By Nate Widom
To many, personal training means practicing workouts with a certified trainer tailored to your own body. However, it can be so much more! In the case of 68-year-old Stewart Dotts, his sessions with HAC personal trainer Willie Wilson have been critical to helping him through surgery. In fact, Willie’s training allowed him to move in ways he once couldn’t after his knee replacement!
Stewart began his fit lifestyle when he swam and wrestled in school. Although he participated in athletics all his life, he never considered himself a star athlete. And after a varied occupational background in sales, his path led him to Delaware where he worked as the last operating superintendent of the now demolished Curtis Paper Mill on Paper Mill Road. Once the mill ceased operations, his wife talked him into teaching and he got his teaching certificate from the University of Delaware.
Stewart then became a teacher and taught high school chemistry for about 20 years. Around this time, he coached his high school’s wrestling and cross-country teams.
In this period of his life, Stewart also started to run—and that’s the activity he loves the most. “Some people play golf; they do it all their lives. That’s who they are. For me, it’s running,” Stewart shares. “I started from barely able to do a mile or two, to [running] a half marathon and a marathon. I actually did the Laurel Highlands 70.5-mile mountain race!”
In his late 50s, Stewart continued to run competitively and for fun, even planning to continue running into his 90s. However, his goal was complicated by a seemingly minor overuse injury which led to surgery, physical therapy, and personal training sessions.
Stewart is a longtime member at HAC and Pike Creek Fitness, HAC’s previous facility. As a member, Stewart continued to run, coach his students, and come to HAC for workouts through the years.
A few years ago, Stewart was working out and noticed a sudden pain after using the leg extension machine. “I didn’t even know what happened at the time; I just knew that my knee hurt,” he states. Stewart shook off the pain and continued to lift other weights, but the pain worsened the next day. “I was out running with my friends, and I hyper-extended my knee, and it hurt. I finished the run and I was okay, but then a day later, I could hardly walk around the backyard.”
Thankfully, the pain got better. After meeting with a doctor who conducted an MRI, Stewart was informed that he had a torn meniscus due to overloading the leg extension machine. “It was my fault entirely. I thought I was the young fellow when I was at 50, but I was a young fellow at 64,” he states. “I didn’t even know I did it when I did it.”
However, he was told his torn meniscus wasn’t severe since his knee didn’t lock up and the pain went away. For Stewart, running remained safe, and he was instructed his knees would be fine if he didn’t use the machine again and/or participate in dangerous activity.
Stewart ran a couple more marathons and continued his routine, but there was one problem. While Stewart’s torn meniscus initially may not have been worth the trouble to address, his doctor warned him it will affect him over time and may need medical attention eventually. And it did.
“He did say it was gonna deteriorate because your meniscus is pretty thin, and now you’ve torn it and you’re going to start getting arthritic,” states Stewart. “And after a while, it wore the cartilage on the condyles at the end of my femur.”
I finished the run and I was okay, but then a day later, I could hardly walk around the backyard.
The deterioration was expected to become serious many years after his diagnosis. However, it occurred much more quickly. Stewart believes this is due to his family’s history of arthritis and his love for running. Furthermore, his knee also became increasingly weakened in another incident when he carried hefty bags over his shoulder and his body couldn’t handle it.
According to Stewart, running helps the body during the later years of life since the activity makes your knees stronger. However, if you have a flaw such as a torn meniscus, running sometimes increases the rate of the body’s deterioration in the affected area over time.
“I would go through periods where running was not possible and walking left me in pain,” Stewart mentions. “Gradually, the act of walking in the park became painful, as did walking down steps.” Eventually, Stewart began to regularly limp as he walked and later had trouble walking altogether.
At this point, Stewart and his doctor decided it was best to find a solution through surgery. The surgical intervention entailed drilling small holes in the condyle at the end of the femur and filling it with cement. Eventually, the concrete would harden and protect the end of the bone, thus improving the knee. Stewart hoped a successful surgery would allow him to run for the next few years while understanding that he would eventually need a knee replacement.
The surgery at first seemed successful. But a few months later, even though the pain improved, Stewart was still dealing with knee issues. Hence, Stewart needed a knee replacement surgery sooner than expected, and he wanted to make life after surgery as easy as possible.
“The best advice I got other than my own reading was to try to get in shape beforehand,” shares Stewart. “I thought if I have a knee replacement and I’m this weak, recovery can be hard.” Stewart discussed his idea with his physical therapist, Chris Vodzak at Elite PT. Chris agreed with Stewart and believed that getting in shape before his October surgery would help him post-op.
