Back in April, I started a "conversation" here about wellness -- specifically about fitness, and especially as we age. Based on your comments, I'd say we all pretty much fall into one of two camps:
(1) those of us who have discovered strategies to make fitness a part of our lives, and
(2) those of us who would like to.
I thought it might be helpful to have some of the folks in the first camp . . . share their fitness and workout strategies with those in the second camp. First, I shared my sister Diane’s story– about developing a walking routine for the long term. Next, I shared Carolyn’s story – about mastering a self-directed fitness/video routine. Then I shared Patty’s story – about developing a fitness/support community to stay active for the long haul.
Today, I’m happy to bring you another personal fitness story. This time, I’m going to introduce you to Claudia. . . a true advocate for women’s fitness, and one of my personal fitness role models. Claudia has been active since meeting her husband – and as you’ll read, has upped her game as she ages. I used to focus my own workouts entirely on cardio activities – running, swimming, kickboxing, dance, spin classes, etc. – but Claudia helped me realize how important strength training is . . . and challenged me to get stronger! I’m hoping her story will help you think about your own strength, and inspire you to make fitness a priority in your life.
Claudia, a knitter and former blogger, is 54 years old and married with no kids. She’s a self-employed lawyer who mostly works out of her home office – which gives her lots of flexibility in her daily schedule as to when she can work and when she can play. She points out that her life experience probably won’t resonate with busy moms trying to juggle working for a boss and parenting, but she can certainly speak to women at her stage/age and older who objectively can find the time to work on themselves (if they choose to do so).
I asked Claudia why she “bothers” with fitness, and what she gets out of it. Here’s what she told me:
“Let me start with a story. I have been actively riding a tandem bicycle with my husband for close to 30 years. So I always thought of myself as 'in shape.' But when my husband broke his ankle a little over 10 years ago and couldn’t do his usual chore of taking out the garbage, I got quite a shock. I was too weak to lift up that barrel! What?!?! How did this happen?
It turns out, after age 30 people start losing muscle mass at about 3-5% per decade and muscle loss speeds up in your 60’s. The only way to prevent this situation is strength training. Bicycling, walking, gardening or doing daily activities that make us feel like we are 'active' won’t cut it. Without strength training, we are destined to become weak. That means me, and that means you too. Unless you do something about it starting now. Maybe you’ve had a similar experience to mine, seeing my elderly mother struggle to use her weak arms to pull herself up in bed. That is not going to be me if I can help it.
After realizing that I was way weaker than I thought, I bought a book to learn about weightlifting (it was the New Rules of Weightlifting for Women by Lou Schuler), joined my local Y and briefly got some instruction from a trainer. I started lifting weights and, with a short break for back surgery and recovery, haven’t stopped for 11 years.
Fitness, further defined as being strong, is important to me because I don’t want to be 'that old lady' who has to ask a big strong man to put her carry-on in the overhead bin. Besides busting patriarchal expectations that older women are weak (which is fun, I’ll admit) being strong makes my everyday life easier.
Like many women, I spent much of my twenties and thirties thinking that my goal with fitness was to make myself smaller, so as to fit into cute clothes and meet societal expectations of beauty. Now in middle age, my goal with fitness is to make myself bigger. Not in the physical sense necessarily (although there is nothing wrong with females building big muscles) but in the sense of feeling powerful and strong.”
What does Claudia's workout routine look like? Claudia goes to the gym twice during an average week. She does a mixture of bodyweight exercises -- pull-ups, push-ups and the like -- and weight training using dumbbells, barbells, and machines. In the winter, she goes to a spin class at the gym twice a week, with perhaps a ski or trail run or a hike in addition to that. When the weather is nice, she rides the tandem bicycle outside on the road or in the woods (Yes! Claudia says tandem mountain bikes are A Thing!) as many days/evenings as possible, given her and her husband’s work schedules. This works for Claudia – because it’s a good mix of strength training and cardio/endorphin therapy (which helps her deal with job stress).
When I asked Claudia how she “fits fitness into her life” she gave me the absolute BEST answer . . .
“Rather than making my fitness routine fit into my life, I make my life fit into my fitness routine. Why? Because I’ve realized that the most important thing to me in my life is waking up every morning and feeling well. There is nothing, and I really mean nothing, more important to me than my health. I can’t help my family, my clients or anyone else if I’m feeling unwell. And there is no 'healthy' without being fit.”
(I told you.)
