Personal trainer Victor Tort seeks to change the world through fitness and exercise
by Alina Oswald
An apple a day keeps the doctor away, and so does regular exercise. Nowadays we hear and talk more and more about the importance of healthy living (and healthy eating habits), about decreasing the stress and increasing the time we spend exercising or doing some kind of physical activity. So one may wonder what kind of exercise or fitness program is best suited for individuals living with HIV/AIDS?
“I love [this] question,” Victor Tort says when we speak on the phone, “because,” he adds laughing, “exercise is exercise—walking is walking, swimming is swimming. It all depends on [the individual’s physical] condition, on what kind of exercise they can or cannot do.”
Victor Tort is a personal trainer specializing in creating functional training—physical exercises and fitness programs he creates for specific individuals, from CEOs and actors to special needs children and, in particular, those living with cancer and/or HIV/AIDS patients.
Sports have been part of Tort’s life ever since his childhood. He’s played volleyball, baseball, and participated in triathlons. Then he started teaching spinning classes and, later on, became a personal trainer, developing his own exercise programs. He first taught these programs in different gyms, until opening a gym studio of his own.
Eleven years ago, in his native Puerto Rico, Tort created a program called Fitness4POZ catering to HIV/AIDS and cancer patients. “[I started to work] with this population because I had friends who’ve died from AIDS,” Tort explains. He noticed that, at the time, people were hesitant to offer these kinds of services to individuals infected with HIV. He also noticed that those living with the virus were only trying to do their best to survive and live a better life. Thus, he decided to help them do just that, through exercise.
“Exercise is not a cure for HIV, but it helps patients have a better life. I help people live a better life,” Tort explains. He’s done it first in Puerto Rico, and for the past year and a half in San Francisco.
Tort offers group, and also one-on-one sessions to patients in all stages of the disease—AIDS and/or cancer—and customizes the programs to their specific needs. “People come to me because they want to start exercise programs,” Tort says. “First thing I do, I send them to [their] doctor, who then sends me a release form for them to start exercise with me.” He further explains that this is necessary because patients may be taking a lot of medications, or they may have certain health conditions like high cholesterol or high blood pressure.
Many of his clients don’t have much strength or motivation, because they are sick all the time. “People are on medications, and the medications don’t always allow them to do what they want to do,” Tort comments. “And, you know, while on medication, you’re gonna feel a lot of weakness, fatigue, you don’t have an appetite and you don’t want to eat. So you lose muscle. And when you lose muscle, you don’t have strength; you have a lot of pain in your body. [You get depressed.] Exercise can help.”
One may start a fitness program using on-line videos or reading a book, or spend more money and hire a personal trainer. Most of Tort’s clients who are living with HIV/AIDS are also living on a limited budget. They may be on disability. Tort understands that and helps them by adjusting the exercise sessions accordingly. For example, instead of the usual hour-and-a-half long sessions, he offers shorter sessions, depending on what his clients can do or afford. In addition, Tort tapes the exercise sessions for his clients, so that they have the tape for themselves and continue to use it on their own.
“The goal is to keep the exercise for the rest of your life,” Tort explains. “And it doesn’t mean that you have to exercise like crazy, [but] vary the kind of exercise [you do].” A gym is not required. Instead, he advises his clients to make small changes in their everyday life—take the stairs instead of the elevator, walk the dog or walk to the supermarket. “Today you can go for a walk,” Tort reiterates. “Tomorrow you go dance. One day do push-ups, the next day you do stretching. Make the exercise part of your life. Don’t do it for one to three months and then be done. Do something at least one or two days a week.”
When it comes to healthy living, Tort doesn’t only talk to talk, but also walks the walk. “I try to be healthy in all ways,” he says. “I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. Don’t do drugs. I exercise more than four to five times a day.”
He encourages others to do the same, and works with clients who may want to improve their exercise routine as much as with those who haven’t done an hour of exercise in their lives. “They come to me and they want to run three miles from one day to another,” Tort comments about the latter. “But [they] need to take baby steps, because we don’t want to injure them. And that’s why I’m here.”
Sometimes he literally takes baby steps with some of his clients, especially with the elderly. Sometimes he has to teach those who are sick or have been bedridden for too long of a time how to get out of the bed. “I start with the basics,” Tort explains. “I have a client who is sixty-eight years old. He has an elevator in the house because HIV attacked his hip. So he cannot get down to grab something from the floor. There are a lot of muscles that a regular person uses just to stand up. So I created a program to teach him how to go up and down the stairs.”
