John “Sparrow” Dowse, who runs the Sydney Uni Sport & Fitness (SUSF) Seniors Wellness Program for over 55s and over 80s at Sydney University Sports & Aquatic Centre (SUSAC), has been awarded an Achievement Certificate in the 2012 NSW Seniors Week Awards.

Sparrow was honoured in the Health and Wellbeing (Individual) category of the awards for his efforts in running the fun circuit classes with the Senior Wellness Program at SUSF.

His work was initially recognised when he was chosen to give the opening address to 1000 attendees at a fitness industry convention in 2009.

For a man who had never used a gymnasium before he turned 70, it’s hard to keep him out of one now, partly for his own fitness, but mostly to help other over-55s stay healthy.

The four-Test Wallaby, who played five-eighth to the prince of halfbacks Ken Catchpole on the 1961 South African tour, was given an unusual present by his children when he turned 70 in 2005. It was the chance to attend a Certificate IV personal training course at the Australian Institute of Fitness at St Leonards.

Having never used a gymnasium before, he worried he would make a fool of himself, but as with his football career, he “had a go” and soon discovered the benefits of working out.

On finishing the course he was encouraged by Sydney University Sport (now known as Sydney Uni Sports & Fitness) to start up a pilot program for seniors and, as they say, the rest is history.

That was six years ago and thanks to Sparrow’s enthusiasm and personality, and being a walking endorsement of what he preaches, the program took off and now incorporates eight sessions a week for over-55s and over-80s.

The program is a strength workout using free weights in a circuit mode. In groups of 25-30 of both sexes, there are 30 stations using dumb bells, bar bells, swiss balls and medicine balls.

Sparrow’s participants spend one minute on each exercise and then move on to the next. All stations involve free weights with no machines being used. It is a low intensity strength workout with the emphasis on technique, breathing and posture. And although it’s not a weight loss program, some who have combined the strength classes with diet and a suitable cardio schedule have experienced great results.

As Sparrow says: “If you regularly swim, walk the dog or have a round of golf and combine it with a regular strength workout, it’s all you need to feel great. At Sydney University, we don’t provide a six or eight-week course; we give you a workout that encourages you to exercise regularly.

“The greatest kick I get is watching a person who hasn’t done any, or very little exercise in their lives, after a few weeks negotiate all the moves and lifts of the circuit before finishing to thunderous applause from all of the group.”