This piece was first published on Six Pack Abs on August 18, 2014.
I have a feeling I’m going to die at the keyboard.
My wife seems to think I’m going die every time I get in a kayak, ride my bike, or go skiing, but I’m booking for old age and continuing to work until I’m decrepit because I love my job so much that it doesn’t feel much like work.
Bill Henderson, the lead singer and guitar player for Chilliwack, feels the same way. At 69 years old he’s still rocking to sold out crowds, playing popular hits like “My Girl,” “Whatcha Gonna Do” and “Fly at Night,” because even though he’s on the cusp of being a septuagenarian, the concept of full retirement is anathema. And so, it’s only semi-retirement, playing about 25 shows a year, and keeping busy with multiple projects year round.
Some people his age sit back and gather moss, watching TV and waiting to die. Screw that.
I’m 46 and fighting a valiant delaying action against age. I’m in much better shape that I was at half this age, and I intend to keep on moving and eating right so I can cram in all the living I have left to do before I finally wear out and do the rapid decline into dirt nap.
Bill is not too old to rock and roll. I saw the band play on August 1 on Vancouver Island, and they rocked the house. I didn’t think 69-year old vocal chords could hold those high notes, but he did. He didn’t stand still much either. Rocking with the music, he and his band mates whipped up the crowd, including the 85-year-old volunteer usher, who spent the entire show on her feet, dancing. During the encore this sweet old lady was jumping up and down and cheering with the rest of us.
But playing hard at 69 requires work off-stage. And that’s how Bill stays in shape: by working.
“I tried the gym thing and I just can’t get into it,” Bill told me. We were sitting in a coffee shop the morning after the show and it didn’t look like the previous night’s efforts had tired him out at all. “I did the gym for a year about ten years ago. I got some private instruction and did a bit of weights, and there was this circuit that I would do. I’d never done it prior to that, but I found the gym too culturally specific.” The gym is certainly not for everyone.
“I was never any good at sports but I loved to walk,” Bill said. “I didn’t have a car until I was well into my 20s. I always walked everywhere.” But it’s more than just walking that keeps Bill in shape.
“I get my exercise mainly from living in the country on Salt Spring Island. We heat our house with wood. So you know there is a certain amount of work that needs to happen, and it’s regular. You’re doing it all the time: chopping wood and carrying wood. During the summer you’re getting your wood ready for the next winter.” I know all about this. My dad lives in northern BC and heats with wood. I’ve chopped enough timber to stretch across the country. It is a helluva workout.
Bill also gets recruited as grunt labor.
“My wife is an incredible gardener, vegetable as well as floral. She has me help her. We have about 3 acres worth of garden at our place, and I’m building structures and doing weeding and stuff. I’m the grunt labor guy. When things need to be built or heavy things need to be carried, I’m always the guy who is doing that: digging holes and turning compost. It’s hard and heavy work.” The only traditional “exercise” that Bill gets is swimming. Their property is oceanfront and he takes advantage.
The benefits of his labors can be seen on stage. I took my mom to the show, who insisted I mention that she sold “all” the tickets to one of Chilliwack’s very first shows before I was born (my dad was close friends with the brother of one of the band’s founding members), and we were both impressed with the energy Bill brought to the performance.
But he’s not superhuman either.
“I had a heart thing happen about five years ago,” Bill said. “I was walking up the hill on my property. It ended up almost freezing one side of my body. It was very intense, so I went to see the doctor and he sent me to the hospital and I ended up getting a stent.” Bill’s doctor wanted to put him on pharmaceuticals, but he’s electing to treat it with exercise and meditation instead of medication.
“I’m constantly dealing with this on a day to day basis so I can still do what I want to do. When we get up there and do the show it’s intense. I’m not holding back and I love it. But I have to think about strategies and how much I can do.”
I get this. At 46 I need to be careful when it comes to recovery time for exercise, and take pain as a serious warning. Everyone is going to feel his age eventually, but again, it’s about fighting that delaying action. You push, but you push smart, and you get to keep on rocking so the couch is lonely.
“I don’t like TV,” Bill said. “I rarely watch it.”
And this is because he’s always busy, not just the labor around the household, but preparing for concert performances and other musical endeavors. “I’m doing a songwriting workshop in Vancouver next week and it’s 9-5 everyday. It’s going to be intense.”
On the dietary side, Bill’s and his wife are pescetarian, which are vegetarians who eat fish. They consume a lot of vegetables from their own garden, and get fresh fish from a local fisherman on Salt Spring Island. No farmed stuff.
The concert performances are all part of the fitness regimen. “It’s a great workout,” he said. “It’s very aerobic and it’s physically intense.”
Twenty-seven seems like a popular age for some musicians to check out, but Bill is another example of how smart and fit living can lead to rock and roll longevity. Neil Peart from Rush and Paul Stanley from KISS both told me similar stories.
So what can you take away from this?
Even if you’re young, it’s important to think about the future. There is an adage that goes, “If I’d known I was going to live this long I would have taken better care of myself.” I don’t want to ever say those regret-filled words, and neither should you.
You can be like Bill, and even like the 85-year-old woman rocking out to some righteous tunes, if you just spend some time today considering your future. Saving for retirement seems pretty pointless if it’s just to pay for the cable bill and a pile of medications while you meld with the couch and decompose.
Old age doesn’t mean an end to adventure. Often, it can mean the freedom to pursue it; if you’re smart enough while you’re young to make sure you have the body to handle it.
So keep on rockin’.
James S. Fell, CSCS, is an internationally syndicated fitness columnist for the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and AskMen.com. He is the author of Lose it Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Help You Get Fit and Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind, published by Random House Canada.