Old broads: the golden years of pumping iron

reader_gayle_3_page-bannerThe other day I got an email from a woman who asked, “I’m 31. Is it too late to begin a fitness program?” Only in our youth-worshiping North American culture could such a question even be asked. In most other cultures in the world, the concept of aging equaling inactivity does not exist.

My next-door neighbour, a little old lady originally from Greece, is out every morning at 7 a.m. to do battle with the weeds in her vegetable garden. Ancient men and women can be seen scuttling everywhere in Chinatown with enormous loads of groceries perched on their backs. My landlord’s Portuguese father, a wizened man in his 70s, visited his son in Canada to “relax” by building a stone retaining wall. My grandfather, when he “retired”, built a house by himself. You get the picture.

Aging need not and should not mean that your butt finds a comfy groove on the couch at age 35 and stays there for the next 50 years.

Don’t believe me? Check out this link to 72-year old Kelly Nelson. I don’t want to hear any more complaining about how you’re too old to lift weights! Thanks to reader Stephanie Ferguson for alerting me to this amazing woman.

Oh, 72 is too much of a spring chicken for you? Then how about an 86 year old bodybuilder who probably looks better than most of us will ever look in our entire lifetimes? Scroll down!

what’s “older”?

In this article I’m going to talk about how to put together a program for an older person. What defines “older” is a matter of opinion. In our culture, 50 is often considered an indicator of late adulthood. I think this is ridiculous, but it is true that 50 and after tends to be the time when age-related complaints begin. So, for the purpose of this article, I’m going to lump everyone from 50-100 together. It’s seriously incorrect to do so, but since, as I said, in our youth-obsessed culture, 30 is considered “old”, many of our practices reflect that assumption. Many folks in their 40s might have a lot in common with people 20 years older if they have neglected their physical fitness. So, my apologies for gross categorization. Obviously there is great diversity and range of abilities.

It used to be “common knowledge” that aging involved physical and mental degeneration. Some effort was made to keep old people reasonably ambulatory, but it was generally thought that aging just meant a long, miserable ride downhill.

There are many stereotypes about older people which continue to circulate and which contribute to incorrect assumptions about what kinds of physical activities older people should choose.

For example, it is often thought that older people are dependent and sickly. In fact, most stats show that up to 85% of seniors are healthy, vigorous, and living independently. Only 2-5% are sufficiently disabled to require institutionalization. In addition, it used to be thought that older people are unable to gain muscle or lose fat. For this reason, nobody really bothered to find out what might happen if older people were put on a program of serious weight training.

what’s “normal”?

Above, my beloved Grandma pumping iron in the pool.

Above, my beloved Grandma pumping iron in the pool.

Now, as our population ages, the face of the “senior” citizen is changing. Far from going gently into that good night, older people of the late 21st century are kicking and screaming every step of the way. Much more attention is now being given to debunking the myths that shaped our “knowledge” of aging.

Research is proving that most of what we thought to be part of “normal” aging was simply a result of physical inactivity and disuse, not to mention poor nutrition and lack of focus on preventive medicine. If you think that at age 40 you’re over the hill, then you’re going to start to act like it. As my father in law likes to say, “If I’d known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.” Basically, your motto should be use it or lose it.

physiological issues in aging

One of the most significant consequences of aging combined with disuse is age-related muscle loss, commonly known as sarcopenia.

Lose muscle and a lot of stuff goes with it: balance, mobility, daily-life strength, bone density, etc. Regardless of whether you want to bust out a 400-lb deadlift on your 80th birthday, having enough muscle is important for health and function. Few things make you feel like less of a schmuck who should’ve taken better care of yourself like getting stuck on the toilet, or struggling to open a jar.

(This, by the way, is why I do not respond to queries from misguided women asking me how to lose muscle. Muscle will go away on its own soon enough. Do not rush it.)

A 2009 study examined the phenomenon of sarcopenia and noted that while the origins of sarcopenia are multifactorial and still not fully understood, we are well aware of the consequences, “i.e. loss of independence and metabolic complications, represent a major public health [problem].”

The researchers speculate that in part, poor protein synthesis relative to protein breakdown is one key cause, “but other causes like neurodegenerative processes, reduction in anabolic hormone productions or sensitivity such as insulin, growth and sex hormones, dysregulation of cytokine secretions, modification in the response to inflammatory events, inadequate nutritional intakes and sedentarity lifestyle are involved. Consequently, the age-related loss of muscle mass could be counteracted by adequate metabolic interventions including nutritional intakes or exercise training.”

When older people lift weights and eat enough protein, they stay lean, strong and healthy even though they don’t necessarily break down and use protein as efficiently as younger people: “Recent observations clearly show that changes in quantitative as well as qualitative intakes of dietary protein are able to counteract some pathophysiological processes related to muscle loss progression. Other strategies including changes in daily protein pattern, the speed of protein digestion or specific amino acids supplementation may be beneficial to improve short term muscle anabolic response in elderly people. The beneficial impact of resistance or endurance training on muscle mass and function is highlighted in many studies suggesting that the potential anabolic response to exercise still remains despite a lesser metabolic response to nutrients. Thus a multimodal approach combining nutrition, exercise, hormones, [and] specific anabolic drugs may an innovative treatment for limiting the development of sarcopenia with aging.” (Boirie Y. Physiopathological mechanism of sarcopenia. J Nutr Health Aging. 2009 Aug;13(8):717-23.)

