Exercise helped singer turn his life around

Opera singer Hannu Ilmolahti used to perform in a wheelchair because of his health issues.
Opera singer Hannu Ilmolahti used to perform in a wheelchair because of his health issues.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Finnish opera singer Hannu Ilmolahti used to be quite the sight on stage, but it was not because of his deep, sonorous voice or the costume changes.

Weighing 125kg and having hurt his ankle, he had to belt out songs in the musical from a wheelchair.

After singing in more than 20 performances in a wheelchair, Mr Ilmolahti decided to get his ankle operated on by the same Finnish orthopaedic surgeon who worked on former footballer David Beckham's foot.

Six surgeries later, Mr Ilmolahti found himself in so much nerve pain that he could not walk and had to crawl to the toilet.

"I could not do anything myself, was overweight, my blood sugar and cholesterol levels were too high and my muscles were atrophic from little use," said Mr Ilmolahti, 58.

The turning point came five years ago when he mustered up the courage to join Actilife, a gym chain in Kokkola, Finland, that is catered to those aged 40 and above. "I had driven past it many times in the past but finally found the courage to go in because with an older crowd, I felt more confident and comfortable," he said.

It helped that the machines were more suited for the needs of older people and used software to track his progress.

These are the same type of exercise machines that the Lien Foundation has brought into Singapore.

After five years of training and doing away with his fast-food diet, Mr Ilmolahti has shed 45kg. He is now also a part-time instructor to 80 men aged 40 to 70 at the gym.

"I move better on stage now and my sugar and cholesterol levels are back to normal," he said.

Actilife has four centres in Kokkola. Most of its 1,250 members are 40 years old and above, with the oldest being 87 years old.

"We started this concept because we realised that if there are young people around in the gym, the old people don't like to be there," said its club manager Kai Ahlrath. "The concept is catching on and we have people in wheelchairs coming in, as well as those who can hardly walk after going through operations." Said Mr Ilmolahti: "We need to realise that it is never too late to get off the sofa because we only have now, this moment, to turn our lives around."

Janice Tai

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 30, 2015, with the headline 'Exercise helped singer turn his life around'. Print Edition | Subscribe