A Medium reader asks a most relevant question. I will do my best to answer.
How on earth can I look like that at almost seventy?
Is it even possibly to whip this aging body back in shape?
Curious minds want to know. But first, a few disclaimers. Important ones.
- I am not a health professional, nor do I possess fitness certifications, nor am I a PT or anyone with ANY right to offer medical or exercise advice. Nothing in this piece should be construed as advice. Please seek out professional and competent folks.
- Anything I offer here is going to be a combination of research I’ve done which will be linked, and my own personal journey which only applies to me. Please, please, please remember that what works for Serena will not be guaranteed to work for Susan. Please. This is so very important. Your journey is uniquely your own.
- There is no magic button, no easy hack, no shortcut. None. Nada. Give that up. If you want health, a better body, whatever that looks like, this will take effort. How much work you are willing to do is between you and yourself.
That said. This article was inspired, and the title was taken, from a comment from Brendareeves, and for my Medium dollar this is precisely the kind of prompt that makes me shimmy up the flagpole of joy.
My first and most important and probably deeply frustrating but honest answer is: I have no idea.
But wait. Stay with me here.
Here’s what the research says:
You can build muscle at ANY age.
How much muscle and where, and whether or not you will end up with a figure like the fifty-plus women in the photo above, depends on a slew of factors which include:
- The shape you’re in now
- What disabilities you may need to work around
- The time, effort and dietary discipline you’re willing to put into this as a lifelong journey
- Your ability to gain, keep and exercise a badass sense of humor
- Your willingness to work out on days you really really REALLY would prefer to dive into a box of chocolates and fuggedaboudit
- Your willingness to work with a trainer and a physical therapist (both of which I strongly recommend, and I use mine weekly)
- The amount of excess weight you hope to lose, or gain if you’re too thin
- Your medical team (I recommend a sports chiropractor). The last thing you need is anyone with a medical degree barking at you that you’re too old for this. You’re fired. Find cheerleaders.
- Your support system of friends of like mind and commitment.
As for whether this works for us oldsters? Of course it does. First, this:
From the article:
“Resistance exercise is specifically important for older adults not only for their cardiovascular health, but also for their bone health, physical function, independence, and quality of life…”
As for starting at or after seventy, kindly see this:
Of course these are individual stories. But for all those folks getting headlines, there are thousands, millions more under the radar just quietly getting it done.
Then, kindly, there’s this. Two of my favorite famous women who made major headlines by starting their weight training at or around sixty include:
Ernestine has now retired, but her story hasn’t. She has inspired so very many people, including seniors, to get off their duffs and remove the duffle bags around their bodies, gain vitality and verve.
And then the ever-effervescent:
There are some powerful threads here. What is utterly consistent is that you and I can at ANY age build muscle. To that, one more:
Every single piece of research backs me up on this. Of course you can build muscle. Dr. Charles Eugster started lifting at 87, and was setting all kinds of age records in sports at 95. He passed, but I can guaran-damn-tee you that his last years were a gas. That is one helluva way to go out.
Here he is:
I heard him speak when I was 64. I love how he admitted to being incredibly vain. Look. Whatever motivates you to move, so be it. He moved. And in doing so he moved the bar, moved a lot of lives, and helped change the conversation around aging.
Eugster was a super-geezer. But you and I don’t have to be in order to retool our bodies late in life.
However, Brenda wanted to know if she could look like this:
Okay, so all of these women are a good bit younger than Brenda and I are. However, the message continues to be that you and I can build muscle. We can also discipline ourselves to better health at any age. Please note, and this is really, really REALLY important, that the women above are at what we call show weight. By the end of the day they are RAVENOUS for something other than chicken, tuna, undressed veggies, and shakes with small animals pureed into them.
Okay I made that last part up.
You get it. You do not maintain this look for long. First, it’s nearly impossible.
Second, it’s not healthy. On show day you have reached peak muscularity, peak physicality, peak muscle striation (often with reduced liquid intake). This is a moment in time, immortalized by as many photos as possible on show day, then celebrated with a blessed pizza or glass of wine or seventeen of both in quick order.
Okay I made that up.
Okay okay maybe not.
The last three or four weeks to show day are bloody well brutal. By the end of competition, people are righteously heady with the idea of a varied diet, which we all need, and permission to snack on something other than cardboard.
Okay I made that up too. But it is good fiber. (Please check with your doctor before you decide to turn your colon into the cardboard recycling center for your neighborhood.)
Everyday health is different from show day. Everyday health means strength, flexibility, body confidence and the intense, vibrant and sometimes genuinely-annoying-to-your-unfit-friends energy that comes with being in this kind of shape.
To wit: I booted my bodybuilder sometime-BF of 13 years, a man of 52, for saying one too many times that my energy was “off-putting.” My response, well. There are children outside.
