Being 71 years old is just another number to Tom Rollins.
The Columbia-area resident concerns himself not with his age, but his family and friends, his health and his workouts. Part of a growing trend of older Americans who are living longer and working out on a more frequent basis, Rollins jumps and grabs a metal pull-up bar at the Monroe County YMCA and goes to work.
Twenty pull-ups later, the former U.S. Marine moves on to the next exercise. He has no time for talk of aging or what he’ll do when he grows old.
Rollins turns 72 in October and he’s still at full throttle, despite wearing a pacemaker that maintains a steady heart rhythm.
He throws a couple more 45-pound plates on the bench press bar and begins the next exercise.
“It’s a lot of fun and it’s like anything, you get into it and you enjoy it,” said Rollins, who bears a slight resemblance to former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw. “Maybe it extends the life a little bit. When you get older like I am, you’re reaching for the quality of life.”
There are lots of 20-year-olds who can only dream of Rollins’ fitness.
He can bench press just under 300 pounds, does nearly 350 pounds in the dead lift and his combined lift has been as high as 625 pounds. He also has competed in running and cycling events and triathlons.
And despite weighing 193 pounds at age 71 can still do five pull-ups — with one hand.
The American College of Sports Medicine estimates that by 2030, the number of people in the U.S. reaching 65 and older will be 70 million, with those 85 and older among the fastest growing rate among the general population. The importance of staying active only grows for those in the upper age groups.
Rollins is at the YMCA nearly every day with a workout group that typically includes the same faces with a few new ones joining in on occasion.
“I’m the oldest one that trains with these guys and all my lifting partners are in their 40s,” Rollins said. “Some of them are only in their 20s. I wanted to be an inspiration for other people and, as the result of this weightlifting, I’ve got some women that are interested in the Senior Olympics and some men that are interested in losing weight and seeing what they can get down to.”
Rollins played football and wrestled at Mehlville High in south St. Louis County. He joined the Marine Corps right out of high school and served in Vietnam.
Still looking for a way to stay competitive now that he’s older, Rollins won several gold medals at the 2012 Senior Olympics in St. Louis, where he was able to curl 130 pounds and knocked out a 650-pound leg press.
He won the bench press competition at the 2015 Senior Olympics (265 pounds) and took second place in the leg press (820 pounds) and arm curls (110).
He also won the Monroe County YMCA bench press competition at 290 pounds and continues to encourage others around him to push themselves toward better fitness.
It’s not about the look. It’s the lifestyle and still being competitive.
“It was fun to compete against people in my own age bracket, but I wanted to try to up the ante a little bit and that’s why I went to the Show-Me Games,” Rollins said of Missouri’s state athletic competition.
He trained hard for ninth months, then competed at the 2014 Missouri Show-Me Games and shattered records that had stood for 15 years.
“It was about my fellow members at the Y, people that saw that I had some goals and wanted to help me achieve them,” Rollins said.
Among the group are bodybuilder Brian Lane, Mick Hoepfinger, John Hoagland, Glenn Bournstein and local minister Ray Baumann.
“I exercised three times a week with John, sometimes on Saturday,” Rollins said. “Ray helped me spiritually and really had some personal things for me to concentrate on. Brian was a big help because he’s won bodybuilding contests, and so has Mick.
“All four of those men brought wonderful attributes together to share with me. I used each and every one of them to push this envelope and was successful.”
Rollins said the big draw of working out is not getting bigger muscles or looking at himself in a mirror. His workouts have taken on much bigger significance.
“I think a measure of a man or a woman is the burden that they can help to lift from other people,” he said. “I really feel that way and there’s some great people there at the Y that really practice that.”
Rollins’ other inspiration is his family, especially Marian, his wife for more than 52 years.
“She has been not only an inspiration to me but she’s the one that keeps me on track with my meals and diet and all of that,” he said. “She’s been almost like a mini-manager for me. All of my grandkids exercise, my daughters exercise ... everybody in the family exercises.”
Rollins is retired after working for Aon Risk Services, a company that provides risk management and insurance.
Besides physical fitness, his other passion is photography. He has taken photographs on all seven continents and many of his projects involve local military or veteran groups, police and firefighters.
“I had always wanted to do photography and realized my life was going by pretty darned quick,” said Rollins, who has been doing free-lance work for 40 years for travel agencies, businesses and corporations. “I actually traveled working for shipping companies, travel companies, people that wanted to do stories in foreign countries.”
The toughest continent to shoot? It wasn’t Antarctica, but Asia, when Rollins was riding herd with farmers in Mongolia.
Four years ago, he rode a motorcycle across the Gobi Desert in Mongolia to the Russian border.
“I like to do adventure-type things and do that, you have to be in good shape,” Rollins said.
Rollins said Mongolia presented the biggest challenge among the many corners of the globe where he’s hauled a camera for shots. He also has done a photo shoot in Cambodia.
“The toughest was Mongolia because of the terrain, the people and the remoteness of where I went,” he said. “It’s like you’ve stepped back 50 years.”
Exercises you can do
Most experts believe that exercise has a definite affect on quality of life for people of any age. By staying active and mixing up their exercise routine, seniors can increase cardiovascular health, strength and balance while also reducing pain, immobility and stiffness. As always, consult your physician before beginning any type of exercise regimen:
Start with light weights, including free weights, weight machines, resistance bands or using your own body weight on benches, chairs, a couch, etc. Strength exercise will not only strengthen bones but can add to quality of life abilities such as carrying groceries, lifting objects and other everyday activities,
Start with walking short distances and slowly building your way up from there. Other cardiovascular activities that can improve heart and circulatory issues include swimming, cycling, treadmill, mowing, stationary bike, arc trainer, various forms of dancing or even more advanced activities like hiking, light running or individual sports such as golf, tennis or bowling.
Gaining better balance helps seniors avoid many of the falls and accidents that lead to broken bones and other injuries while also improving overall body movement and posture. Among these types of exercises are standing on one foot, then switching to the other, leg squats and walking along narrower lines or pathways.
Among the most important aspects for older Americans is maintaining flexibility. Stretching exercises of all kinds utilizing all joints of the body, major muscle groups and your back are good for this, including more advanced forms of stretching such as yoga and Pilates. Always make it a habit to do a lot of stretching before beginning any type of exercise.
Contact your doctor before beginning any exercise program. Drink plenty of water and avoid extreme hot or cold temperatures. Group exercises, such as those offered at many local YMCAs and other fitness centers, encourage seniors to exercise. Start any exercise program slowly, gradually building up strength, endurance and stamina before moving on to more difficult levels. If something doesn’t feel right or you experience shortness of breath, chest pains or dizziness, contact your doctor or nearest health care center immediately.