Harold Sanco: AARP Senior Planet Fitness Sponsored Athlete

Harold Sanco teaching Riggins Ashley tennis on the Hill.

Harold Sanco thought his nearly 35-year fitness career was over last year. One morning he woke up and felt numbness in his legs. His back was also hurting. “What’s going on?” He thought. Sanco was concerned about the pain, but since he rarely was injured or sick, he did not visit a physician. Then he woke up the next morning unable to move his legs.

At the emergency room he learned the horror of his situation. “You cannot leave this hospital,” doctors told him. “You have a serious impingement in your spine and we need to do surgery immediately. Any tweak could cause you to lose the use of your legs forever. We are admitting you now.”

The 62-year-old Sanco struggled with round-the-clock pain and countless bottles of prescription medication and wondered how, when and if he would ever be able to tie his shoes again. A return to his pre-surgery fitness level seemed like a pipe dream.

Eight months later, after two surgeries, Sanco said he finally felt like he was turning a corner. “My fitness helped me come back. I could feel my legs again.” 

Even though doctors told Sanco he could take up to a year to heal, he wasn’t going to let his situation dampen his spirit. “I’m not sitting around and being old,” he said. Instead Sanco thought of his back surgery as “just a pause.” He said he wasn’t ready to throw in the towel on his fitness career. “I’m not letting this surgery affect what I love to do. I wanted to get through this and keep on living well.”

AARP SeniorPlanet Program
Last January, Sanco shared his story with AARP’s Senior Planet program and was chose as a 2024 Senior Planet Sponsored Athlete. Sanco is one of five seniors that AARP found to be excited about fitness, have identified their wellness goals and are willing to share their experiences to inspire older adults.

AARP’s Senior Planet is a diverse collection of people aged 60 and older who are changing the way one ages by embracing opportunities to reshape lives, connect with and help one another —all while learning, growing, and having fun, the website states. Its fitness division offers a diverse group of wellness lectures and classes including yoga, stretching, Tai Chi and Barre. Senior Planet described Sanco as was one of many candidates who applied to be a sponsored athlete this year. But his experience, positivity and knowledge set Sanco apart from the crowd.

He told them, “I know aging can be synonymous with agility, strength and wellness…even when we suffer significant physical setbacks that we don’t think we can overcome or change, as I did.” Sanco said he wants to change the way we think about aging so it is not something to be feared. “We should embrace aging mentally, physically and equitably with all communities having within their reach access to wellness and fitness opportunities that meet them where they are.”

As a Senior Planet Sponsored Athlete Sanco hopes to pass on the countless lessons he learned from his injury. “I’m ready to inspire seniors all over the world to look at their possibilities and not their circumstances.” He said he wants to focus on teaching classes and lecturing in his Capitol Hill community. “I want to get seniors who do not exercise and who don’t belong to a gym moving, exercising and becoming more fit. I plan to start out simple and easy.” Sanco said he is targeting community centers and senior organizations on the Hill.

Sanco is already teaching zoom HIIT classes for any level and training private fitness clients. He also offers private tennis lessons at Garfield Park and Eastern High School courts and is excited about his Fit for Tennis (or any racquet sport) class this spring. “It’s for people who want to play sports but don’t want to get injured.”

Sanco competitively played tennis in high school in Texas where he grew up. When he arrived in DC in 1989 he had never taught an exercise class. I met Sanco the next year. We were both teaching lunchtime fitness classes at Fit Physique, a fitness studio on Pennsylvania Ave., NW owned by Hill fitness entrepreneur Dega Schembri who is co-owner of Foundation Fitness in Cleveland Park. She saw the potential in Sanco to become a great instructor. “Dega grabbed a cassette tape, shoved it into the player and said, ‘Show me what you can do.’ I had to make up a routine on the spot, Sanco said. “She told me she thought I’d be a good instructor because I smiled and was upbeat.” Sanco found his niche in DC’s world of fitness. Classes Sanco taught often had waiting lists. He moved into management as a group fitness director as well as becoming a competitor in fitness challenges. He was one of the most popular fitness instructors in the metro area.

Sanco’s classes as an AARP Senior Sponsored Athlete will be found on the senior planet website (see below). He also said he plans to conduct fitness lectures this spring. He wants to spread the word that with patience, perseverance and the right mindset, you can do whatever you want despite your age. Sanco said he learned that he could keep doing what he loves but in a different way and enjoy a healthy, active lifestyle once again.

To contact Harold Sanco: haroldfitdc@gmail.com or www.haroldsanco.com

To learn more about the AARP’s Senior Planet program: www.seniorplanet.org.