Jefferson College grad, war veteran, designs his own future

ROANOKE, Va. — It is 8 a.m. on a rainy Monday, a time when most people are easing warily into the work week.

Jonathan Altizer? He’s leading another one of his “Boot Camp” exercise classes.

After about a half-hour of goblet squats, medicine ball lunges, Spider-Man crawls and burpee push-ups, Altizer has the class gasping and reaching for their water bottles.

From down the hall at the Jefferson College of Health Sciences in downtown Roanoke, where the class is working out, a child can be heard crying.

“Sounds like he’s in the boot camp,” Altizer quips.

For Altizer, an Army veteran who served tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, the intensive exercise class is a natural fusion of his past military service and his current studies as a health and exercise science major.

Altizer — who will receive his diploma today along with 183 other Jefferson graduates — embodies two recent developments at the four-year college.

He is part of the school’s new health and exercise program, which graduates its third class today. And as a veteran, Altizer represents a demographic that his college is devoting more attention to.

Last year, Jefferson became part of the Joining Forces initiative, a nationwide coalition of schools working to better meet the health needs of active military, veterans and their families. At about the same time, the college established a veterans affairs committee to address the needs of its students who have ties to the military.

Those efforts have already been recognized; last September, Jefferson was named a “2013 Military Friendly School” by GI Jobs magazine.

Altizer is a little uncomfortable drawing attention to his service, which included searching for improvised explosive devices and guarding prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq as an enlisted military police officer for the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Division.

“I don’t feel that I’m special or better than anyone else because I’m a veteran,” he said. “But the school has been very helpful.”

Now 28, Altizer joined the Army right after graduating from Salem High School, mindful that he lacked the discipline and focus to go straight to college.

He found both during six and a half years in the service. By the time he came back home, Altizer’s interest in physical fitness had taken him from high school wrestler to boot camp graduate to college applicant.

Determined to take advantage of the GI Bill, he soon settled on Jefferson College and its new health and exercise curriculum.

Established in 2008, the program prepares students for such careers as personal training, cardiac rehabilitation and fitness management, program director Ally Bowersock said. Graduates can also pursue advanced degrees to become physician assistants or physical therapists.

The emphasis on “Exercise is Medicine” — the slogan on the back of the T-shirt Altizer wore while teaching his class — can easily be applied to other disciplines taught at the 1,100-student school.

Staying fit, a matter of survival in the Army, became for Altizer an academic pursuit toward preventive medicine.

“That’s the prescription right there,” he said of regular exercise. “There’s no need to take a pill, and it’s stuff you can do in your own home.”

By working with young people and adults, Altizer figures he can do more good for their wellness than he would in a medical setting.

His boot camp class, which met the requirements of a senior-year professional seminar, was offered to students and staff at Jefferson College.

“He has shown tremendous independence in designing and leading this class,” said Bowersock, who donned shorts and a T-shirt to participate in the last session Monday morning.

Altizer led the class through a series of exercises he learned either in the military or in college.

As the four participants became painfully aware, a goblet squat entails holding a 15-pound weight chin-high while doing deep knee bends.

A medicine ball lunge means chest-passing a 6-pound sphere while starting a sprint. Ten times.

A burpee push-up consists of dropping to a squatting position, kicking your legs backward, doing a push-up, returning to a squat and then leaping as high as possible. Multiple reps.

And the Spider-Man crawl, which mimics the superhero’s climb up a wall but is done across the floor, is made considerably more difficult when performed after goblet squats, medicine ball lunges and burpees.

Rather than taking the drill sergeant approach he once endured, Altizer leads the group with quiet encouragement and just a little bit of ribbing.

It is an approach he hopes to use in the future. Family obligations will keep Altizer close to home for a while. But his dream job, he said, would be at a military base, working with the children of soldiers.

Whether it’s boot-camp intense or a little more laid-back, exercise to Altizer is the way to a healthy life.

“Anything I can do to prevent a person from having to go to a hospital,” he said, “that’s what’s going to drive me.”

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