disease in their seventies. But Gallant shows no signs diabetes, after decades of staying slim and fit. “I can personally say that controlling weight and rigorously exercising can have a huge impact on health,” he says.
Gallant lost one eye, after an injury when he was six years old, growing up on a farm in Central Ohio. He became a chemical engineer at Dow Chemical, and kept moderately fit until his mid-30s, when his doctor noticed the family history of diabetes and told him that he could stave it off if he worked hard at fitness.
Gallant swung into action. “I woke up at 5 a.m. every morning and did an hour of rigorous exercise, mostly running on a treadmill plus some weight lifting. My wife Margie and I would take long walks each evening to discuss how our day had been and what lay ahead. I lost 10 pounds and I never gained any of it back. I actually lost another few pounds over the years. I had a 32-inch waist and still do.”
As he advanced into higher management, he had to attend more meetings, and take business trips involving big dinners. He compensated by walking or running on stairs rather than take an elevators, working out in his hotel room, and walking instead of sitting in airports. At home, he kept dumbbells, a treadmill, and an all-purpose weight machine. He had to move frequently as a Dow executive, but in two of his houses, he made sure that he had a swimming pool.
He retired at age 63, with the goal of spending more time with his wife and family. “Margie had dedicated her life to enabling me to excel at Dow and I wanted to now reward ourselves by having all the time together that we wanted. We were financially secure; our three sons had excellent jobs and stable marriages; and I had six grandchildren who were enjoyable to be around.”
The couple was living in Midland, Mich., and chose to remain there. Gallant decided he would keep busy writing thrillers. “Back during my childhood, when I couldn't sleep because of pain in my eye, I would create adventure stories. I told myself that someday I would write novels. Margie was an avid reader of women's mystery novels, so she would critique my writing and we would do the research together,” he says.
Then his wife developed serious health problems. Gallant quit writing and publicizing his books to concentrate on caring for her at home. He stopped traveling as well. Then he had to put Margie in a nursing home. “I was now sitting in our big house, all alone, and my 7-year obsession for taking care of Margie meant I had no meaningful outside activities and a vast vacuum in my life.”
His daughter-in-law convinced him to exercise at the Midland Community Center rather than at home. The friends he made there became a lifeline. In his wife’s last year, he would visit her every day at the nursing home. She no longer recognized him. “I would come out to the car and cry; then drive over to the community center and work out and go to exercise classes. One of the great qualities of the community center is that we talk and help and encourage each other to work on a healthy lifestyle.”
Gallant is inspired by people around him at the center who have health limitations but outwork him. “They go at a slower pace, but they go for hours,” he says. “One 88-year-old woman shuffles when she walks but comes to the exercise classes and does all she can.”
Gallant now exercises at home for a half hour every morning, combining time on his exercise bike, with jumping jacks, pushups, sit-ups, and stretching and balancing exercises. “I’m already fired up by the time I go to the center,” he says. He plays volleyball three days a week with a group of men and women mainly in their 70s, attends exercise classes five days a week, and works out with a fitness instructor two days a week. As a team, the two set a goal for him to gain five pounds, mainly in muscle. His balance, flexibility, and muscle mass all improved. After he gained the five pounds, the percent of his weight that came from fat actually dropped. She gave him a tee shirt with the words “EARNED IT.”
Recently, he began to talk on the radio on the topic of "How to have a successful retirement." He focuses on four areas:
“Never stop learning. Take on new challenges that force you to get out of your comfort zone. Even if you fail, you learn. When you succeed, it fires you up to do even more. If you stop learning, you begin to fall behind and you begin to turn old.
“Focus on a healthy lifestyle, which includes proper eating habits, daily exercise, and weight control. Get up every morning dedicated to exercising. My fitness instructor encourages people to get up, drink a glass of water, then spend 10 minutes exercising on a treadmill (walk 2 minutes, run 2 minutes, sprint one minute, walk 2 minutes, run 2 minutes, sprint one minute). That gets your metabolism fired up and the result of just doing that will reduce your weight half-a-pound a month.
“Stay socially active. One of the best ways is to volunteer to help others. People at the community center serve as drivers for impaired people, helping physically or mentally challenged people to participate in exercise activities, helping as volunteers at the hospital or food bank, and training young people to run a 5K race. The list is long. If you focus on helping those around you, your entire life blossoms.
“Have fun doing it. Remember that frowning adds weight; smiling keeps you young. Someone asked me why I'm always smiling when I come into the community center. I jokingly told them that ‘when I wake up, I look to my right. If I'm not in a grave, I look to my left. If I'm not in a hospital bed, I jump up and shout, It's going to be a good day.'”
“Work at making every day a good day,” he says.
Gallant has five novels under his belt, and recently met film studio representatives to pitch a movie. Two expressed interest. “It could well be a year before they make a decision. Even if it's a go, I'll be 85 before it hits the screen. Nothing wrong with that,” he says.
April 12, 2016
Janet O’Dell, RN