What I Learned About Health and Fitness from a Champion Bodybuilder

Lessons learned from Chuck Amata, former Mr. Oregon and long-time personal trainer.

OPINION -- Like a lot of middle-aged men, I used to eat the wrong food, and didn’t exercise enough. I had plenty of excuses too—including the demands of my job as a Portland City Commissioner.

That changed when I met Chuck Amato. Chuck is a former Mr. Oregon, a long-time personal trainer at the Matt Dishman Community Center, and an expert on health and fitness.

I remember the first time we met four years ago. Chuck was being recognized for 50 years of service to Portland Parks and Recreation; I was the Commissioner-in-charge. We named the gym at Dishman the “Chuck Amato Fitness Center” in his honor.

During the ceremony, he asked me about my diet and whether I exercised regularly. When I confessed to some bad habits, he gently offered me advice about how to live a healthier life.

It was basic stuff. Build regular exercise into my schedule. Eat healthier foods. And stick with it.

Well, I followed his advice, lost about 25 pounds and two sizes, and have felt healthier ever since. It turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks!

Recently, I visited Chuck and Lori Amato at their home in Happy Valley. I wanted to learn more about Chuck’s life story, and why he is so passionate about health and fitness.

Chuck grew up in Ladd’s Edition in Portland, and attended Cleveland High School. He was a skinny teenager. Inspired by a teacher and by the example of Charles Atlas, he began to exercise, starting with push-ups and chin-ups. Then he took up weight lifting, and became a regular at Loprinzi’s Gym, located at 41st and Division.

He was a natural (or what he calls a “freak of nature”), and developed into a famous bodybuilder. He was named Mr. Portland and Mr. Oregon, and was recognized for “best abs” in the Mr. America competition.

In 1962, while a student at Portland State University, he started working as a “weight lifting instructor” at the former Knott Street Community Center. Dorothea Lensch, Portland’s first Recreation Director, was an early booster. Charles Jordan, a beloved former Parks Director, would become a regular at the gym.

54 years later, he still works 3 days a week, training people and sharing his wisdom. He is 74 years old, but looks more like 50.

When I asked him what his secret is, he credits good genes (his mother is 98, and his grandparents both lived to 97), healthy food, regular exercise, plenty of rest, and practicing what he calls the “universal principals.”

Here is the short version of what I learned.

Let’s start with exercise. Pick something you like to do. For Chuck, it is weightlifting. But it could be swimming, biking, or gardening. The goal is to improve the circulation of blood in your body.

You should exercise 2-4 times a week, in intervals of between 15 minutes to an hour. The key is “regular” exercise. And don’t overdo it or you will lose interest.

Next, the basic rules about food and eating. Chuck believes we should “plan” our meals. Start with 3-5 small meals a day. Then follow the nutrition guidelines we all learned in high school.

When he goes to work, Chuck packs his own meals, which may include cut up fruit like pineapple, a hard-boiled egg, an avocado, and raw vegetables.

What kinds of food does he recommend? Yogurt—good for the digestive system. Honey—helps to control bacteria. Fresh pineapple, paired with any protein. Fresh berries, especially blackberries, are high in anti-oxidants. Avocados—the “right kind” of fat, loaded with potassium and fiber. Olive oil. Greens—including Swiss chard, kale, lettuce, spinach, and collard greens. Lemons and pomegranates. Complex carbohydrates like brown rice and whole grain bread.

In addition to a good diet and regular exercise, Chuck believes in “healthy practices.” Like spending time outdoors. Growing your own food in a garden. Developing hobbies and friendships.

Finally, a man of strong faith, Chuck embraces what he calls “universal principles.” These are the rules that have guided his adult life, and which he believes are essential to longevity and happiness.

They include the following:

1. Seek wisdom. Be willing to learn new things, and to accept correction.

2. Do good. It is healing to the body.

3. Be kind and truthful.

4. Seek peace and practice it with all people.

5. Guard your heart carefully.

6. And my personal favorite: develop an attitude of thankfulness.

A shorthand way of describing Chuck’s philosophy is “live right.” As he told me, the person who follows these simple rules will be like a tree full of sap even in old age.

So there you have it. Eat, train, and be happy. The life lessons of a former Mr. Oregon who is still teaching us to live healthier, more purposeful lives. And for that, I am thankful.

Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish was first elected to the Council in 2008. He leads our public utilities, and serves as Council liaison to the arts, small business and older adults. Nick enjoys riding his bike, watching his son play soccer, and listening to jazz. When he served as Parks Commissioner, Nick was an advocate for heathy food. He lead "1000 Gardens," which doubled the number of community gardens, and kicked junk food out of our recreation centers. Nick's grandfather lived until 102. His motto was: "everything in moderation."

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