A lot of us struggle with “getting back” to fitness. I know when I had a too-long bout with tendinitis in my ankle a few years ago I struggled with not being able to work out the way I really wanted to work out. It was hard for me to even imagine ever feeling like I’d be able to move without pain again. And I know there are many of you who have been away from fitness for so long that you’re having a hard time getting back to regular exercise.
Well. Claudia has been there! A few years ago, she had back surgery and was not able to exercise for about a year. Here’s her story:
“In June 2014 I had back surgery to repair a disc in my back that had gone wonky and resulted in nerve pain down my leg. I was on the couch, unable to exercise in any way for about a year. It was during this period of time that I came to understand how important a healthy, fully-functional body really is. I resolved then that if I was ever so lucky as to be able to return to my fitness activities, that I would be grateful and never take my health for granted. So far, I’ve kept this promise to myself.
When I recovered from the surgery, I returned to exercise very slowly. Over time, I walked halfway down my street, then all the way, then around the block. I tried a tiny bit of weight on one machine, then a tiny bit more, then another machine and every week, bit by bit, worked my way back. I had setbacks when I over-did, which were mentally tough to handle. There was crying and bitching, but eventually I could manage the strength to dial it back and re-try.
I would say the most helpful thing I did to avoid going down the rabbit-hole of self-pity and the mindset of 'why bother' was to keep a journal. Being able to see my progress over time, even if it was super slow, helped motivate me to continue.”
I asked Claudia if she ever gets bored with her workouts. Her reply? “Sure I get bored. Sure, some nights I’m super tired and don’t want to get off my butt and head to the gym. Or I’d rather spend my time doing something else.”
So what does she do when she’s feeling . . . unmotivated?
- I work out with my husband. If I’m unmotivated, likely he isn’t having that problem and peer pressure pushes me out the door. Vice versa, of course. If you can recruit your partner or a friend to be a workout buddy, fitness gets a lot easier.
- I keep records of my strength workouts. I used to actually write down the exercises I did, the weight and the repetitions in a paper notebook. Now I use the free app Fitnotes (for Android and Apple). These records keep me accountable to myself for how often I show up at the gym.
Claudia also points out that “once you have gained some strength you don’t want to lose it. Were I to stop going to the gym, I’d lose the ability to do the number of pullups and pushups that I’m proud to be able to do. So even if on a particular day I’m not feeling it, the knowledge that regaining strength is harder than keeping it up in the first instance, motivates me.”
I asked Claudia what advice she has for others who are trying to add more fitness to their lives. I’m hoping her reply will help motivate you to take a hard look at what changes you can make in your own lives.
“Before the 'how' of specific exercises or strategies, comes the 'why' -- the will to do it. Let me try to speak to that.
Listen to your self-talk. 'Oh I would never have the patience for that.' 'I have to try that....one day.' 'I don’t have the time/money/energy.' 'God I hate exercise!!' All these words really mean the same thing: you aren’t willing to prioritize your health.
Next, you might consider asking yourself why this is true. Deep down, do you think that the consequences of not being fit will never actually come back to bite you? Do you have so much to worry about today, that you can’t worry about what happens tomorrow? Do you feel guilty about spending time on yourself? Unpacking and dealing with the 'why' of not prioritizing health might be the most important step to make fitness a real and lasting part of your life.
The likely reality is that you find the time/energy/money to do lots of things that aren’t work or feeding yourself and your family or sleeping. Consider taking some of that time you might spend knitting (!), watching your favorite TV show or a movie or reading a book, and use it to improve your health.”
I hope that Claudia’s words will challenge you to think about your own fitness habits – whether you already work out regularly or not.
Several years ago, when I started talking to Claudia about strength training, I had never really considered adding weight training to my regular workout routine. I can tell you now . . . it has been an absolute game-changer for me! I’m stronger now -- maybe stronger than I've ever been in my life. And that feels really good. After all, that’s my goal – to be strong all the way to the end of my life.
How about you? Are you ready to make fitness a priority in your life? Are you ready to be a “strong old lady” with Claudia (and me)?
PS – I asked Claudia if she’d ever taken Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies quiz, and how she falls on that “spectrum.” So . . . she took the quiz, and ended up scoring as an Upholder. Claudia went on to say, though, that she thought it was a “pretty superficial assessment tool,” commenting that although she’s very diligent about keeping her commitments, she’s “extremely stingy” about making them in the first place. Claudia says she “cares about few things” but that she “cares deeply about that small number” – and that she isn’t sure that sort of behavior was accounted for in the quiz. Based on that . . . I’m going to guess that Claudia is really a Questioner! ;-)