Meet the 87-year-old P.E.I. bodybuilder still pushing himself to stay fit

An 87-year-old former P.E.I. bodybuilder who still holds the title of Canada's oldest bodybuilder is hoping to be inducted into the PEI Sports Hall of Fame.

Canada's oldest bodybuilder has two hip replacements but keeps on ticking

'You gotta keep moving,' says Ernie Heckbert. 'If you don't keep moving, rigor mortis will set in.' (Pat Martel/CBC)

Ernie Heckbert from Summerside, P.E.I., is a man on the move, whether he's lifting weights or gliding on an elliptical machine.

"You gotta keep moving," Heckbert said with a smile. "That's what I tell the seniors — If you don't keep moving, rigor mortis will set in."

I'm going to move as long as I can.— Ernie Heckbert

For years, Heckbert had a little basement gym in his home, so when he and his late wife moved into an apartment building seven years ago he decided to convert one of the bedrooms into a mini-gym. 

Although the 87-year-old stopped competing in bodybuilding events when he was 79, he still holds the record for Canada's oldest bodybuilder.

Two years ago, Heckbert had his second hip replacement after a bad fall on an icy sidewalk. He's never fully recovered, even though he exercises every day. 

'Teased for being skinny'

"I'm trying to get my muscle mass back," he said. "I go for walks and work out on the equipment as much as I can."

Heckbert inspired his granddaughter Nicole Fraser to begin bodybuilding — this photo was taken in 2014 at her first competition. (Pat Martel/CBC)

Although Heckbert is a bit discouraged his recovery has been slow, his daughter Susan Christensen is impressed with his progress.

"He's doing fantastic," said Christensen. "It's just taking him longer to come back from the second one, but with patience and time I think it will get better."

Heckbert has always pushed himself to be fit, ever since he was picked on for being scrawny as a kid back in the '40s.

"I was teased for being skinny, so I thought I'd do something about it, said Heckbert, pulling out an album of old photos.

Homemade equipment

He was 16 when he got his first set of barbells in 1946, a year after the Second World War ended. 

'I was teased for being skinny, so I thought I 'd do something about it,' says Heckbert. He was 16 when he got his first set of barbells in 1946. (Pat Martel/CBC)

The next photo shows a young man of 24 exercising on homemade gym equipment.

"After the war you couldn't get metal, so I made all my equipment out of two by four planks." 

Some of his daughter's earliest memories are of Heckbert working out in the family's dirt basement. Christensen recalls the time her father got so fed up with the cramped space, he literally took matters into his own hands. 

"He couldn't lift his weights down there because the ceiling wasn't high enough, so he dug a hole by hand, took all the dirt out of the house by hand so he could lift his weights over his head," she said with a smile. 

'For the love of bodybuilding' 

Christensen recalls her dad never used power tools.

'There's diabetes in my family but I've been able to control it with diet and exercise,' says Heckbert. (Pat Martel/CBC)

"He always made of point of doing everything with tools that didn't plug in so he could use his own manual labour when he worked," she said. "He had one of those grass mowers, not the motorized ones. And he'd use hand saws."

Even though Heckbert retired from competing, he has continued to stay in shape. 

"Well, you'd have to do it for the love of bodybuilding. I'd have people say, 'All that work!' but I enjoy doing it," he said.

Encouraging other seniors

Heckbert has even encouraged others to take up the sport, including his granddaughter Nicole Fraser.

'With patience and time, I think it will get better,' says Susan Christensen about how long it's taking her dad to recover from his second hip replacement. (Pat Martel/CBC)

"I got into the fitness world because of him. I did my first show and I thought I would do it for my grandfather," Fraser said. "He was always into bodybuilding when I was growing up."

She was inspired to try it when she accompanied her grandfather and parents to the Provincial Bodybuilding Championships, where Heckbert received a lifetime achievement award. 

"I loved the show and thought, 'Oh, I could do that,'" Fraser said — a year later she entered her first competition.

Heckbert is also helping other seniors in his building to keep fit.

"I got them dumbbells — each a set of dumbbells," he said. He also bought and installed an exercise machine in a common room.

The last few years haven't been easy for Heckbert. His wife, Velda, died from cancer in 2013. Both had been healthy most of their lives. 

"Up until I was 60, I never even took an aspirin, so this has been quite an experience for me over the last five years since my wife died. We were married for 63 years and she was never sick." 

'Slow coming back'

Despite the heartbreak, Heckbert carries on keeping in shape.

'I was born on Prince Edward Island, lived on P.E.I. all my life,' says Heckbert about his bid to be inducted into the PEI Sports Hall of Fame. (Pat Martel/CBC)

"I'm going to move as long as I can. But it's been slow coming back, I'll tell you." 

Heckbert's healthy lifestyle has had other benefits, he said.

"There's diabetes in my family but I've been able to control it with diet and exercise, because my blood sugar would go up." 

'A little guy with big ideas'

Heckbert proudly displays newspaper clippings, photos and magazine stories about his past glory.

'I'm going to move as long as I can. But it's been slow coming back,' says Heckbert, after a slow recovery from his second hip operation two years ago. (Pat Martel/CBC)

"You go on Google, they'll say that I'm the oldest bodybuilder in Canada," he said. "That's amazing because I'm just a little guy with big ideas."

Heckbert has his eye on one more prize — a few years ago, he was nominated for induction into the P.E.I. Sports Hall of Fame. 

"They told my daughter that they were impressed, but then they wanted to put it on hold for later." That was four years ago.

Heckbert is "disappointed" with that decision.

"I was born on Prince Edward Island, lived on P.E.I. all my life. I feel I've been doing it for 72 years now and I've trained a lot of people."

Heckbert appeared in a book by cartoonist Wayne Wright, along with Olympian Heather Moyse. 'She got around with my granddaughter and she loved to come to my house to use the gym.' (Pat Martel/CBC)

"He's been amazingly devoted to his sport," Christensen said. "I think that would be a good thing to see happen — I would hope that it will."

Nick Murray from the P.E.I. Sports Hall of Fame said Heckbert's application is still on file, and will be reviewed by this year's selection committee along with about 20 other nominees. 

Murray said Heckbert's advanced age will be taken into consideration, adding the committee will look at other factors when choosing this year's inductees.

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Pat Martel has worked with CBC P.E.I. for three decades, mostly with Island Morning where he was a writer-broadcaster and producer. He joined the web team recently to share his passion for great video. Pat also runs an adult coed soccer league in Stratford. He retired in Oct. 2019.