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Ledyard - The Human Performance Therapy Centre off Route 12 in Gales Ferry may look like a gym to an outsider, but to owner Glenn VanLeuven it is a labor of love and far from the image of a place where twentysomething men and women work to maintain their perfectly sculpted bodies.
VanLeuven cut his teeth as a young man in the corporate world, but always had an interest in fitness and exercise. Seventeen years ago, at age 46, he decided to leave behind the corporate life to devote the rest of his energies to the science of fitness - something he believes is little understood and rarely employed in a typical gym.
And clients say that VanLeuven's single-minded devotion has paid dividends for them and their loved ones.
"He has an awesome heart," said Marie Wynn of Ledyard. "He's a puzzle solver."
In Wynn's case, the puzzle is her son, John Anthony, who at 24 years old is about the size of an average 8-year-old. John Anthony has hypertonia, a weakness in the muscles, and is an epileptic, but his lack of growth has not been diagnosed, his mother said.
John Anthony has worked with many people over the years to improve his physical abilities, but she said VanLeuven is "right there at the top." He has pushed Wynn over the past two months to encourage her son to walk without the braces he has worn most of his life, figuring that his lack of muscle tone is related to overuse of such aids.
Every week, she said, the intense and driven VanLeuven comes up with new ideas to get her son to use parts of his body that have atrophied over the years.
"I have never been so optimistic in my life as far as my son is concerned," she said.
Deane Terry, who owns a distribution company in Quaker Hill and has been a client of VanLeuven's for nearly a dozen years, said the therapy center caters to a wide array of people but those with special needs seem to be a particular focus. VanLeuven said most of his clients are baby boomers and older, many in dire physical shape who need help with improving their gait, balance and hand-eye coordination.
Physical therapy, personal training, nutrition guidance and massage therapy are all part of the mix.
"All services are one on one with a professional provider," VanLeuven said. "No assistants or aids are used."
The thing Terry likes about VanLeuven's program is that the personal touch and appointments lead to a level of commitment not seen in a typical gym. VanLeuven is also very knowledgeable about how to get the maximum workout on a given piece of equipment, he said.
"He keeps you performing at your best," Terry said. "He also pushes you - 'one more.'"
VanLeuven said he believes that anyone - even those with significant physical impairments - can dramatically improve their fitness levels. But it takes a real commitment and a personal touch, he said, to ensure that the most significant benefits are reached.
"A real relationship gets more out of people," he said. "The gym is very impersonal."
And VanLeuven said it is the little things, such as the way people walk, that tips him off to larger fitness problems.
"If a person's gait is gone ... your balance is off," he said. "If your balance is off, your hand-eye coordination is off, and you can see how your judgment can be off. We have to try to reverse time here."
VanLeuven, who works with physical therapist Meri Greenwald, said he lives for the epiphanies that occur when he figures out how to help a client with a difficult problem. The difficulty is in trying to sell the solution, he said, because the expression "no pain, no gain" is a bit of an understatement.
"If you want results, it's got to be brutal," he said. "I actually yell at people on occasion ... for their own good."
Client Linda Chapman of Ledyard, a client of VanLeuven's for 11 years, joked that she just yells back whenever he gets the urge to yell, but she appreciates her trainer's passion for keeping her ambulatory. Chapman suffered a spinal cord injury in a car accident more than three decades ago and said she was never supposed to walk again, but has stayed out of a wheelchair thanks to VanLeuven's exercise regimen.
"I wouldn't be walking at all if I wasn't putting the effort in," she said. "Use it or lose it. You feel better when you exercise on a regular basis."