Veterans Stay Active with Gerofit

Henry Lee served in the Army Infantry for 24 years. He survived being shot down in a helicopter in 1968 during the Vietnam War. But his biggest battle was recovering from a stroke that affected the right side of his body.

Lee once enjoyed running marathons, golfing with buddies, and doing yard work. After his stroke, he can’t even take out the trash.

 “I was down in the dumps,” says Lee, 88. “I became a couch potato watching Korean soap operas all day. I needed to change my attitude and lifestyle. It wasn’t helping me to just sit and do nothing.”

A few years ago, Lee’s doctor referred him to Gerofit, a federal health and wellness program for veterans age 65 and older. Three days a week, he and dozens of other vets at the Veterans Affairs Pacific Islands Health Care System's Center for Aging in Honolulu exercise with weight and cardio machines, do tai chi, and walk around a track.

“At our age, we need to move instead of staying home and moping,” he says. “Sometimes people think it’s the end just because they can’t do things like they used to. But if we don’t move, we’re just going to lie down and die. Gerofit program puts us vets in a good frame of mind. Every movement counts.”

Lee was 185 pounds before joining the program. He’s since lost 20 pounds. More than just physical benefits, the program has lifted his spirits. “We laugh and have fun together. We talk and share war stories and similar life experiences. Getting out and talking to people is better medicine than any pill,” he says.

Lee is proof that you’re never too old to exercise. Gerofit helps tailor exercises to fit each veteran’s physical capabilities to benefit both their physical and mental well-being. The program was started in 1986 by the VA in Durham, North Carolina, which published a study showing a 25 percent lower mortality rate among participants over 10 years.      

“Veterans in the program have shown improvements with lower blood pressure and glucose levels,” says program coordinator Michelle McDonald. She also says veterans have shown gains in their strength, agility, balance, and endurance during physical performance tests.

“They have a lot of determination and will to get better and stay healthy,” says McDonald. “This program helps them maintain their independence and do things like tying their shoes, putting on their clothes, or watering the garden.”

Participants in the program need to be referred by their primary care provider. If you’re a veteran who’s interested in participating in Gerofit, talk to your PCP to learn more.                                                                                

Jimmy Lee, 88, does tai chi every day to stay healthy.  “Tai chi helps with breathing and relieves pain in my knee,” he says. “It’s a mind and body connection.”