Other studies have confirmed that older people don’t need less protein and exercise as they get older — in a sense, they almost need more.

benefits of strength training

The most important discovery for us to know about (which actually seems like common sense to me, but I guess I don’t get the big research bucks to come up with “breakthroughs”) is that weight training gets results whether the trainee is 19 or 90. Even people in their 90s have been shown to derive substantial benefits from a regular program of weight training.

This means that they were able to gain strength and muscle long after people figured the body had packed it in. And one need not have started weight training at a young age. People can start at any age and make significant gains, even after only 6-8 weeks of training.

The benefits of training should be obvious to you by now if you have been reading any of this website, but let me give you a brief rundown again. Older people, especially women, are particularly prone to loss of bone density, which results in osteoporosis and a greater risk of serious fractures, such as hip fractures. A hip fracture for a teenager means a short stay in the hospital. A hip fracture for a person in their 80s can mean death from a resulting infection or a long convalescence. Weight training, combined with a diet rich in calcium and magnesium, is the best gift you can give to your bone density.

59-year-old Leena from Norway, looking fabulous after getting into weight training at 54. Check out her before shots on the reader’s page.

59-year-old Leena from Norway, looking fabulous after getting into weight training at 54. Check out her before shots on the reader’s page.

In fact, weight training has been shown to be more effective than simply supplementing minerals alone. Weight training also helps combat age-related muscle loss, improves circulation, helps thermal regulation and improves the body’s response to the environment, improves general work capacity, eases arthritis, improves balance and stability, builds up muscle around joints to prevent joint problems, and translates into functional strength for daily tasks such as carrying groceries or shoveling snow.

In addition, since weight training is not a contact sport and doesn’t involve trying to hit a ball or subject the body to sudden shocks, it can be done by people with a variety of abilities and levels of mobility. Weight training requires no special skills, requires no learning of complicated processes, and can be adapted to fit everyone’s individual needs.

There are, of course, considerations involved in planning a workout program for older adults. Here are some basic guidelines.
Consider your beginning level of fitness. My grandma, the original tough old broad, could probably crank out a set of squats on her first day. Other trainees might not be so lucky, and might be starting from complete physical inactivity. Before beginning any workout program, have a complete medical evaluation done by your physician.

If you are using a trainer, select one who is knowledgeable about aging and working with older people. Don’t hire a trainer who doesn’t take your concerns seriously, who won’t challenge you enough because s/he thinks you’re “too old”, or who doesn’t appear to know how to tailor a program to your individual needs. Your program should be safe and comfortable, yet also interesting and have a sufficient level of difficulty. Also, do your own homework. I’ve recommended some further reading at the end of this article.

Ease into a workout program gradually. Older people will obviously not have the recovery capacity of a 20-year-old. The level of difficulty and complexity of a program should be increased slowly over a period of weeks and months. Begin with very modest goals.

Take care to warm up and cool down properly. The workout should start with 5-10 minutes of gentle cardio, such as moderate walking on a treadmill, to get the joints moving (joint mobility decreases with age, and joints will need plenty of coaxing before they will accept weight bearing activity). The trainee should then carefully stretch her entire body. After the workout, repeat the full body stretching.

Few exercises are truly off-limits. There is an assumption that older people should stick to the foo-foo stuff and forgo free weights or challenging compound exercises such as squats. While it’s true that the older trainee might need to work on building the skills, strength, and stability necessary for performing some exercises, this should not mean that these exercises are contraindicated. It just means that they’ll take a little longer to get to. In addition, moderating the weight can be done just as easily with free weights. Many challenging exercises have excellent payoffs. For example, learning and practising a squat can help older folks get out of a chair more easily.

Muscles learn by doing. If you need to learn balance, do exercises that help you develop it, not exercises that allow you to do without it. Compound free weight exercises force the body to function as an integrated system. You don’t learn stability by doing machine exercises that provide the stability for you. That being said, older trainees will likely have to make allowances for beginning a program with reduced stability and balance, and gradually increase the level of difficulty in their exercise choice.

Muscles should be worked through a full range of motion (ROM). Working through a full ROM develops strength in all positions.

Aim to develop functional, “real-world” strength. Identify weak points and work hard to strengthen them. Often people’s bodies compensate for weaker parts by forcing stronger parts to work harder. This can lead to strength imbalances and injury if the weaker part ever gives out completely. Look at your daily routine and identify tasks that require strength, then take this into consideration when designing a workout. For example, older people often find that their grip strength is reduced. To remedy this, add a hand and/or forearm exercise to the workout. Two of the most important tasks to improve are rising from a seated position, and rising from the floor.

