Finding the fountain of youth

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By Patrick James Asselin

Mack Miya expects to live at least another 50 years. So do most Ryerson students in their late teens and early 20s.

But Miya isn’t a Ryerson student – he never received a formal university education. What makes Miya different is that he’s already exceeded the life expectancy of the average Canadian male.

At the age of 65, he was one of the few senior citizens who could ride the bus at a discount or to pick it up and carry it on his back. The former Sunshine Boy (who appeared on three different occasions) is a diminutive 79-year old powder-keg who owns and operates a gym on Dundas Street West. He’s been training himself and others for almost sixty years after opening the first “hardcore” gym in Toronto.

On the verge of becoming an octogenarian, Miya looks like a spry 50-year-old with the strength of a man half his age. He can’t remember the last time he got sick and missed a workout.

The ageless wonder gets up at 7 a.m. to train every day and attributes his physique and longevity to regular exercise, healthy food and a lack of stress. Not that his body is 100 per cent natural – Miya admits to adding a little colour to his jet-black hair.

Life hasn’t always been so easy for the original Big Mack. Born and raised in British Columbia, Mack spent six months in an internment camp during the Second World War.

His parents – both Japanese immigrants – wanted him to return to their native land. “They were trying to get me out of Canada, but I said, ‘No, I’d rather stay here.’”

He’s still upset about being held as a prisoner of war by his own government. “They [the government] were stealing all the property,” he says. “The older people didn’t have a command of English, and because they couldn’t speak up for themselves their land was raised, their trees bulldozed. They spent thousands of dollars, if not millions, to set up farms. After that, they had it resold for next to nothing.”

While stuck in the internment camp, Mack began boxing in exhibition matches with other Japanese Canadians. Miya says he developed his trademark knockout punch by helping his father chop trees in B.C. “I wasn’t trained as a boxer – I knew nothing about proper foot movement or ducking techniques – but when I connected with an opponent, that guy went down.”

After being released from the internment camp, Miya moved to Toronto in the late 1940s and soon set up his first gym on Queen Street near Lansdowne.

He began boxing as a 128-pound featherweight, winning a few titles along the way and earning the distinction of being – pound for pound – the strongest man in Canada.

“Most of my lifting started about 35 years ago,” he says, recalling simpler days before steroids and dietary supplements.

At his peak, Miya says he could bench-press 500 pounds. “It was a world record at the time,” he boasts proudly while looking around his crowed office. The walls of his gym are covered with trophies, old photos and memorabilia collected from 60 years in the industry.

Mack’s gym doesn’t look anything like the one at Ryerson; there’s no indoor track for running, no wall-to-wall mirrors and you have to bring your own towels.

Nino Robles, a fitness coordinator at Ryerson, says it doesn’t matter where you train, as long as you’re committed and using proper form. Robles feels the majority of students aren’t worried about living long healthy lives.

“Most 17-, 18-year-olds aren’t really concerned with overall health because they’re still young,” he says. “They’re invulnerable – that’s the mentality that most younger people have.”

Robles says students exercise for esthetic reasons. Instead, they should be thinking about the long term health benefits.

“When you get to be 35, your goals will change. You’ll start to notice your muscle mass is decreasing. Maybe you’re putting on extra weight in the form of fat. It’s not as easy to stay in shape,” Robles says. “So now you have to adapt your training regimen to help your body adapt.”

The Monster Mack – as Miya used to be known as – began entering weightlifting competitions and talent shows long before most Ryerson students were born.

Once, in an arm-wrestling competition at the C.N.E., Miya challenged and beat 50 other men. One of Miya’s competitors tried to cheat, and received a broken arm in return.

“He was a smart-ass,” Miya explains without apology.

Miya trained for the arm-wrestling competition by designing his own training equipment. He describes that particular 50-year-old piece of equipment as the “Cadillac” of arm exercises. Although it now sits rusted and unused, Miya continues to build personal home fitness equipment on request.

“Necessity is the mother of all invention,” says Miya about how he figured out the proper design.

In the good old days, Miya dazzled crowds by lifting 300 pounds over his head with just one arm. In order to achieve such super-human feats, Miya used to train five hours a day, seven days a week.

Hardcore training is not for everyone, Miya admits. Some individuals like John Cook, the 58-year-old head of Ryerson’s English department, prefer to train less intensely. Cook’s been going to the RAC since it first opened and as he approaches senior citizen status, Cook believes it’ important to pay attention to his body and to adjust his exercise program accordingly.

“It very definitely gives you signals that there are some things you’re not doing quite right,” Cook says. “I don’t have a particular target,” and prefers using cardio machines rather than heavy weights.

But Cook differs from Miya and Robles when it comes to food. He says he eats “anything I feel like” in moderation and doesn’t count calories.

“I eat the things I like to eat,” Cook says.

Unlike Cook, Miya sticks to a strict diet that includes a serving of egg whites and porridge for breakfast, and tuna, chicken and baked potatoes in small meals throughout the day.

“I don’t eat too much red meat. I’m more into fish and chicken,” he says, adding that at least six small meals a day are necessary to build muscle.

Miya has advice to those who want to emulate his lifestyle.

“You have to exercise and watch your diet – no fats, sugar, salt,” he says. “I virtually eliminate anything that’s got fat.”

He says the trick is to eliminate bad food from your diet gradually.

Miya says other bad habits are also off-limits, too, because they take years off your lifespan.

“The idea is to keep away from drinking and smoking,” he says. “Most people age very fast because they drink and smoke.”

Miya is frank in his opinion that women cause stress that also shortens your lifespan.

“Say you have a girlfriend. She’s mad at you. It’s a thorn in your side – extract it. Get rid of her,” he says. “It sounds bad to eliminate a girlfriend, but you have to if you want to live longer.”

At the same time, Miya says his toned and muscular build attracts women several decades younger than himself. A few years ago, when he was in his mid-70s, Miya says he had a 19-year-old girlfriend.

As easily as Miya picks up women, he lets them go. He says their nagging causes too much stress and clouds his mind.

Miya was married for a while but he and his wife split up because he says “it wasn’t compatible with my lifestyle.”

“She was a chef. She made pies, cakes,” he says. “I was eating it. I had to get away.”

He once performed one-arm lifts at the legendary El Mocmbo Tavern and claims he was a bigger draw than the Rolling Stones.

“Mick Jagger packed the place and he got paid thousands,” he jokes. “I only got $50 but I more than packed the place. Everybody was outside, waiting to get in.

Before achieving quasi-celebrity status, Miya used his charisma and good looks to sell gym equipment at the now-defunct Simpson’s department store. He was the highest-paid employee and the first Asian employee on the floor.

Despite his ancestry, Miya didn’t learn to speak Japanese until he was an adult and started touring overseas as a professional body builder.

Miya is confident that his active lifestyle, with healthy food and a minimum of stress, will help him live another few decades.

“I think I’m gonna quit in another 50 years,” he says with a smile.

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