Everyday health like this as I near 69 means that carrying a cord of wood uphill and stacking it armload by armload is a piece of cake. Everyday health like this as I age means that when I fall, and it is bloody well inevitable because of the chances I take, I bounce back up. Bleeding and bruised and sometimes broken but I Bounce. Back. Up.
Okay, okay, so far at least. Until some pissed-off camel decides to grab me by the skinny neck and toss me into next Tuesday.
Everyday health for you could mean ditching a walker. Being able to hike the local trails. Taking up dancing. Options. Building muscles might get you out of an easy chair and into Zumba class. Does it matter? Only to you.
While all of us can make the most of our bodies, our body structure, our bones, the way Mama Nature built us may never allow for a slim waist, the perfect inverted V shape of broad shoulders and tiny hips. What she will allow for, given a steady, consistent commitment, a regimen of serious movement and thoughtful diet, is a trophy-worthy version of our Best Selves.
At my last gym in Denver, a diminutive Mexican woman was in the gym at the same time I was every single day. She was well over 70, spoke almost no English, and she was incredibly strong and energetic. She was built like an egg with legs. Some folks are built like that: belly and no hips. What she does with her body is ensure a long life and incredible strength. As an abuela to many grands, she not only blazes the way for them but she will be around a long, long time.
The point here is why we want those muscles. I can’t answer that for you. However it’s a really key question. I want mine because if I’m not strong, I die. That’s one hell of a motivator. Too, my strength keeps me in the game, gives me options and confidence and the capability to heal fast when I injure, which I do with stunning regularity. I’d be a fool not to train.
If you want those muscles to be able to brag, which is perfectly understandable, the bigger question I have is whether or not you’ll be tired of the maintenance after a while. That’s why your motivation to get such muscles is so important.
What will sustain you for life isn’t necessarily ego or vanity (although those help). What sustains us for life is joy of movement, pleasure in our strength, a fit body that allows us to be fully in every moment. THAT is what sustains most of us. Because we will wrinkle, even as underneath that slack skin are muscles and cardiovascular health as strong as a much younger person’s.
The intrinsic pleasure we get from looking good cannot possibly compete with the every day, all day, year-after-year-after-year satisfaction of feeling good. Fit. Powerful. Kind of inevitable, even as the inevitable looms on the horizon.
So to Brenda’s question. Can a soon-to-be 70 yo develop muscles like that?
Can you do what she does? I dunno. Some of the women in the Cecil Phillips Master’s figure and bikini competition had been obese, given birth, been horribly out of shape at some point. Most had post-baby skin pooches, as the men past sixty also had skin pooches from having had bellies which had melted. Skin is hard to deal with unless you get surgery. These folks don’t necessarily have that kind of dime, and besides, they aren’t always in it just for body beautiful.
Which brings me back to my point.
From the the article on Maria:
Two years ago, in 2017, she became fit enough to enter fitness modelling contests alongside women half her age. She was awarded six titles in her first fitness contest.
“At the fitness competitions I go to, I see men competing well into their 80s, but the women seem to drop off after they hit about 50. I hope they can see people like me competing at 73 and realise it is possible,” she said to Daily Mail.
This doesn’t have to be about competing. For my training dollar, and I’ve been at it through obesity, eating disorders and serious body dysphoria, training has given me focus, a place to work off stress and a safe place to feel strong and in control of my body. As I home in on 70, I am hardly slowing down. In fact, just the opposite.
As some of you may know I recently took up Absolute Beginner Classes at a local aerial silks facility. The only reason I can do this is because first, I train regularly. Second, I am largely fearless. Which is another way of saying that I’m stupid and make very poor decisions.
But I have fun. Because I have options. Because again when I go down I can bounce back up in those places in the world where there are no mats. If those aren’t good enough reasons to build muscle as you face down 70, I’m not sure what are good reasons.
I have said it before and will always say it, my strongest muscle is my sense of humor. That alone allows me to surf the shit that life hands me. Being fit, not necessarily for a contest but for the contest of life itself, is for me far more essential than the bragging rights of a six-pack.
These are my peeps:
For the sake of clarity, Brenda said nothing about a six-pack. I did, because it seems to be the idiot’s Holy Grail. It is essentially meaningless from a functional standpoint. On stage, a cobblestone set of abs helps you win. Twenty-four hours later they are gone, if you have the sense god gave a goose to get some sustenance inside you.
My fellow Medium readers and writers who weigh in (pun intended) on my threads remind me regularly that fit has eight billion different faces. So many of the women and men at last weekend’s Cecil Phillips Classic contest started out just wanting to feel better. They ended up on stage. That’s not for everyone. However.
If you start out meaning to get fitter, then you get fit, and all that hard work and discipline gets you to the point where a pair of stripper heels- especially attractive on the men- is tolerable for a few minutes’ walk on stage, go for it. I’ll be screaming encouragement from the audience. Hell. I might even be up there someday.
If I don’t strangle myself on the silks in the meantime.