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Eighty sit-ups before breakfast ... at age 94

Every day before getting out of bed, Les Chater begins his morning with 80 sit-ups. The radiation treatments that he is undergoing for skin cancer have not dissuaded him at all.

"Why should I stop?" he asks incredulously. "Fitness is part of my life."

And what a life it has been.

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At age 94, Mr. Chater credits his longevity, and his very survival at times, to daily exercise. It is a commitment that has survived two world wars, the Great Depression, many years of prosperity, and many more of active retirement.

Amazingly, most of that exercise has been at the YMCA, where he has been an active and inspirational member for more than 80 years.

Mr. Chater first encountered the Y in 1918, as a summer camper. Two years later, at age 10, he joined officially. "Back then, we didn't have all kinds of fancy exercise equipment. Even the pool was small," he said. "But we had fun -- and that's what mattered."

He was an active swimmer, and played basketball, cricket and water polo.

In 1929, however, Mr. Chater reluctantly cancelled his membership; he could not afford such a luxury as a young man in the Great Depression. But the general secretary of the YMCA intervened, waiving the fee and saying: "Some day, you'll be able to repay us."

Mr. Chater studied engineering at the University of Saskatchewan, where he added tennis and running to his fitness repertoire, including an annual marathon.

During the Second World War, he joined the Royal Corps of Signals and, as an engineer, he was dispatched to Singapore to help upgrade airfields for military purposes.

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In the spring of 1942, Japanese troops captured Singapore and Mr. Chater became a prisoner of war. Along with 1,200 other prisoners, he was battened down in the hold of a ship, where the men were stacked two deep "like a morgue" and fed only rice and watery soup for six weeks. Despite the horrible conditions, Mr. Chater found time, and just enough elbow room, for daily calisthenics.

He spent the next 40 months as a PoW in a succession of camps, surviving tropical diseases, forced labour and chronic semi-starvation. Yet, throughout it all, Mr. Chater never stopped exercising -- a routine he believes kept him sane and alive.

The Japanese "were up at 5:30 a.m. doing their military exercises, and I was across the yard doing mine," he said. Mr. Chater said his captors were great admirers of discipline and his work ethic earned their grudging respect.

Over the years, he negotiated -- skills he learned in the YMCA Leadership Corps -- for amenities like a small basketball court, a dirt patch to play baseball, and a high bar. "That was my favourite, the high bar, where you could unwind by doing some gymnastics," he said.

The fascinating story is told in his book Behind The Fence: Life as a PoW in Japan 1941-1945 (Vanwell Press).

After the war, Mr. Chater returned to Hamilton and joined Stelco, where he eventually rose to chief engineer. Along with the corporate life came golf. He also became a board member of the Y, as well as a member.

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While he was never a competitive athlete, Mr. Chater is proud of the fact that, because of his general fitness, he could hold his own on any new challenge. "I played every sport that came along. It never mattered to me as long as I got that great feeling that comes from exercise," he said.

By focusing on general fitness rather than one specific sport, he was also able to adapt as he grew older.

Now, in his 90s, he concentrates on swimming and weight training. Mr. Chater swims five days a week, for at least 30 minutes, and he does weight training -- now strictly cables and dumbbells -- a couple of times weekly.

"I've worn out my knees and they say I'm too old for new ones, so I had to drop basketball," Mr. Chater joked.

However, his current bout of relative inactivity has not been a joking matter, but a great source of frustration. He was diagnosed with melanoma, or skin cancer, which required surgery on his scalp. The skin that was removed there was replaced with a graft from his thigh. Mr. Chater has developed a nasty infection on the thigh, which has kept him out of the pool for a few weeks, and in a great deal of pain.

Yet, he remains philosophical. "At my age, all I have left is to convince people to stay fit. If I can't do it by example, I'll do it in other ways."

Those "other ways" are Mr. Chater's modest way of referring to his philanthropy. He has campaigned tirelessly to raise money for the YMCA in Hamilton -- in particular, the Partners in Youth program -- and recently gave a personal gift of $1-million.

"If I can give a few kids a healthy start in life like I got, it will be worthwhile," Mr. Chater said.

Fitness profile

Name: Les Chater: age 94

Currently: Being inducted into the YMCA Fellowship of Honour. Mr. Chater has been a Y member for more than 80 years, and a volunteer for several decades.

Previously: Former chief engineer at Stelco. Author of Behind The Fence, detailing his harrowing experience as a prisoner of war in

Japan during the Second World War.

The goal: To inspire young people to make a lifetime commitment to fitness and good health.

"I owe my very survival in the PoW camps to exercise, to being fit, and I've never forgotten how important that was."

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About the Author
Public health reporter

André Picard is a health reporter and columnist at The Globe and Mail, where he has been a staff writer since 1987. He is also the author of three bestselling books.André has received much acclaim for his writing. More


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