Well Being: He surprised himself by learning to like exercise

Posted: October 23, 2012

Peter Hopkins, the music director at St. Peter's Church, is an erudite, energetic man who plays the piano and organ, sings with a fine tenor voice, and can blend the disparate voices in the choir so that hymns fill the historic Episcopal church in Society Hill with a sound that's upliftingly supernal.

Physically, he looks lean and fit, carrying 180 pounds on a 5-foot-11 frame. If you met him today, you'd never believe that he once weighed 300 pounds.

But such were the wages of sin in his youth. Growing up in Michigan, he was a chubby kid. "I was never involved in sports. I never exercised in my life."

Instead, his attention was focused on music - playing the piano and organ, and singing. At Michigan State University, he majored in choral conducting and managed to shed some lard. But by his late 20s and early 30s, the excess poundage had returned, and then some. Commuting between conducting jobs in Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids, he regularly stopped for supper at Burger King, Arby's, or McDonald's. With his weight hovering around 300 pounds, he was diagnosed with diabetes and had to begin taking insulin. "It depressed me," Hopkins says. "I can't let this happen. I have to join a gym."

His aversion to exercise, however, inhibited him. Mainly by eating less, he was able to drop about 40 pounds.

When he moved to Philadelphia in 2004 to take the job at St. Peter's, he shed an additional 20 pounds - just by walking from his home in South Philly instead of driving to and from work. To his delight, he discovered that Philadelphia was an immensely walkable town, a fun place to wander, and a convenient place to accomplish errands by foot.

Still, he was carrying too much weight, and he was dependent on insulin and blood-pressure medication. In 2006, he joined the Philadelphia Sports Club in Society Hill, which offered new members a complimentary personal-training session. Hopkins was so out of shape, he couldn't do a single push-up, pull-up, or sit-up. Fortunately, the available trainer that day, Mike McLoughlin, was so patient, encouraging, and knowledgeable that Hopkins signed up for several more sessions.

"I surprised myself," Hopkins says. "I went from fat to active. I discovered I really liked exercise." Within six weeks, he was working out six days a week. He began dropping pounds rapidly. Better yet, his blood pressure fell to such a degree that he could go off his meds. By eight weeks, he was off everything - insulin and statins - and was able to do two push-ups, a significant achievement.

When McLoughlin opened his own gym, Radius Fitness, on South Second Street in 2010, Hopkins, by now a loyal client, followed. He works out with McLoughlin twice a week and also attends group classes. On other days, at the nearby Optimal Gym, he runs on the treadmill, practices yoga, and lifts weights. He also runs and cycles.

He exercises every day of the week except Sunday.

Meanwhile, the relationship between Hopkins, 53, and McLoughlin, 35, has evolved from trainer/client to friendship. Once or twice a week, they run across the Ben Franklin Bridge, and they trained for and completed three Broad Street Runs, the 10-mile classic in May.

"He takes personal responsibility for himself, and for me as a personal trainer, I couldn't ask for anything more," McLoughlin says. "When I saw how much work he was doing, it added a level of respect that became a friendship."

For his part, Hopkins praises McLoughlin for his solid grounding in the precepts of effective physical training ("Mike has no gimmicks," Hopkins says), for customizing workouts that address his needs, and for keeping things lively and interesting by continually surprising him.

"I never know what I'm going to do," Hopkins says. "We never do the same workouts."

One constant: McLoughlin works Hopkins hard. That was evident the other day as he subjected Hopkins to a session that combined elements of stretching, strength-training, and heart-pumping cardiovascular exercise. Throughout the workout, he focused on helping Hopkins open and correct the posture of his shoulders, which bow forward from years of trying to hide his bulging belly.

The most exhausting and sweat-inducing part of the workout consisted of cone drills. In one, Hopkins had to race to a cone, lie down on his back, then without using his hands, bring himself to his feet, and race back to the other cone. He completed eight laps. Another devilish exercise was something McLoughlin called the "Turkish Getup." From flat on his back, Hopkins had to rise to his feet, bearing a 121/2-pound dumbbell aloft with one arm. He did five reps with each arm.

Using suspension straps, and wearing a 40-pound weighted vest, Hopkins performed exercises to build up his legs, quads, glutes, and core. For his shoulders, he also did 20 high-row pull-ups.

McLoughlin calls himself "a big fan of stretching and cool-downs, control and cross-training, cardiovascular mixed with strength training."

Hopkins' philosophy of fitness is simpler: "If I do a workout and I'm not sweating, I know I'm dogging it."

Since he began training with McLoughlin, Hopkins has lost 55 pounds.

"I'm always surprised when I see how fast an hour goes by," says Hopkins, who used to detest exercise. "I hate missing a workout day."

Adds McLoughlin: "If someone like Peter, who was so unathletic, can transform himself, there's hope for anybody."

"Well Being" appears every other week, alternating with Sandy Bauers' "GreenSpace" column. Contact Art Carey at art.carey@gmail.com.

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