SUPER GRANNY! MEET THE 74-YEAR OLD WHO LIFTS WEIGHTS
When I joined my first weight-training class, I’d just had my 60th birthday.
I’d tried all the classes on offer in the university’s sports centre in Aberystwyth, my local market-town — aerobics, Pilates, yoga, step, Zumba…
So it came as a surprise to discover that what suited me was lifting heavy weights to loud music. Quite the opposite of my life as a food writer well on the way to frail old ladyhood.
I nearly didn’t try it at all. Listed in the programme as Body-Fit, it sounded a bit like slow-motion arm-waving in a zen kind of way — not really my style. But 15 years on, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
I lift weights for the brain as much as the brawn. It gives me confidence to lengthen my stride and hold my head up high — and I’ve even put back a lost half-an-inch on my height.
As for keeping the joints supple and the muscles trim, well, I’m not heading for the Ms Universe line-up any time yet, but I can shift 21 kilos on my shoulders up and down without a twitch, which may have something to do with years of hefting shopping bags when my four children were young.
Physical strength, as they don’t tell you in the self-help manuals, is empowerment Joining a regular exercise class was not the obvious solution to the emotional stress I went through in my 60s. I was caring for my terminally ill husband, Nicholas, who was hellbent on maintaining a lifestyle that was the reason he was in trouble.
His friendship with Peter Cook, with whom he opened a nightclub in the 1960s, had left a legacy of heavy drinking.
On the way home from another miserable day of hospital-visiting, I turned into the car park of the sports centre and signed up for classes, so I could spend an hour among bodies that worked and minds that functioned. Rationality and agility were in short supply in the transplant ward, where Nicholas was awaiting a new liver.
And, somehow, the weight- training worked, my spirit lightened, and I never looked back.
I cried all the way through those early sessions — by no means an unusual reaction, I’m told.
But no one noticed the tears streaming down my cheeks that first day: when everyone is soaked with sweat, it’s just another source of dampness.
And as the years went by, chatting with my classmates — about 30 of us, all ages, sizes, shapes, mostly women but a good few men — I learned that I’m not the only one who comes for reasons other than losing a few hundred calories or toning a bicep.
Increasingly, there were dramatic dashes for A&E followed by anxious days and nights with Nicholas in intensive care. Even a liver transplant — writers drink, or that was his excuse — didn’t change the situation for long.
Until these blue-light years that had stretched on for a decade or so, I’d always been able to depend on what came naturally, my own good health, but things changed.
I always seemed to have caught a cold, summer or winter, I developed a limp, wrongly diagnosed as untreatable osteoporosis, suffered from backache, and woke up in the night with cramps. Hardest of all, my natural optimism had given way to despair and an overwhelming desire to get the hell out of a situation that I couldn’t change.
But change came anyway. Nicholas lost his battle for life in 2004. We never made it, as I’d hoped, to the sunlit uplands of the golden wedding, and ever since I’ve been on my own in the beautiful place where we lived for half a Century
I’m no good at letting go. It took time and dedication to work up to the heavy bar and dumbbells I can now lift in each hand — 4kg either side. Not bad at any age; pretty good at mine.
No doubt there’s a physiological explanation — freed-up arteries, blood to the brain, that endorphin-hit, the chemical-high.
It’s addictive, no question. I love the buzz, the shake-your-booty music played at full volume, the rush of adrenaline when Janet or Rachel gets us all to do more — push the bar a little faster, bend the knees a little lower, hold the weights a little longer — than we think we possibly can.
But when the clatter and noise is over and we’ve all stacked away the heavy stuff in the cupboard and I can feel that twinge of muscle-ache that’ll surely be there in the morning, I can drive back home in the certainty that I’ve done my duty by myself and all’s well with the world, even if it isn’t.
I’ve discovered that age matters as much as I’m prepared to let it
Then I’ll wander into the kitchen and cook myself something good for supper and carry a glass of wine through to the telly to watch a feelgood movie.
So what have I learned from 15 years of boot-camp? I’ve discovered that age matters as much as I’m prepared to let it (disasters happen, but I’ve done my best).
That balance and control, the discipline that stops a person dropping a heavy dumbbell on her foot, will also be of use when tripping over a pavement or loading up the log basket.
That the regular date with a floor-to-ceiling mirror is all the incentive most of us need to keep coming back. But above all, it’s in the mind. Loneliness is a problem for us oldies. What I needed, and still do, is companionship, a feeling of belonging, the comradeship of others in a stressful situation (self-imposed for sure, but the adrenaline still pumps).
When I look around the class, some of us are teenagers and most are in their 40s, but I’m by no means the only granny (or grandad) in the room.
Lifting weights makes perfect sense for us oldies. The fewer of us in the queue for the Zimmer frames the better. Call me an optimist, but I mean to avoid bed-blocking the geriatric ward for as long as I can.
None of us is immortal (maybe that’ll come), but it’s as plain as the nose on anyone’s face that free gym membership for the over-60s would go a long way to keeping on top of the trouble.
Nowadays, as a working woman in a one-person household in the wilds of Wales, I need that quick people-fix with fellow regulars, the offer of help with setting up when one of us is late, maybe a coffee afterwards with a friend, and the assurance that I’ve really earned that slice of cake.
The physical rewards are obvious: backaches, cramps and limps are long gone, I’ve no trouble finding my rib cage and as far as I’m aware, though it’s hard to judge, emotionally I’m fit and the brain still works just fine.
This can change — and undoubtedly will — but until then, I’ll keep with the programme. Old age needs all the help she can get.
A WORD OF WARNING: Personal trainer, Nadya Fairweather, of u-shape.co.uk says:
‘Weightlifting can cause lower back damage. Always pick your weights up with a straight back, bending at the knees. For beginners, I would advise a session with a personal trainer first, to teach you the correct technique.’