At 101, he knows a thing or two about working out and staying fit

Yehuda Hammer, 101, demonstrates part of his exercise routine — 30 minutes on a recumbent cross trainer — at the Lions Gate retirement community in Voorhees Township, N.J., on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018. TIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Yehuda Hammer, who was born in 1916, strides into the fitness center at Lions Gate in Voorhees.

He carries a cane, although he doesn’t seem to need it.

“Not always I can move so quick,” he explains, setting the cane against the wall.

“When you’re old, you’re old.”

But when you’re an active, independent, sharp-minded centenarian who spends an hour a day working out on cross-training, chest press, and universal machines, even being very old can seem relative.

And while classical music is playing and no clang-and-bang of free weights can be heard in this fitness room — it’s not a pumping iron, thumping soundtrack sort of gym — Hammer’s exertions have paid off.

“He has the muscle strength of a 40-year-old,” says his physician, Kevin Overbeck, 41. “His bicep strength is remarkable.”

So is the man himself.

A widower with one surviving child, five grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren, Hammer was born in Poland, survived the Holocaust, and endured being imprisoned in Stalin’s Russia.

The anti-Semitism he experienced in his youth convinced him of the need for a Jewish state, and he became a Zionist at age 17. He moved to what is now Israel in 1947 and participated in the refugee resettlement effort made famous by the book and the movie, Exodus; he immigrated to the United States in 1960 and worked mostly as a tailor.

Original paintings by Israeli artists are prominently displayed in his apartment in Lions Gate’s independent living section. Hammer moved there from his Long Island home in 2014,  at age 98.

“That’s the Golan Heights,” he says, pointing to a particularly handsome canvas on the wall as he arranges family photos on the dining room table.

It’s a busy morning: Hammer is entertaining a newspaper columnist, a photographer, his doctor, and several officials of Lions Gate. He’s gracious and seemingly unfazed by it all, although anxious to start his workout.

I want to be this guy when I grow up.

“There’s no secret,” Hammer says. “I’m a simple person.”

He is, however, a big believer in exercising and stretching before he gets out of bed in the morning. He says it gets the blood flowing and gives him energy to start the day.

“Before I exercise [in bed], I’m lame,” he says. “Exercise makes me able to move.”

Hammer also walks regularly, although he doesn’t use the Lions Gate pool because he’s “not a good swimmer.” He stays busy, enjoys the company of other people, and  says life’s adversities have made him stronger.

“I never was sick. Maybe a cold, a running nose. But I never was in the hospital,” he says. “And I always in my life worked a lot.”

But he adds: “I want to tell you, It wasn’t so easy.”

Down-to-earth and matter-of-fact, Hammer and his doctor share an easygoing rapport.

“Mr. H has lived 60 years longer than I have. And I’m going to give him advice? I do a lot more listening.” Overbeck says. “By listening to him, I can tell others what works and doesn’t work.”

Camera icon TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Susan Love, CEO of Jewish Senior Housing and Healthcare Service; Yehuda Hammer (center), 101; and Kevin Overbeck, a physician at Rowan University’s New Jersey Institute for Successful Aging who works with Hammer, at the Lions Gate retirement community fitness center in Voorhees.

Overbeck is a primary care physician at Lions Gate and is a faculty member of the New Jersey Institute for Successful Aging at Rowan University’s School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford.

The institute provides comprehensive medical and psychiatric services from its satellite office at Lions Gate. The retirement community offers assisted living and skilled nursing care, as well as independent living, for about 400 people.

“What the physicians learn in their practices at Lions Gate is not only translated into research but into educating future physicians,” says Lauren Budesa, the institute’s director of administration.

Clinical experiences, observations, or insights Overbeck and his institute colleagues make at Lions Gate may be helpful in developing treatment approaches “that can be used in outpatient settings” for conditions such as dementia, Budesa says.

Doctors in training “tend to encounter older people in the hospital, when they’re at their weakest,” Overbeck notes.

“After I met Mr. Hammer, I started to think, what if your best self  — not necessarily your strongest self, but your best self  — is when you’re 90. What if we continue to evolve decade by decade?”

Not only the doctor has found Hammer inspiring; younger Lions Gate residents have, too.

“Some folks who are 90-something see Mr. Hammer and tell me they’ve been working out,” Overbeck says. “He’s a tremendous influence on this community.

“Maybe it’s possible that Mr. Hammer is his best self today. At 101.”