Shaping up Shelby: A gold-medal commitment to fitness

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John Ellis wasn’t happy with himself, but after a big commitment and a year’s worth of work, he’s 50 pounds lighter and as happy physically as he has been in years – and he has the medals to show for it.

By Todd Martin

John Ellis hits the gym six days a week.


A picture of fitness – he jogs, does some weight training, plays golf every weekend – he’s dedicated to a routine and diet that keeps him healthy and in shape.

That focus and routine propelled Ellis, 60, to a banner run in his first Kentucky Senior Games in Murray last month, earning him gold medals in doubles tennis and the 50-, 100- and 400-meter sprints and the long jump. He also added a bronze in singles tennis and silvers in the discus and javelin.

“It was a really interesting competition, and I was shocked to do so well,” he said. “I met so many interesting and friendly people, all focused on their health and fitness and all very committed to being competitive and active as they age.

“It was inspiring to see men and women in their late seventies, eighties and even nineties competing and winning their age groups across the events. These folks are not aging gracefully, they’re taking it head-on.”

But the fact of the matter is, if most of those competitors who Ellis found inspiring knew his story, they’d probably find themselves inspired, too.

July 2011

Ellis wasn’t always so dedicated to health, wellness and fitness.

“I loved to eat just like anyone else, and often I would eat the wrong things,” he said. “But at some point you just have to decide to make a change.”

And for Ellis, that change came in July of 2011. At that point Ellis felt he was at his heaviest, weighing in at about 230 pounds.

“It got to a point where I felt unhealthy,” he said. “I didn’t like the way I looked. I was physically unable to do things I wanted to do. I was getting close to sixty, and I didn’t like the way I looked.”

Ellis hadn’t really thought about a lifestyle change before. He had been active in his younger days, playing tennis at Shelbyville High School and then intramurals while at the University of Kentucky.

“I was pretty active, but never a big-time athlete,” he said. “I never did any track and field or anything like that.”

So he made some changes.

First he tried to make an appointment to see his doctor.

“I called, but they said they couldn’t see me for six months,” he said. “And I knew I just couldn’t wait.”

So he changed his diet – focusing on low or no carbohydrates and lean proteins – and started working out at least 40 minutes a day. He eased into it with walking and then moved on to jogging and lifting weights at the Middletown YMCA before work.

After work, he took a mixed martial arts class twice a week for a while and then added a nightly workout with P90X, an extreme fitness routine that users follow on DVD.

“I’m not going to say it was easy. It was hard at first,” he said. “But then, after the first two or three weeks, when you start seeing some results – a little weight loss, more energy – and you feel better physically and mentally, it starts to become a routine.”

And Ellis just kept following that routine until he’d lost about 50 pounds in one year.

Now down to about 180 to 185 pounds, he was feeling good and fit when another challenge presented itself.

The Senior Games

“I don’t remember how I heard about them [the Kentucky Senior Games], but I got to looking into it,” he said. “Then, I thought, ‘OK, let's test just how fit I am against others my age [in the 60-to-64 age group].’

“My theory was, if I fall flat on my face it’s no big deal, I’d never done anything like this before.”

But Ellis didn’t fall flat, instead he excelled, and he excelled in new events.

“I just thought I’d try some new things,” he said. “I’d never thrown a discus or a javelin before in my life. I just went to YouTube and found some instructional videos and followed those.”

He was able to get his hands on a practice discus, which turned out to be much heavier than the one he threw at the games. But the javelin, that was different.

“I’d certainly never thrown a javelin,” he said. “So I tried to fashion one out of PVC pipe, just so I could practice the run and release.”

So, the morning of the event, he picked up a real javelin for the very first time.

“There was another competitor there from Sparta, Tennessee, and he was a track coach,” Ellis said. “He offered to show a few pointers, and I guess I was a quick learner.”

Ellis took silver in the javelin throw.

His victories qualified him for the National Senior Games, which are in Cleveland, Ohio, next spring, but he said he’s not sure he’ll attend yet.

But he knows he will keep exercising.

Maintaining fitness

“I’m just maintaining now, but I wouldn’t mind losing a few more pounds,” he said. “I’ll have to be careful this time of year with the holidays coming up, just like everybody else.”

He’s continued to run three times a week – using a 2-and-a-half to 3-mile loop out of the Middletown YMCA – and he’s still lifting weights three times a week.

“I really enjoy it now, I do,” he said. “I do it in the morning. I get up a little after five, and I’m at the YMCA by about six-thirty. I’ll use the equipment or run for about thirty-five minutes and then get cleaned up and go to work downtown [he’s a senior account executive with the Bisig Impact Group in Louisville].”

And along with maintaining his health, he said he wants to make sure that people know that what he accomplished isn’t rare, isn’t unattainable and isn’t really even that hard.

“I’m hoping that if people see me getting fit, then they’ll think, ‘Hey, if he can do it, I can do it.’ The bottom line is if you think you can’t do it, you can. It just takes the commitment.

“You can’t be casual about it, you have to commit, but you can do it.”