Progressively increase the difficulty and complexity of the program. Research shows that learning new things is a workout for the nervous system and helps keep it healthy. This progression should be gradual of course, but change is important to avoid stagnation and to ensure continual progress. Set clear goals for each week, month, and quarter, and plan ahead carefully so that slow yet significant progression and change can be achieved.

Know yourself. Know what good pain and bad pain feels like. Know what your limits are, and when you can push them. Watch your temperature and hydration levels. Wear stuff that you are comfortable in, and invest in a good pair of shoes that gives you good support.

Allow yourself plenty of recovery time. Rest at least a couple of minutes between weight sets. Rest at least a day between weight workouts. And get enough sleep. The older we get, the less recovery capacity our bodies have, though this improves somewhat with training. Don’t train to failure. In fact, more frequent and less intense training is better than less frequent, more intense training for optimizing recovery.

Be more wary of indiscriminate supplementation. If you have high blood pressure, don’t take ephedrine, for example. Also, many people become lactose intolerant as they age, which means that a whey protein supplement would be an unpleasant experience. This doesn’t mean that older people can’t benefit from supplements, especially a protein supplement, but read labels carefully and be conscious about medication interactions. Older women especially should look into supplementing with soy protein, as soy contains plant estrogens which have been shown to help prevent certain kinds of hormonally based cancers.

Above all, don’t be intimidated by the younguns in the gym. Get in there and have fun, and know that you’ll be the fittest old broad on the block.

Gordon Borges isn’t a woman but he has 58, yes 58, years of weight training under his belt. Anyone living in or near Los Banos, California, and looking for a trainer, give him a call.

More reading:

This article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Citypaper August 2006.

flex appeal

At 86, great-grandmother Morjorie Newlin keeps pumping iron.

Fourteen years ago, when Morjorie Newlin was 72, her neighborhood supermarket had 50-pound bags of kitty litter on sale. Without anyone to help her carry the bags back to her house, she struggled mightily under the load. Never a particularly athletic woman, but staunchly independent, she decided that she had to do something about her deteriorating physical capabilities. Though osteoporosis was also on her mind, the septuagenarian began lifting weights — for her cat.

“I want to be as independent as I can be, for as long as I can,” says Newlin, a great-grandmother and retired nurse who turns 86 tomorrow. “I just want to do things for myself.”

After 13 years of weight training, Newlin is more than taking care of herself. At her two-story home in Mt. Airy, Newlin, who runs up the stairs with the sprightliness of a 10-year-old, has a room dedicated entirely to plaques, certificates and trophies (some almost as tall as her) from bodybuilding competitions that have taken her as far away as Italy, France and Germany. She’s won more than 40 trophies in her late-blooming career. “There are so many, I don’t know what to do with all of them,” she says.

“I chuckled when I saw this little old lady walk inside the gym,” says Richard Brown, a personal trainer at Rivers Gym in Mt. Airy, where Newlin began her training. “I was a little leery. I was just training young athletes at the time.”

The little old lady quickly showed him what an older athlete could do. “She kept coming in day after day, week after week, and month after month,” Brown remembers. “She didn’t want to do ‘girly’ workouts. She wanted to train with us fellows. After a few months of training, I looked at her physique and knew she was ready for a [bodybuilding] show,” he continues. “She definitely had something to show.”

74 years old, on the bodybuilding stage. I want to give high fives for this until my hands fall off.

Newlin was bench-pressing 65 pounds when she was 73 years old. A year later she was throwing up 85.

Newlin recalls being a little reluctant when she saw the string bikini she’d have to wear in front of the bodybuilding audience.

“I knew the contest meant a lot to my trainer so I went along with it,” she says. To everyone’s surprise, Newlin won. The crowd went crazy on hearing she was 74 years old. Newlin began her competition career in that AAU’s Master’s Division, which splits contestants into two categories: under and over a certain age limit, usually 35 or 45 years old. Newlin obviously fell way over the dividing line, wherever it was set, but was competing and winning against women half her age.

“I was always the oldest in all my competitions,” says Newlin.

The daughter of very active Barbadian immigrants, Newlin admits that athleticism is in her genes: “My family is used to walking and running long distances.” Although she’s taking a break from bodybuilding competitions for now, Newlin is still training at least three days a week, now at Bally Total Fitness in Cedarbrook, and can still throw down with the best of them. “I could bench-press 90 pounds with a spotter. I can dead lift 95 pounds. I can squat 135 pounds,” says Newlin.

She’s been featured on Oprah and The View, and has appeared in commercials in Barbados. She spends her time out of the gym as a motivational speaker at schools and banquets, discussing the importance of exercise, weight training and dieting. “A lady called me earlier this week from Hawaii,” Newlin says. “She asked questions about how to use weights.”

Though some in her position might wonder how much longer they can keep it up — or how far they might have come if they’d started earlier — those questions never cross Newlin’s mind. “Every day is different. The next day will take care of itself,” she says with Zen-like calm. “Age is only a number,” says Brown. “There is only one Morjorie Newlin. … She could do this for as long as she wants.”