Many individuals living with HIV/AIDS live very active lives, and are ready to try out extreme sports, like snowboarding, skiing, paddle boarding or surfing. “I think these sports can help people because they’re fun sports, but [people need to] practice,” Tort says. He further explains that extreme sports allow people to exercise and have fun in the same time, while offering them that adrenaline rush we all seek at times. But Tort points out that extreme sports are also very active sports; and those engaging in these kinds of sports can get hurt. Individuals living with cancer or HIV, or who have certain health conditions, take much longer to recover from their injuries. But it’s all worth it because, as Tort explains talking about surfing, “I’ve been the person who jumps on the board, and also the person who teaches others to stand up on the board. And I have seen their faces, their smiles. This is something you cannot buy, but only create.”
When in Puerto Rico, Tort created a fitness program called Fitness for Surfers, which, in turn, gave him the opportunity to travel to different places—including Hawaii, Jamaica, and Europe—and learn about different lifestyles and people. The experience gave him the opportunity to teach people all over the world how to apply exercise in their lives.
Because one of his friends in Puerto Rico had a child with special needs, Tort developed an exercise program for special needs children.
“Special needs kids don’t have too many opportunities or places to exercise. This program is more to teach the parents how to work with [their] kids,” he explains. “I work with balls, teach them coordination and balance.” He also brought the children to the surf school, giving them the opportunity to touch the water and swim.
A former competitive cycler, Victor Tort still considers cycling his passion. Living in San Francisco, he discovered the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and signed up for the Ride to End AIDS. “You have to ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles, 545 miles,” Tort explains. “So I decided I’m not just gonna sign up, but sign up to raise $10,000 for [San Francisco] AIDS Foundation and help people with [their] medications.” Many friends, family members and clients have supported his cause and donated in his name—some five dollars, others $500. Tort explains that it doesn’t matter how much people donate, the message they send by doing that is the same. Getting emotional, he adds, “Thank you for helping me and…the people in treatment.…All those people I’ll never know, but [who] are very grateful for your donations.…And thank the [A&U] magazine for helping me help others.”
Moving forward, Victor Tort wants to help people in San Francisco and across the country improve their lives through exercise. His main goal is to continue working with Fitness4POZ and provide fitness training for individuals living with HIV and cancer. He encourages them not to allow the disease to take over their lives or bodies. “Let’s change the world,” he adds. “That’s what I want.”
Be a Victor!
Victor Tort’s Healthy Diet and Exercise Advice for People Living with HIV/AIDS:
1. The first thing that you have to tell yourself is that you need to do something for yourself again to get better; once you have that attitude, your life will change.
2. Always talk to your doctor before starting any kind of exercise or fitness program, or diet program.
3. Eat a lot of vegetables, salads and fruits.
4. Drink water.
5. Don’t drink alcohol.
6. Don’t do drugs.
7. Eat a lot of fiber.
8. Never eat raw meat; meat has to be almost well done.
9. Eat four to five meals a day if you exercise: breakfast, lunch, and dinner; between breakfast and lunch have a snack; between lunch and dinner have another snack; a snack would be an apple, a banana, something you can digest and that can help your immune system (don’t get a cookie, don’t get a pastry, don’t get a piece of cake).
10. People who have high blood pressure and high cholesterol, in particular, should avoid all canned food because it has a lot of sodium.
11. Eat food that’s not fried or processed; it’s best to prepare food yourself.
12. Food portions are very important.
13. It is very important to get your protein, fiber, and water.
14. Be careful using powder products purchased from vitamin stores because some of the powder products are not approved by the FDA, and you don’t know how they may interact with your medications; always ask your doctor first.
15. Try to exercise three to five times a week, but if that’s not possible, do an hour or fifteen minutes, no matter what kind of exercise; the most important thing is to move your body.
17. Try to control stress with meditation and/or yoga.
18. If you are in a lot of pain, don’t start working out with a P90X program (high impact exercises) because your body is going to hurt afterward.
19. You don’t need to have access to a gym to exercise; instead, make exercise part of your life by making small changes in your lifestyle—take a walk in the park, go up and down the stairs, play tennis, go dancing.
20. It is very important that you find an exercise that fits you: check out fitness training online videos, read
a book on the subject, or visit Victor Tort’s Web site by logging on to: www.victortort.com.
Alina Oswald is a writer, photographer, and the author of Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography of AIDS. Contact her at www.alinaoswald.com.
Read the article in the April 2013 digital issue by clicking here.