Parents are all too aware that their kids are always watching them, but this power can be used for good, as is the case with a LaPorte father and his two grown sons. When Bill Nelson started to take his health and fitness more seriously five years ago, sons Erik and Adam took notice. We talked with each of them about what they’ve learned from each other. Spoiler: the lessons go far beyond the weight room.

Bill Nelson

Age 51

Attorney at Braje, Nelson & Janes in Michigan City 

Bill’s fitness journey: While he grew up doing sports and says he has always been blessed with a fast metabolism, in his middle-age years Bill “got skinny fat,” he says. “I wasn’t out of shape, but I was winded climbing stairs.” He also started thinking about getting older and quality of life down the road. “If God gives me enough years to give me grandchildren, I don’t want to be on the porch watching them run around, I want to be running around with them,” he says. So five years ago, he walked into a gym and never looked back. Ever since then, he has consistently worked out five to six days a week. 

What he does to stay fit: Weight lifting, calisthenics, HIIT cardio and circuit cardio. Bill attests that the variety from these workouts is key to his ability to stick with it—not only are they more fun than 30 minutes of static cardio on a treadmill, but they’re effective, too. “One of the best ways to lose weight and transform your physique is weight training,” he says. “When you lift, you gain lean muscle, which burns more calories even at rest than fat does, so when you gain muscle you lose more fat just by living your life than you would by doing cardio all the time.” Bill is also adamant that good nutrition is even more essential than fitness for maintaining a healthy life. “If someone put a gun to my head and said you can pick between working out all the time and eating healthy, I would choose eating healthy.”

Reaping the rewards: Bill lists seven ways his life has improved from his commitment to fitness: increased energy, strength (“I’m 51 years old and the strongest I’ve ever been in my life”), confidence, the ability to do more, a stronger mind, improved relationships, and—a side benefit, he says—a good physique. 

The curveball: In January, Bill was diagnosed with a very rare form of thyroid cancer—so rare that in all of Indiana, only one case is diagnosed every three to four years. He had an eight-hour surgery in February, but that didn’t hold him down. Eight days later, he was back to work part time; 14 days later he started using the treadmill; and 27 days later he was back to doing weights and calisthenics. Bill attributes his quick recovery to the fact that he was in impeccable shape prior to the surgery and because he had a positive mindset—one that has developed in large part because of his healthy lifestyle. While Bill’s future is still uncertain, he remains positive and appreciative of the life he’s been given. “I’m proof that despite all that effort, discipline, commitment, I can’t control all of my health,” he says. “But I do have 100 percent control of how I choose to respond to it.” 

What he hopes his sons will learn from his story: A commitment to health is “about quality of life and preserving that to the extent that you have control of at least parts of it,” Bill says. Regarding his thyroid cancer, he hopes they learn that “life owes them nothing. They need to understand that the here and now is all they’re guaranteed. Don’t wish your days away. Let’s not wait for a better future, let’s make a better present. Create it yourself. And make your present awesome.” 

Erik Nelson

Age 21

Junior at North Central College in Naperville, Ill.

Erik’s fitness journey: He began taking an interest in fitness during his freshman year of high school, primarily because of sports, and now works out three to four times a week—lifting weights, running, biking and playing basketball. He says the benefits he’s experienced include “a high amount of energy, an overall feeling of good health, and a positive self image.”

The generational story continues: “My grandpa [Ken Plantz] has also played a big role in my fitness journey,” Erik says. “When I first started working out and didn’t have my driver’s license, my grandpa would take me to the gym three times a week and create workout plans for me. He is the one who initially got me interested in fitness. He still works out multiple times a week as well.” 

On nutrition: Erik says he has learned a lot from his dad about the importance of healthy eating. “You can lift all the weights in the world and stick to a strict workout plan, but if you’re filling your body with unhealthy food your efforts are going to be futile.”

Life lessons from Dad: “Even the people you think are the healthiest can’t always avoid health scares,” Erik says. “However, I think my dad’s positive attitude about his fight against cancer has been shaped by his commitment to health and fitness.”

Adam Nelson

Age 19

Freshman at North Central College in Naperville, Ill.

Sports and more: Adam plays on North Central’s baseball team but doesn’t limit his fitness to just that. He learned in high school that lifting weights in the off season helped him become stronger, and he continues with off-season training to this day.

Reaping the rewards: “My summer job of working construction [is] a lot easier when I’m asked to carry heavy objects,” Adam says. Also, “I believe a big reason for my success in the sport of baseball is a result of pushing myself in the off season in the weight room and getting better every day.”

On his dad’s dedication: “From the first day my dad started working out, he hasn’t backed off at all and that overall is what inspires me the most. He has never given up once and it’s safe to say now that he won’t be calling it quits any time soon.”

Life lessons from Dad: In addition to—again—the importance of consistently healthy eating, Adam says his dad has taught him the values of “working hard and never quitting,” which he hopes to pass on to his own kids someday. “Working out and eating right does nothing but benefit you down the road with living a more comfortable life.”