Lifting Up: Senior uses bodybuilding as a path to happiness

They say you can’t tell a book by its cover, blah blah blah. But in the case of Portland resident Jay Papish, you think you’ve grabbed a title in the fitness section … then you flip it open, and you find you’re actually in the philosophy aisle.

Yes, of course, Jay is a bodybuilder. (Look at his picture, for goodness sake.) He is, however, pushing 69, believe it or not, and the road to this body has been a long and winding one. He didn’t even take the turnoff to the gym until he was 50. The lessons he has learned along the way have turned Jay into a man who is dedicated to helping others, militant about human rights and a firm believer that meditation is the cornerstone of an effective gym workout.

Jay grew up in Brooklyn, NY. They were a proud, middle-class Jewish family, he says. Jay’s father worked very hard, and he went through lots of businesses to make ends meet. Jay went to Hebrew school and became a bar mitzvah. He and his sister and brother lived with their parents and their grandparents in a small fourplex. The kids shared one tiny room.

“It was the best time of my life,” Jay says. “I’ve never felt more secure and more loved.”

He graduated from high school, though, in the era of Vietnam. Despite some family pressure to run to Canada, Jay did end up getting drafted and spent almost a year in an artillery unit in Vietnam. He sounds terse about it now. “We killed innocent people based on intelligence data that we got.” But it changed him profoundly.

When he got out of the service in April 1968, he got a job with Western Electric in New York, but he lasted only eight months. “The guys were sitting around talking about the Knicks. I felt like I was having a nervous breakdown.” He got up, quit his job and, in his words, “dropped out for 11 years.”

He said goodbye to his parents, loaded his dog in his car and went to San Francisco. First he got a job cleaning up oil spills on the beaches for $5 an hour. He eventually worked for the Bolinas/Stinson school district as transportation director of a new age school. He drove kids on field trips and was also a teacher’s aide in a grade school class. He loved it.

Eventually, though, he was ready to drop back in, as it were. He applied to the Stanford Paramedic Program, met a nice girl and eventually relocated with her to Portland, where he worked first as a paramedic for nine years, then at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center for 25. It was the right job for the right guy at the right time.
One time, for example, Jay and his partner rushed into a house in the middle of the night to find the fire department doing CPR on a 45-year-old man. His wife and daughters were standing by, scared. Jay and his partner shocked him, got him to a normal heart rhythm and stabilized him.

“I deem success in terms of trying to be happy, being somewhat principled and doing for others,” Jay says. “The reward was never money. That guy was going to see his daughter get married, see his grandchildren. That’s what I take to my grave.”

Bodybuilding came much later. Jay was a lifelong runner when, in his 50s, he joined a gym and connected with a group of serious power lifters who took him under their wing. Again, the right thing for the right guy at the right time, evidently, because Jay’s new career of power lifting, and later bodybuilding, took off. From then on he was focused and he was undeterred … by his late start, by a few inevitable injuries, even by a quadruple bypass in 2001 that turned him from a champion who could deadlift 500 pounds to a “kitten” who couldn’t manage a five-pound weight.

His weight-lifting friends stepped in, visiting him at home, taking him to the movies, and easing him slowly and carefully back to a powerful body. Today he is back in competitive shape, and he still holds a record for the greatest dead lift for a man over 65: 160 pounds! Jay is older and wiser, though, and more importantly, he is using his hard-won lessons to help others gain the physical fitness and peace of mind that a thoughtful weight-lifting routine and healthy lifestyle have brought to him.

Jay acknowledges the effect of a proud Jewish tradition that he loves, and he is steered by deep empathy for others in his work as well as in his political convictions (but don’t get him started!). Caring for others is his bottom line. He has learned over years of experience that the gym is a place where people help each other.

“The gym,” Jay says, “should not be a competitive place. Enjoy it, the camaraderie, the social aspects, the movements. Feel invigorated by it, not discouraged by it.”

“Working out should be a form of meditation. Think about each muscle. You should feel free.’”

“Don’t be unrealistic. You can do damage to your psyche as well as to your body.”

“Life is full of uncertainty. Just be happy.” “Learn to love yourself. That’s the hardest thing.” See what I mean? Philosopher.

(For a resource on how to pursue happiness, check out this guide.)

Jay’s Advice to Weight-Lifting Beginners

We all have our medical issues. Be realistic about them. Talk with your doctor.
Set short-term goals. Having a long-term goal may be admirable, but achieving it is difficult.
Get some guidance. The correct form is more important than the amount of weight you can lift.
As we become older, we do become more fragile. But everyone should start slowly, whatever your age.
Build gradually. At the end of the workout, you should feel, “I can do this!” not “I’m exhausted!”
Don’t be hard on yourself. Forgive yourself if you slip. “Put your weights away when you’re done!”

Liz Rabiner Lippoff is a medical marketing consultant, freelance writer and community volunteer. She does lift weights, by the way, in case you wondered.


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