At this point, Stewart’s pain was at its worst, but he stuck it out knowing he now had a plan to reduce his discomfort. With just six weeks before his knee replacement surgery, Stewart turned to HAC for personal training sessions. Aside from a couple of complimentary sessions that came with his membership when he first joined, Stewart had never worked with a personal trainer.
After stopping by the personal training desk, he was introduced to personal trainer Willie Wilson. Stewart knew that Willie would be the perfect fit because they both coached sports and had matching personalities. “I talked to him and thought, ‘Yep, that’s the guy!’” states Stewart. He booked as many sessions as he could, and Willie knew precisely what to do.
“It was going to be a challenge to work with him, but it’s one of those challenges you look forward to,” states Willie.
Even though Stewart was experienced in athletics and prided himself on his strength expertise, he was shocked when he first started training with Willie. “All of a sudden, I was training with Willie and thought, ‘oh my god, I can’t believe how weak I am,’” states Stewart.
All of a sudden, unlike prior surgeries, I can plant my left leg and turn on the ball of my foot.
However, Stewart quickly began to adjust and utilized many new exercises. “Willie has got me pulling on rubber bands and using weights on pulleys, 25 pounds instead of 50. Then you start doing it and realize how hard this is,” states Stewart. “What he’s doing is engaging multiple muscles and muscle groups at the same time. He’s very good and very knowledgeable about doing what looks like a simple and easy exercise but turns out to be really quite challenging.”
According to Willie, it was beneficial for Stewart to strengthen the smaller muscles around the knee joint to reinforce the region of his leg. He introduced Stewart to band work, calf raises, and internal and external rotation in the thigh area.
“I focus more on movement and movement patterns… not so much the old traditional weightlifting,” states Willie. “We didn’t use any machines in our training. We used bands and balls and hurdles.”
The challenge turned out to be eye-opening for Stewart, who now prefers Willie’s exercises to what he’s done before. “I’ve learned to really appreciate what he’s doing. It’s a lot safer, too!” states Stewart. “What Willie is showing or teaching is better, especially for somebody my age to stay in shape.”
Thanks to Willie’s personal training, Stewart was ready for his October knee replacement surgery. Stewart was operated on at 7:00 in the morning and returned home between 3:00-4:00 in the afternoon. Not only was the surgery a success, but Stewart also was able to do things post-op that he hadn’t been able to do in years. And for that, he credits Willie’s training.
“All of a sudden, unlike prior surgeries, I can plant my left leg and turn on the ball of my foot.” While Stewart still can’t bend his knee as far as he wants, he can lift his left leg up and therefore walk upstairs
In addition, Stewart has even been walking up to 3.5 miles a day multiple days a week. Recently, he’s been taking tentative running steps, jogging a short distance to see how his foot feels when hitting the ground.
While he feels uncomfortable when this motion occurs, he is confident he will feel better over time. “It’s not hitting the ground that hurts. It’s the straightening, the quick snap when you step forward,” mentions Stewart. “And that’s gonna do nothing but get better.”
In fact, Stewart still plans to keep up his longtime running hobby, albeit with some modifications. He is a fan of running on trails in the woods, not on pavement. Unlike running on pavement, trail running is much softer on the knees. However, Stewart doesn’t plan to train for any marathons since intense marathon training will loosen the bond between the steel and the bone on his knee.
“It’s fun to think about doing something like that again,” explains Stewart. Running was a big part of his social life, and he’d love to run 12-minute miles 3-4 days a week on the trails of White Clay Creek State Park. “[I’d like to] just be able to go out with my friends and have pleasant Saturday and Sunday mornings and Tuesday afternoons,” says Stewart. “I feel pretty confident now!”
Stewart loves Willie’s personality and believes he should’ve done personal training even if he didn’t have surgery.
As a matter of fact, his physical therapist told him with the progress he’s making, he wouldn’t be surprised if Stewart ends up doing the Laurel Highlands 70.5-mile race again. And Willie also agrees that Stewart is more than capable. “They tell us, ‘If you can do it, why not?’” says Willie. “If he wants to run into his 90’s and do the work, he’ll be fine. You just have to improve and continue to do the work.”
Overall, Stewart feels positive about his experience and feels he made the right decision to train. Stewart loves Willie’s personality and believes he should’ve done personal training even if he didn’t have surgery.
“I do like it when people know that when they’re going into surgery, it’s good to start working out,” Willie explains. “It prepares you to succeed, and instead of dreading the surgery, you take that positive approach and bounce back. That’s the thing I love about Stewart; he was proactive about surgery!”